There's a steady rain falling as SUVs with bumper stickers reading "My pet makes me breakfast" pull up outside Steph and Jason Oplinger's barn one-and-a-half hours northwest of Philadelphia. Inside, 240 people are slowly walking past pens that hold the kinds of chickens you've probably never seen on any egg carton. There are white silkies, which look like feather boas; Polish, each of which appears to flaunt an elaborate Kentucky Derby style hat on its head; and dominiques, whose exotic black-and-white patterning would inspire a French couturier. A few people exchange cartons of eggs (each shell carefully penciled "buff Polish bantam" or "lavender silkie") to take home and hatch, as they discuss the merits of silkies vs. leghorns with a newbie: "Silkies are more affectionate, but a leghorn will lay more eggs."
Welcome to the Northeast Regional Chickenstock in New Tripoli, Pa., where members of BackYardChicken.com a sort of Facebook for chicken owners have come to trade eggs and buy chicks. The renewed interest in keeping chickens, a practice that faded out in the postwar boom because of giant grocery stores and factory farming, can trace its roots to the flourishing sustainability movement and an increasing desire to eat local and all-natural. "We're running at full capacity all the time," says Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. Shipping about 100,000 chicks per week, Wood estimates that business is up 20% from four years ago.
BackYardChicken.com whose slogan is "A chicken in every yard" has grown from 50 members in 2007 to more than 61,000 today. Rob Ludlow, the site's owner and a co-author of Raising Chickens for Dummies, thinks the appeal is not only in the organic eggs but also in the fact that chickens are "a really interesting, intelligent pet, with a lot of personality." They have the added advantage of being low maintenance. Aside from shelter and food, the care chickens require puts them "somewhere between a goldfish and a cat," says Bailey Hale, a floral designer who keeps 12 hens in Philadelphia.
The Oplingers, hosts of the chicken swap, are newcomers to the hobby, having started just about a year ago after Jason saw the price of the free-range eggs his wife was buying at the supermarket. "Forget it," he said. "Let's raise our own. It'll be cheaper." Having started with four, they're up to 60 chickens.
Still, while a chick goes for anywhere from $2 to $5, depending on the breed, the accompanying housing and incubators can put a dent in your wallet. "I put $5,000 into my coop," says Don Margiano, a generator technician from Beacon Falls, Conn., who now has eight chickens, down from a high of 45. Raising chickens taught his son a valuable lesson: food doesn't just come from the Stop & Shop. But while Margiano may roast his chickens, most including the Oplingers wouldn't think of it. "We eat chicken," says Jason, "just not our own."
David and Elcie Nava, who drove 17 hours to show off Lippy, one of their 200 chickens, treat the hen like a member of the family. Elcie, who steadies Lippy on a ShamWow cloth slung over her shoulder, confesses that she sneaked her into their room at the Hilton Garden Inn the night before. And why not? People keep parrots and canaries as pets, so a pet chicken shouldn't cause anyone to blink an eye. But some towns don't see it that way. Holyoke, Mass., and Flint, Mich., recently rejected ordinances that would have allowed chickens. "It's a misconception that they're smelly and noisy," says Ludlow. Plus, "they can eat weeds and black widow spiders and turn that into eggs," he says. "It's the best recycling program ever."
As the swap winds down, Patty Evans, a dentist from Upper Marlboro, Md., is making the last deal of the day giving three black-and-white chickens to another attendee. "I just want them to have a good home," says Evans, refusing payment or a trade. She intended to winnow her flock, though as it is, she's going to be taking home six more chickens than she came with."It's like potato chips," she explains. "You always want just one more."