Kim Fox and I have known each other for over thirty years. We went to high school together and have been close friends ever since. She has always amazed me with her talented artistic ability, and has also inspired me with her urban homesteading skills. In thinking about what to write, all I can conjure up is the memory of tasting her fresh-baked bread slathered with melted butter and homemade Concord grape freezer jam. With that thought in mind, I'll let her tell you a bit more about her urban farm in Pittsburgh.
1. Tell me about your evolution as an urban farmer. How did you get into chickens and urban chicken farming?
I have long been interested in gardening. I remember helping my dad in the garden as child and eating the lettuce leaves as I worked. Even then I was struck by how good that lettuce was - way better than the heads of iceberg from the grocery. In keeping my own garden I try to learn a little more, expand a bit, each year. I'm also a sucker for hand-me-down plants, flowers, herbs, etc. I figure anything is worth a try.
Years ago we were having drinks with friends and the woman said she needed to find someone to take over her beehives after her move. I had had just enough wine to make it sound like a great idea and I volunteered on the spot. I immediately began researching - taking classes locally, reading books from the library, ordering supply catalogs - anything I could do to gain knowledge about this new endeavor.
I loved everything about the bees so much; the smell of the hives, watching them wake up and get to work in the mornings and settle down in the evenings, the delicious honey they made. Unfortunately, the winter after my son was born I checked on the hives and the bees were all dead. It was awful. I'm still not exactly sure what happened but I don't believe it was Colony Collapse Disorder. Rather I believe that my neighbors had had enough of me and the bees and sprayed the hive. Whatever the truth is it was awful to see. I haven't had bees since then. I was wrapped up in raising my son and then we moved to a new neighborhood and, even after eight years here, I feel like we're still settling in. I definitely plan to keep bees again in the near future but I want to make sure that our nearest neighbors are all on board with the idea so as to avoid any tension, fear or animosity.
In this new (old) house I started right away putting in perennials. I think nothing makes a house look more lived in than established plantings. We moved in mid-September and in the rush of beginning a major renovation I insisted on getting a few perennials in the Fall ground. Each year I add more (including any orphan plants the neighbors drop off!) and it's really beginning to take shape. We inherited old, old grape vines that I'm working to bring back to glory. They yieldloads of fruit in the Fall and I make jars and jars of freezer jam for neighbors, friends and family. We have planted apple trees and raspberries. We built a large raised bed in the garden off of the kitchen. That is planted with garlic, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs like cilantro, tarragon, rosemary and basil.
Five years ago I decided it would be fun to raise chickens. I am not patient and when I get an idea in my head, it's all over. Within weeks, armed with books from the library, I ordered my chicks by mail, pestered random chicken-keepers for information and left over supplies, and set up a brooder in the basement. Once the chicks arrived we began to build a hen house in the back yard to be ready in time for them to outgrow the brooder and move outside.
I knew I would enjoy the process of raising and keeping chickens but I wasn't prepared for loving the hens. I love them. I look forward to seeing them in the morning. I let them out each day to roam our yard and the yards of some nearby neighbors. I take them treats (kitchen scraps) throughout the day just to be able to watch them run to me excitedly. They are pets that happen to lay 4-5 gorgeous, delicious eggs each day. How can it be better?
My dad and step-mom were in town a few weeks ago and we made a feast of fresh pasta with eggs from our hens, sauce made from the tomatoes in the garden, and ground venison from my uncle's recent hunt. We knew exactly where our meal came from and it was heavenly to taste. A true feast.
2. Tell us about your flock.
I have five hens. A Speckled Sussex named Lady Whistle, a Barred Rock named Louise, an Easter Egger named Ms Jackson, a Grey Laced Wyandotte named Frannie, and a Buckeye named Marie. The Easter Egger is a mixed breed who lays a lovely blue-green egg and is the sassiest and goofiest looking. Lady Whistle is gorgeous and strong and independent.
3. Have you run into any resistance from local government or neighbors? How did you handle it?
Thankfully, my municipality is one that allows hens. They don't allow roosters which make for nuisance neighbors but the hens don't need a man around to lay eggs so we're in luck. The majority of my neighbors seem to love the hens. They get the benefit of fresh eggs without having the burden of the labor so what's not to love? The hens aren't super noisy except when they boast about the eggs they just laid. They are great natural pest-control in the garden and they fertilize like crazy. I have had only one negative run-in with a neighbor who seems to be afraid of the hens. It was totally my fault as I let them free-range but I didn't realize they'd free-range four houses away! The woman called Animal Control as she didn't know to whom the hens belonged. Animal Control came around and interviewed some neighbors and visited me. The Animal Control man loves chickens and said, "If I had my way they be roaming everywhere but in the streets." He lives in the next town and is envious of the fact that my town allows hens and his doesn't. It all was very friendly, but I've taken to minding my hens much more closely in an attempt to be a better neighbor.
4. Are you a member of any urban farming organizations in Pittsburgh?
I am loosely affiliated with a group of Bee and Chicken Keepers. I am working with another woman to start a local group here in the South Hills and we'll attempt to raise awareness about the benefits of raising chickens and also try to work out a good source of organic feed for our area. There are a lot of active agricultural groups here in PIttsburgh and I feel one of my next steps will be to reach out and get involved in one or two of them.
5. How does the urban farmer gig mesh with the other roles you play? (Wife, Mother, Artist, Citizen, Community Member, Etc.)
I think the Mama Farmer role suits me and meshes perfectly with the rest of my life. It was been a joy to get my son, Whistle, involved in every aspect of raising and keeping the hens. It's a terrific way to meet neighbors as they come by and say "Oh my gosh, are those CHICKENS?" which results in a tour of the garden and hen house and often times, a promise to meet at the Saloon up the street for a drink. My artwork is always based on the simple things around me so now it just naturally includes chickens which fit perfectly into my existing stable of birds, bees, farm equipment, etc.
6. What three pieces of advice would you give someone who is considering becoming an urban farmer?
Learn the rules in your town first. I know someone who spent a bunch of money on a hen house set-up only to learn he wasn't allowed to keep hens in his town.
Do your research! Volunteer, read, take classes, get online. There are a million resources for anything you want to get involved in.
Take a leap! Nothing will happen if you don't.