When Owen Taylor got hired six years ago as the "city chicken intern" at Just Food, some people thought his job title was funny.
Today no one in the food world would make a peep. Backyard chicken-keeping is a growing pastime around the country, spurred by the interest in local food and sustainability.
"It's not a question of are you going to get chickens, but when are you ready to get chickens," says Taylor, now city farms manager at Just Food, a New York based non-profit.
Town officials in suburban Maplewood, N.J., decided this week that their community is ready—but only just. In a 3-2 vote, the Township Committee voted to allow a pilot program for a year starting next March where up to 15 households will be allowed to have a maximum of three chickens each—with roosters banned.
Residents will be chosen by lottery, and their neighbors on either side must be on board. The vote reverses a 2005 law that banned chicken-keeping because of some evidence that they were being used in religious rituals, according to Deputy Mayor Fred Profeta.
Profeta, who voted yes for the new measure, hopes to be one of the lucky 15 winners. "The whole issue of local food is growing throughout the country. Chickens are part of it," he said.
Township Committeeman Marlon Brownlee, who voted no, isn't so sure. "The idea is more appropriate for a semi-rural community rather than the suburban community that Maplewood is," he said. "I didn't like the idea of putting neighbor against neighbor."
Backyard Chicken Coops Becoming More Popular in 'Burbs
In his conversations in the community, he said, 99 percent were opposed to allowing chicken-keeping, and real-estate agents were naysayers.
"It's a really difficult time to sell houses. Chickens next door are definitely going to have a detrimental effect," Brownlee said.
Tro Bui, an extension associate in animal science at the Cornell University School of Agriculture, said that view is becoming less prevalent.
"We have some people who are not used to seeing live animals. They don't like it," Bui said. "The number is growing smaller because people realize that's the way to go now, a good supply of home food and better care for animals."
Bui said he has seen a growing interest in backyard chicken-raising in the past seven years. The backyard eggs are actually safer than agribusiness eggs, he says. "Salmonella is only a problem when you have many birds." A hen will produce six eggs a week, Bui said, starting at the age of 18 weeks for two to three years.
Noah Leff, whose new business Victory Chicken, supplies chicks and coops to urban backyards, says the enthusiasm is broad-based. "It's not just hipsters or foodies or locavores," Leff said. "It's middle-class families, retired people, young people."
Leff, whose day job is working as a financial consultant, keeps three chickens in his backyard in Brooklyn and helps care for the five chickens in the nearby community garden in his neighborhood. Chickens make great pets, he said, and provide a wonderful daily food source.
"People are excited about getting unmatchable quality eggs every day from their backyard chickens," says Leff, 39, and kids love the birds. "They have personality, they're very funny. They scratch, run around and flap their wings."
Three chickens are no more work than one indoor cat, he says, and contrary to reputation, "they don't make much noise, they don't really stink. It's a fun hobby and a very relaxing diversion."
Keeping chickens has always been legal in New York City, according to Taylor, and has in the past been popular with people who moved to the city from the South or from places like the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico where backyard chickens are popular. Roosters are not allowed and hens don't need roosters to produce eggs, only to fertilize them.
With the wider interest in chicken-keeping, his workshops are standing room only, he said, and his online meetup group for chicken enthusiasts has hundreds of members. "Most of the people I work with are just keeping them and letting them live out their lives as egg-layers," Taylor said, though some people take backyard chicken-raising a step further, and eventually turn their egg-layers into soup or roast chicken.