Top chick

Meghan Pierce

Freyja, a Brahma chicken, leads the pack Carol Tabakaru of Antrim keeps in her backyard.

“We are that family,” Leslie Hammond of Chester said: the family that jumped on the backyard chicken bandwagon because of COVID-19.

Hammond said her family decided to get chickens “around Easter when our neighbors had eggs and we didn’t.”

After several stops at small local markets and large chain grocery stores, Hammond said, they eventually found some eggs at Walmart.

“We have been toying with the idea for a while. We live in Chester. It’s a rural community and lots of our neighbors have chickens,” Hammond said. And when the stay-at-home order hit, “All of a sudden we found we had an awful lot of time and we needed a project, something to do outside to keep people busy and out of each other’s hair.”

And the Hammond family is not alone. For example, the number of members requesting to be added to the N.H. Backyard Chicken Exchange Facebook group is skyrocketing, page administrator Christine Bemis said. Since early March, membership went from around 1,500 to more than 3,300 members in May.

“I think chicken keeping has been trending upwards for a while, since before the pandemic,” Bemis said. “That, coupled with the pandemic causing people to want to secure a source of food and to be more self-reliant, is what is causing the numbers to increase in my opinion.”

Beth Taylor, an employee at the Agway in Concord, said that the store has seen a dramatic increase in chick sales and interest in homesteading.

“We completely sold out of pre-ordered chicks over a month ago,” which never happens, Taylor said in an email. “A lot of these customers are clearly first-timers. It seems like this increased interest is directly correlated to COVID-19.

“From the comments they make,” she added, “it seems like it’s maybe because they are home more and for others they are more anxious about food shortages so they want to either grow veggies or raise chickens to sustain them if need be.”

Hammond admits she and her husband decided to get chickens when they couldn’t find any eggs around Eastertime, but she said she is not really concerned about securing a food source. Rather, she said, this was something she and her husband have wanted to do for some time. And add to that, the stay-at-home order made them realize that they hadn’t been making enough time for family.

“It just gave us the time and the opportunity to make it happen,” she said. “We both work forty hours a week.”

The children, who range from a 4th-grader to a college freshman, play soccer, lacrosse, hockey and baseball. There is always a team practice or game, Hammond said.

“I think we were caught up in ‘What can we provide for our kids,’” Hammond said.

Before, she said, she was always on the lookout for what she was going to give her children next--always on the hunt for the next soccer camp or music lesson to sign them up for.

“What we weren’t giving them was each other,” she said.

Hammond admits she misses sitting in the bleachers with a cup of coffee hanging out with the other moms during one of her children’s baseball games, but said going forward her family is going to “spend more time with each other and a little less time chasing that enrichment.”

Make room for chicks

When it comes to getting down to the business of raising chickens, the Hammonds have made that a family affair too.

Building the chicken run became a family project that was incorporated into remote learning for her school-age children, but also included her husband and their college freshman daughter.

“It has become a multi-step project,” she said. “We got the cement and the footing and built a fence for the chicken run.”

Her youngest, 10-year-old Mikey Hammond, poured and mixed all the concrete, she said, and they got a chicken coop from a neighbor who recently upgraded.

Hammond said they don’t have the birds just yet. A neighbor is hatching the chicks and will raise them till they are old enough to go outside.

“They have all the brooding things,” she said. “They’ve got plenty of extra chicks and we are looking for four.”

Hammond said they are in it for the long haul, but added that if it doesn’t work out their neighbor will take the chickens back.

Hammond said while it will be nice to have a source of their own eggs it isn’t why they are doing it.

“I think these eggs will cost way more than it would have if we were just going out to buy them,” Hammond said. But once you have the equipment and gear you need, “you’re good, you’re golden,” Hammond said.

For Wouter and Lauren de Wet of Barrington, they said their previous interest in keeping backyard chickens, coupled with the time the stay-at-home order gave them, is the reason they started chicken farming. They always liked the idea of keeping backyard chickens, but both worked full time and had just welcomed a baby in January, they said.

“We had kind of thought about having chickens and we bought a house about two years ago. It’s on two acres. It’s always been our dream to have chickens and sheep,” Lauren de Wet said. “When the pandemic hit in March we thought, ‘Well let’s get chicks. It will be a fun hobby; we’ll have more eggs and have a little bit of our own food.’”

Lauren de Wet admits she got nervous in March when people started hoarding, causing her to go into panic-shopping mode. She said she soon turned her focus to better acquainting herself with the Seacoast’s locally grown food sources, but also thought, “Maybe we just need some chickens too in case something really bad happens.”

“We planned on doing it, but never really crossed that threshold,” her husband said. “But being at home because of the stay-at-home order made self-sufficiency a little bit more important than it was before.”

The couple did their research: watched a lot of YouTube videos, consulted with friends about the friendliest breeds as well as how to build a chicken coop and a chicken run.

They are now caring for 12 chicks inside their home using a brooder, a heated house for chicks, where the chicks will have to be kept till they are about six weeks old, when they have grown most of their juvenile feathers. They had ordered nine chicks, but received 13, and one died right away, Lauren de Wet said. When the chicks are grown and producing eggs, Lauren de Wet said, she knows they will have too many eggs for their small family, but said they will just give away the extra.

“There’s no way we can eat 75 eggs,” she said.

Right now the de Wets are having fun spending time with the chicks and ensuring their dogs get to know the chicks as well.

“We were nervous about introducing the dogs to the chickens, but they love them,” she said.

Both Hammond and the de Wets said they know they are in for a lifestyle change. Lauren de Wet said this time last year she and her husband spent almost every weekend away from home. Now they are home all the time with their baby, dogs and chicks and anticipate spending more time at home after the stay-at-home is lifted then they had before it.

Hammond said going forward the backyard chickens will be a family time project and a reminder of just how important time with each other is. “We are absolutely doing this because we are in quarantine,” Hammond said. “That is the reason. But where do we go from here? … I think we’re going to work from home a little bit more and commute a little bit less.”

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.