New London, Minn., family raising backyard chickens thanks to new ordinance
NEW LONDON -- Despite being "city folks" without a shred of farming experience, Rick and Char Erickson and their son, Kole Huiras, are now raising egg-laying chickens.
They have four hens in their flock. The two Silver Laced Wyandottes are named Laverne and Shirley and the two Buff Orpingtons are named Lucy and Ethel.
The three-month-old chickens live in the Ericksons' tidy New London backyard in a stylish, Amish-built chicken coop and fenced outdoor run shaded by mature trees.
"It's been a new experience for us, but a good one," said Char Erickson. "There's been nothing negative about it. Nobody's complained."
The family is the first to take advantage of New London's new ordinance that allows residents to have up to four hens on their property. Roosters are prohibited.
"These are happy chickens out there and our neighbors are happy," said Rick Erickson.
Large cities throughout the country are gradually allowing chickens, in what some publications claim is a growing urban trend. Chickens are allowed in Minneapolis by permit with very few restrictions.
But even though New London has a population of just 1,000 and the town was developed on the back of agriculture, getting the New London City Council to agree to the new chicken ordinance was not an easy sell.
The New London City Council refused to grant Mayor Bill Gossman a permit on a 2-2 vote in 2010.
During a second attempt last year, another individual made the request to allow chickens in New London and Gossman cast the tie-breaking vote.
But the title of the ordinance -- "Harboring of Chickens" -- sounds as ominous as harboring criminals.
There is a long list of requirements to meet before a chicken can move into town. The provisions are in place to make sure the animals are safe and healthy and that they are not a detriment to the neighborhoods.
New London also requires a $30 license fee annually.
The first step of getting a license in New London is getting approval of 80 percent of the neighbors.
The Ericksons said that part was easy. Their neighbors have been very supportive of their chicken venture.
There are mandatory inspections by the zoning administrator and specific rules about the size, construction and location of the chicken coop and outdoor fenced pen.
Ericksons' chickens share the backyard with the family's screened patio, and the coop and outdoor run are in dead-center view from the home's large dining room window.
The chickens are "entertaining and fun to watch," said Char Erickson. "They're beautiful."
The payoff for their investment in buying, feeding and housing the chickens will be fresh, homegrown eggs. The Ericksons' chickens won't start laying for another two to three months.
And they fully acknowledge they have spent more money on their four chickens that they will ever get back in eggs.
But raising chickens has become an enjoyable family event that spans three generations, said Char Erickson, adding that their grandchildren love to watch the chickens.
Their son, who will be a senior this year at New London-Spicer High School, came up with the idea as part of a school project and did the legwork, including securing the city permit.
The family is learning together about how to care for the chickens, which they purchased in March when the chicks were just a few days old.
"We didn't know anything except they're pretty," said Rick Erickson, who grew up in the Twin Cities and whose only poultry experience was chickens in the Easter basket.
With tips from chicken experts, the four chickens are healthy and friendly and have become popular residents of the neighborhood.
The Willmar City Council has approved permits for chickens on a case-by-case basis and has directed city staff to write a set of standards to make the process, rules and housing more uniform.
"The last thing we want is free-range chickens running around Willmar," said Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development.
Getting ordinances passed and raising chickens in cities is the topic of numerous blogs.
A story in the December/January issue of Backyard Poultry magazine, which is based in Medford, Wis., lists "one dozen tips to legalize chickens in your community" based on the experience of pro-chicken residents in Sarasota, Fla.
The number one tip is a warning not to assume that the process will be quick.
Ron Marcus, the poultry manager at Runnings Farm and Fleet in Willmar, said he doesn't understand why cities are so reluctant to allow chickens. He said four chickens are not as noisy or messy as one dog. He said they can be great pets and provide eggs for the family.
A chicken coop can be "like a big playhouse in the backyard," said Marcus, who said care needs to be taken to make sure chickens are well-protected from predators and that they have adequate housing for varying temperatures.
The manure and bedding from a small chicken coop can be good fertilizer for flower beds. If left to compost, it can be used to boost soil nutrients in vegetable gardens.
Marcus said he has seen the sale of chickens increase steadily over the last three years.
While that's primarily because more rural residents are raising chickens, Marcus said he's also had a growing number of inquiries from city residents who want to know about raising chickens in town and asking about ordinances and permits.
"They are talking and they are asking about," said Marcus.