By Elizabeth McGowan
Back in mid-December, Nathan Graham and Natala Covert feared a certain speckled Sussex hen would put the kibosh on the agricultural enterprise they had hatched for their Mount Rainier back yard.
The suspect chicken was evidently the diva of the quartet of hens adapting to their new life in the couple’s Community Forklift-inspired coop. Alarmingly, she felt compelled to regularly serenade the neighbors.
“She was always singing,” Covert said. “And we thought, oh no, everyone in the neighborhood will hear her. We’d told everybody we wouldn’t be getting a rooster, so we didn’t want this to be a nuisance.”
Fortunately, the neighbors became enamored with the fowl’s powerful, persistent yet pleasing set of pipes.
“They made a point of telling us that they enjoy hearing the sounds of the farm in Mount Rainier,” Graham interjected.
Naming the speckled Sussex soloist, of course, was a no-brainer. She was christened Miss Franklin as a tribute to the soulful Aretha. And she is evidently content to have set up housekeeping with her sister hens—a golden comet called Goldilocks for obvious reasons and a white leghorn named The Machine for her assembly-line like egg production—in suburban Washington, D.C. The fourth hen was the unfortunate victim of a run-in with the family dog several months ago.
Small-scale, urban backyard chicken farming is all the rage in metropolitan regions nationwide but it’s a bit of a dicey proposition in Mount Rainier and other developed parts of Prince George’s County where zoning regulations are somewhat ambiguous and contradictory. Graham, 28, and Covert, 25, are among those who want the Prince George’s Council to follow the lead of a report on urban agriculture issued by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission last fall. It specifically recommends that the county legalize small flocks of hens as a trigger to spur mini-farms in its cities.
Brentwood resident Bradley Kennedy has carefully tracked the ins and outs of backyard chicken farming since 2010 when she helped to spearhead a petition drive as a representative of an advocacy group called Prince George’s Hens.
The organization has collected at least 1,000 signatures since the summer of 2010 from locals in favor of allowing county residents in single-family homes to rise up to half a dozen hens. But Kennedy and her cohorts are still waiting for a council member to sponsor legislation at the county level so chicken farming can gain momentum instead of being a slightly stealth operation.
Prince George’s Hens makes it clear that cock-a-doodle-doing roosters would not be part of the mix. One, roosters are too loud to mingle in residential neighborhoods. And two, the males are only necessary for farmers needing more chickens. Hobbyists such as Graham and Covert want to harvest only eggs.
“Every other major metropolitan area in the country allows backyard chickens,” Kennedy noted. “We’re a little behind the curve. This would be an opportunity for Prince George’s County to take the lead.”
She pointed out that chickens are representative of the modern green sustainable movement because not only are their eggs a local food source, but they also provide natural pest control, eat food scraps and are antibiotic-free.
“I happen to like pets that live outside,” said Kennedy, who has experience with small-scale chicken farming. “Some people are cat people, some people are dog people and some people are chicken people.”
Community Forklift certainly champions those chicken people.
For starters, the 34,000-square foot warehouse offers the mother lode of materials for chicken coop constructors. Plus, the Forklift wrote a letter in early April encouraging the Prince George’s Council to allow homeowners in all residential zones to keep small flocks of chickens because “the resurgence of backyard hen-raising across the nation is partly driven by the same “green” and cost-conscious values that Community Forklift serves.”
Indeed, Graham and Covert were motivated to try hen tending after visiting like-minded friends in Portland, Ore., last summer.
Covert’s mother, a local jewelry maker and sculptor, had introduced her daughter to the wonders of Community Forklift several years ago. So the Edmonston treasure trove was top of mind for the duo when they rented their Mount Rainier bungalow last October and received approval from their landlord to begin scheming their coop.
They knew the dimensions they wanted for the roost box and “attic” perches because Covert had studied organic chicken farms while traveling in Europe. After sketching a series of rough blueprints, they trekked to the Forklift to sift through the goodies.
Once they uncovered a bundle of 1-inch by 6-inch boards that were the perfect length, they knew they’d hit the jackpot. They also found ordinary plywood for the walls, cork-covered plywood for the roof, beadboard for the interior, carpet squares for insulation and a large hinge for the little latched door to the roost where the eggs are collected. A Forklift wood-frame window—opened via a repurposed drawer pull—was transformed into the door the chickens use to access their ramp to ground level.
