Fowl play: Bronx neighbors are staging a coop at urban chicken farms
“Today is my first day as a chicken farmer!” crows Lily Kesselman, who is cradling a speckled hen in a lush garden where rows of bell peppers, collard greens and string beans are flourishing on a late Indian summer afternoon.
Behind her, 14 more biddies scratch the dirt in their freshly dug run and explore their coop built by Kesselman and her peeps just the week before.￼
Neighbors rotate through the hen house to coo over their new feathered friends before signing up for shifts to feed the birds and clean the coop.
Pretty bucolic for the South Bronx, no?
It gets better:
The 4½-month-old hens, a crossbreed of Rhode Island Red and White Leghorn, were hatched from eggs tended by public school students as part of the Queens County Farm Museum’s 21-Day Eggs-periment program.
The farm then reared the chicks before donating them to the Friends of Brook Park in Mott Haven, where community members and “chicken deputies” from local schools will now take over caring for the flock.
“These are New York birds, through and through,” says Owen Taylor from the Just Food organization’s City Chickens Project.
aylor launched the City Chickens Project in 2005. It provides training, materials and chickens to help make fresh, locally grown food accessible to New Yorkers.
They’ve set up 14 chicken coops from Bedford Stuyvesant to East Harlem over the past six years as chicken-rearing has become an increasingly popular part of the urban farm movement. More than 530 members have also joined the New York City Chicken Keepers Meet-up group online.
“Raising chickens in New York City is not unusual,” says Taylor. “It’s legal, it’s sanitary, and if anything, we’re going back to normal, to the city’s agricultural roots, when everyone used to own their own chickens.”
Kesselman first hatched the idea for a backyard chicken run more than a year ago as she became more involved in the Brook Park community garden.
“I am very dedicated to my neighborhood,” she says, “and I started thinking that this could be a fun project for the garden.”
As she read up on the benefits of owning chickens – the birds aerate and fertilize garden soil, compost kitchen scraps and control the bug population – she realized they could be a great educational tool for kids hooked on sugary drinks and processed foods.
“It’s a great way to get neighborhood kids into healthier food by getting them to meet the chickens, interact with them and understand where [our] food comes from,” she says.
Together, Taylor and Kesselman scored a $700 grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City to pay for their coop. Kesselman raised another $750 by launching a sponsorship program online, where neighbors and classrooms paid $50 to name a chicken. The money goes toward feed, the project’s biggest expense. The 15 birds will run through a 50-pound bag of feed (about $20 apiece) every month.
The sponsors also get a glossy 4-by-6 photo of their hen provided by Kesselman, a professional photographer.
The community is already fussing over the new chicks on the block, which they hope will provide up to 4,300 eggs per year (to be doled out on the honor system) once the hens begin laying in the next month or so.
“Oh my goodness, I’m holding a chicken!” laughs high school sophomore Amanda Johnson, 15, who is using her service hours in the park for a class volunteer project. “It’s just so funny. The only time you ever see chickens in the Bronx is on a menu.”
“I love it,” says head gardener Daniel Chervoni, who has watched Brook Park transform from a vacant lot in 1990 to a busy community center.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to have chicken for supper anymore!” he says as a hen roosts on his shoulder.
Kesselman also hopes that their experiment will stage a coup across the borough.
“We have a lot of burnt-out lots in the South Bronx,” she says, “and they could all be urban farms.”
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