Friday, July 31, 2009

Musician Teaches Locals How To Raise Chickens

Nick Rupiper is up with the sun and doing his regular morning ritual of tending to his chickens.

The rest of the day for Nick’s growing family is spent laying eggs, snoozing in the shade and indulging in dirt baths to rid their feathers of mites and lice.

Life is good at Rup Nut Ranch high above the town of Sonoma, where Nick is educating one person at a time about how to raise chickens to be healthy, happy members of your backyard community.

The 30-year-old musician and poultryman, builds custom coops, sells fresh eggs, holds “Raising Backyard Chicken” workshops and serves as a consultant for people fixing to raise a few themselves.

Nick concedes he’s still barely scratching out a living; it’s his other job as a drummer with the Green String Farm Band that pays the bills. But he feels passionate about teaching people how to appreciate these endearing birds who not only give us fresh eggs but who will clean out your spent vegetable patch and patrol your yard for unwanted pests.

“I’ve gotten so much joy out of these animals,” he says, taking a shovel and scraping out the droppings from the chicken coop he built himself from $3 in scrap materials. “And people have so many misconceptions about them.”

In the past several years, interest in backyard chicken raising has soared, fuelled by the growing sustainability movement, concern about food safety and a spike in the cost of groceries.

J.P. Pellham, the chicken expert for Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa, said the demand this year has been “phenomenal.”

“I’ve sold many more chicks this year than ever before,” he exclaimed. Some Thursdays, when the newly hatched chicks would come in, he said he’d send 600 out the door in six hours.

“People would be lined up before we got to work in the morning,” he said. Unlike farmers, who treat their chickens as practical parts of food production, backyard hobbyists often regard their chickens as pets, he added, naming them and mourning them when they die.

Nick has named many of the characters in his flock, posting photos and sharing anecdotes.

There is Sweet Pea, “the nicest living being on earth,” he says, who comes to you went you call her name and who is given to perching on Nick’s hand for a quick nap. And there is his “main man” Elvis, an aggressive little bantam rooster. A Mille Fleur with fancy feathery feet, he’s too small to be dangerous. But he can be counted on to warn the ladies if a raptor is soaring overhead, and he will attack your ankles if you don’t watch your back.

People ask Nick what he loves about chickens, a question he admits makes him a little uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to come off sounding like a kook and stops short of saying they have personalities. But he says he does find their “individual characteristics” fascinating to observe.

“They’re easy to take care of, and they’re cute,” he says. “And with the right breed, they make good pets.”

Beginners should choose their breeds carefully. The smaller bantams are good for smaller yards and for starters. Look for more docile breeds like white Cochins, Americanas, who lay beautiful green eggs, traditional Plymouth Rocks and any of the Wyandottes.

Pellham, of Western Farm, which carries an average of 13 different breeds, warns against the more skittish white leghorns. But he says the orange Buff Orpingtons are big friendly hens and reliable egg producers.

Before embarking on any backyard operation, check with your local City Hall to see if they are even allowed within the city limits, and if so, what the limitations are. Laws vary. Rohnert Park bans backyard fowl. Santa Rosa permits them only on rural residential lots of at least 20,000 square feet.

Cities that do allow backyard chickens typically have setback requirements for chicken coops. And any coop above 120 square feet would need a building permit.

Healdsburg allows up to 10, but no roosters; Sonoma permits 16 birds per 10,000 square foot lot up to 50 birds and also bans noisy roosters (which aren’t necessary unless you want fertilized eggs.)

Nick says you will need a completely enclosed coop for laying and to keep them safe at night from prey animals. Western Farm sells smaller three- to four-bird hutches for a couple hundred dollars and small barns for about $500.

For added safety you may want to add an enclosed chicken run, although Nick says they can be let loose for limited supervision in the yard during the day. Chickens are great for cleaning out and fertilizing spent vegetable beds. But keep them out of landscaped areas. They can destroy a lawn in search of small insects.

They eat a varied diet with chicken feed as a staple with supplementary scratch, table scraps, stale bread and produce that may be a little wilted but still safe. Nick adds some oyster shells, which gives a little grit in the craw for digestion.

With a clean enclosed coop, the right food and room to run (about 5 square feet per bird), you can have a healthy flock. Chickens can live up to 8 years, but Pellham cautions that you should be emotionally prepared to lose them.

Local feed and farm suppliers can advise and set you up. Nick also is setting up a demonstration coop at the Sonoma Garden Park where hobbyists can come by and ask questions.

“There is a kind of revolution going on of having urban chickens,” he says. “And the scarier the food supply gets, the more people want to be connected to it. The great thing about having backyard chickens is that you can have complete control over at least one of your foods.”

Alice Coltrane, Elvis, John, Pigpen, the black-and-white speckled Gertrude and at least 100 more chickens cluck around his feet for their daily scratch as soon as he passes through the gate with his bucket. But this fine cut-up corn and seed is just a snack. Later, there will be a massive salad bar of kale, chard, curly-leaf lettuce, watermelon and summer squash spread out for their dining pleasure.

Bon apetite girls.

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