In the pecking order of Alabama agricultural industries, poultry production rules the roost. And today, non-farming families nationwide are also flocking to poultry, albeit in their backyards.
These are families like Martha and Riley Roby, who never planned on living in the country, much less housing six hens and a bantam rooster in their backyard. But when Alabama’s District 2 congressman and her family moved to south Montgomery County three years ago, they slipped on boots and began gardening with dreams of starting their own backyard flock.
“Living where we do, we really don’t have an excuse not to have chickens,” said Martha, mom to Margaret, 11, and George, 7. Her largely agricultural district includes a heavy dose of poultry farmers.
After months of research, Riley found the perfect ready-to-assemble coop last fall, and the Robys were backyard farming by October.
With the rise of Alabama Cooperative Extension System programs like Chick Chain and the local food movement, consumers are taking an interest in food production, and chickens are an economical educational opportunity for families.
“When you grow your own food, there’s a sense of pride in that,” said Martha, whose family routinely eats eggs their hens provide – preferably scrambled.
But she doesn’t just want her kids to appreciate a farm-fresh egg. She wants them to understand the dedication and labor going into food production.
“As a country, we have to be able to feed ourselves and the world,” said Martha, who served three years on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. “Our children need to realize that farming is someone’s livelihood and that farmers provide food for billions of people.”
The Roby children are learning life lessons and earning their keep, too, with George refilling hay for laying boxes and Margaret checking feed and water for their chickens — Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s, Queen Frances, French Fry, Wishbone and Nugget.
“I like taking care of the chickens,” said George. “But I don’t like getting the chickens back in the coop. That’s hard.”
In south Marengo County, JoAnn and Mack Pope said chickens are the gift that keep on giving.
“For years, all I wanted for Christmas was chickens,” said JoAnn, 66, whose dream came true in 2011.
Growing up, both the Popes’ grandparents had chickens, and when it came time for Mack, 68, to retire, he bit the bullet, built a coop and ordered pullets online.
“I just wanted chickens for the eggs,” said JoAnn,” and I thought I would enjoy watching them.”
The Popes split responsibilities around their small farm. Mack tends the cows and refreshes the chickens’ water. They both feed “the girls” and gather eggs.
“When he was calling his cows ‘the girls,’ I started calling my chickens ‘the girls,’ even though we have two roosters,” said JoAnn. They also have six chicks hatched on-farm and 15 hens.
Friends and family partake in the eggs; great-nieces and great-nephews have a special egg-gathering basket; and the Popes have convinced fellow retirees to invest in backyard farming, too.
“It’s worth having the chickens just because of the great pleasure our whole family gets,” JoAnn said.
For Dale County sheep farmer Dwight Patrick, raising backyard birds is in his blood.
“My grandparents always had chickens, and I’ve always had chickens,” said Patrick, 67, who keeps six laying hens and two roosters on land his family has tended for over 100 years.
It’s a family tradition Patrick hopes to pass along. Several of his grandchildren have incubators they’re using to hatch the next generation of backyard biddies, he said.
The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Guy Hall said raising yard birds is an excellent educational opportunity for families to learn proper animal care, nutrition, disease prevention and other good practices.
“Many backyard and commercial poultry producers understand the importance of following good biosecurity practices to protect their flocks from diseases,” said Hall, the Federation’s Poultry Division director.
Cleaning and disinfecting equipment, wearing sanitized boots, limiting farm visitors, avoiding contact with migratory water fowl and knowing warning signs of avian diseases are a few suggested biosecurity practices for safe-guarding commercial and backyard flocks.
For Roby, she said her farmer friends were invaluable.
“If it weren’t for my farmer friends educating me, it never would have crossed my mind that my backyard birds could destroy a farmer’s entire flock,” said Roby, who doesn’t wear her muck boots to the local feed and seed store for fear of cross-contamination.
Hall recommends would-be backyard farmers check city ordinances for chicken-specific rules before constructing a lavish coop or ordering their first flock.
Backyard birds may be trendy, but they also remind their owners of a simpler time of community, country life and homegrown happiness. And for the Robys, Popes and Patrick, there’s nothing quite like a slice of fresh-baked pound cake made with yard eggs.
“I’m not a baker,” Martha said, “but I’d be more than happy to give these eggs to a neighbor so they can make us a pound cake.”