“We found things we could use and then we made them work,” Graham said, adding that plastic roofing, chicken wire and hardware odds and ends were all they needed to buy elsewhere. “It’s a fun place with cool folks. You just feel creative when you walk into the Forklift. I see things and think, ‘What can I turn that into?’
Both Graham and Covert work evenings in the restaurant business, so they tag-teamed the coop construction in their garage during their free daylight hours. What emerged Dec. 2 was a sturdy, spacious and functional 5-foot by 10-foot structure that’s 6 feet high featuring a roost box, a ramp and sticks in the “attic” that serve as perches at night. The main door and an interior trap door both open into an airy, wire-enclosed “English basement” that serves as a refuge from predators and a place with easy access to the dust that chickens cherish because it protects them from sun exposure and mites.
Despite the coop’s urban setting, crows still sound their distinctive warning when hawks and other threats approach, prompting the chickens to scurry to safety in the coop or behind the wire fencing.
“Going to the Forklift gives you something to do and afterward you feel good about what you did with what you bought there,” Graham said. “The corporations of the world are racking up money. We understand there’s a place for that but we’re just not into it. They don’t need our money. We’re trying to be as self-sustaining as possible.”
Graham, a native of Maryland’s Calvert County, earned a degree in economics and classical music. He’s content with his decision to morph from a cubicle-bound professional to a free-ranging drummer and banjo player whose taste is so eclectic that he jokes about having musical attention deficit disorder. Covert, who grew up in Takoma Park, graduated from art school with a degree in metalsmithing. She’s now studying for certification as a health coach.
Yes, they both are fond of the eggs that the hens provide. But it’s about more than just cultivating a backyard food source. There’s a certain beauty to the whole reuse cycle. The hens supplement their diet of organic pellets and scratched-up bugs with kitchen scraps and spent grain from DC Brau, where Graham’s younger brother is the brewmaster. The coop’s soiled pine shavings are composted and then recycled in the adjacent vegetable garden. Plus, Graham and Covert admire the birds’ tenacity as well as the grace and coordination they display while balancing upon the sticks they sleep on at night.
Graham said their neighbors almost like it when he and Covert leave town for a few days because they know they will be “paid” in eggs for watching the hens.
Over in rural western Howard County, Ryan and Tabatha Cooper totally understand how mesmerizing chickens can be. The two 28-year-olds sometimes relax on their one-acre Mount Airy lot by propping lawn chairs near their handmade coop and sipping wine.
“Chickens are fascinating to watch, even if they’re just scratching around during supervised playtime when we let them out,” said Ryan, a horticulturist and plant scientist employed on the University of Maryland’s Rockville campus. “They’re not loud and they’re not dirty. And the fertilizer they produce is great. We save that for our garden.”
With a surname such as Cooper, it would seem poultry would be Ryan’s destiny. But he hadn’t envisioned hens as part of his future until Tabatha, a dairy cattle geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, enrolled them in a chicken-keeping course several months ago. Afterward, they received clearance from their landlord and neighbors before checking out resources such as backyardchickens.com for coop designs.
“That’s when Community Forklift popped into my head,” said Ryan, a talented woodworker and metal fabricator. “Rather than make a long drive and pay retail prices at Home Depot, I figured we could make a longer drive and spend less money.”
At the Forklift, they scored some lumber, a window and handfuls of hardware. Two of their favorite finds were a piece of Corian countertop and a metal-clad door. Ryan crafted the countertop into a small pop-up door that operates on a rope pulley system so the hens have access to their enclosed run. The metal door is the coop entrance and exit. Both doors are heavy and slick enough to keep predators at bay.
“I was kind of making it up as I went along,” he said, adding that the 12-foot by 6 ½-foot structure that is 7 ½ feet high at its peak was 97 percent complete when their 11 chicks arrived in early April. “I hear lots of conversations where people are worried about what color they should paint their coop’s interior. Believe me, as long as the chickens are warm enough in winter, cool enough in summer, well fed and safe from predators, they don’t care about paint.”
He and Tabatha are in the midst of planning a coop-warming party for late May.
Whether raising chickens in Mount Rainier or Mount Airy, these hen aficionados say there’s no down side to caring for their feathered friends. They are elated to have “pets” that provide protein for their breakfasts, lunches and dinners – and even the desserts they bake. Not only do the eggs taste better, their exceptionally orange yolks just look more appealing in the skillet.
Oh wait, there might be just one tiny drawback.
“I just wish,” Covert concluded a bit wistfully as she cracked a few eggs into a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough, “that the hens would be willing to cuddle a little bit more.”