Chickens rule the roost in Denver's backyard livestock pecking order. As the birds' popularity has soared, numerous businesses have sprung up to meet the need of the city's poultry farmers.
Gina Chilton Parris' house on Kalamath Street and Sixth Avenue sits in a high-traffic area surrounded by small but distinctive old brick houses, light industrial businesses and retail stores. Visible from her backyard, across the alley, is the back of a Sherman Williams paint store, where Parris' Jamaican-born husband, Clifton, works.
Nothing about this urban setting would suggest agriculture in the works, but Parris' backyard is, in Chilton Parris' words, an oasis -- and chickens are a big part of it. Until recently the Parrises had four egg-laying hens; now they're down to two. A predator of some kind -- Gina suspects a fox or raccoon -- invaded the 30-by-20-foot pen and made off with half the livestock.
Still, the two remaining hens not only provide eggs but also manure for three cast-iron bathtubs in the Parris' backyard. The tubs are filled with a compost mix that in a few months will yield kale, peppers, green beans and carrots.
"I just love the idea of chickens, because they're so easy to take care of," Chilton Parris says. "And I get an egg every day. They're such an integral part of organic farming."
Chilton Parris teaches a class to various groups in Denver called "Square Foot 2 Square Meal," that emphasizes growing crops in tiny spaces. She initially taught the "square-foot gardening" concept in Jamaica, where she lived for 10 years and where she met her husband. Clifton was a community development officer there, and for a year Gina served as president of a local arm of the Jamaican Agricultural Society in the parish of St. Thomas.
Gina, 55, says that during the summer about 50 percent of her food comes from her backyard, most of it grown in those bathtubs fortified with chicken manure. She hopes to sow the proverbial seeds of small-space gardening around Denver. Her target audience: "Busy people, mainly," she says. "One square foot at a time. Even if you just grow enough for a salad starting out, you're more likely to add it to your meal and improve your diet."
There's no doubt that backyard chickens are on the rise in Denver. One reason: For organic gardeners, adding a source of fertilizer -- and getting eggs, to boot -- is the next logical step in controlling where your food comes from and knowing what went into growing it.
Making room for chicken feed
Dan and Kathryn Bailey, owners of Pet Station
at 2300 S. Colorado Blvd., started stocking chicken feed at their boutique pet-food shop about two years ago, responding to customer demand.
"It's still a small percentage of our total sales, but it's increasing all the time," Dan says. Demand is high enough that the 40 to 60 50-pound bags delivered to the store each Wednesday are gone by Monday. But the impact on total sales remains small because the feed is cheap -- mere "chicken feed," you might say -- compared to some of the gourmet dog food the store sells. A 50-pound bag of regular egg-layer pellets or crumbles goes for $16.99; organic feed is about twice that.
"We're convenient for a lot of people," Dan Bailey says. "Most are in the city of Denver. I'd say the average customer has four chickens. Some have well over the limit [of eight hens allowed by the city], but they seem to do okay. This time of year we sell a lot more starter feed for chicks."
Another popular outfitter for backyard chicken ranchers is Wardle Feed & Supply
at Wadsworth Boulevard and West 42nd Avenue in Wheat Ridge. Family-owned and operated since 1938, the shop sells a variety of chickens and other poultry year-round.
A chicken-friendly cityChicks for sale at Wardle Feed & Pet Supply in Wheat Ridge.
Denver's backyard chicken movement got a boost in 2011 when the city council voted to ease a permitting process that had required prospective animal owners to notify neighbors of their plans and pay a one-time $100 permit fee and an annual $50 fee for chickens ($100 annually for dwarf goats).
But largely due to the tenacious campaigning of attorney James Bertini, who picketed on the steps of the courthouse in a chicken suit, Denver's city council voted in 2011 to allow Denver residents to own up to eight chickens and/or two dwarf goats and pay only a one-time fee of $25 for either.
Bertini, who lives just a few blocks from Chilton Parris and operated the indoor farmers market on Second Avenue and Santa Fe Drive for several years, also has waged a five-year battle with a California religious group that claimed the trademark on the term "Urban Homesteading" and thus sought to have Bertini's denverurbanhomesteading.org
website shut down. The battle, which for Bertini included multiple trips to California, was so time-consuming that the former chicken crusader says he was compelled to close his popular indoor farmers market. He has a Facebook page
dedicated to the ongoing trademark issue.
Leigh Bray launched Chicken Coops of Colorado about seven years ago.Coops, mate!
One operation and website not in question is that of coop builder and Australia transplant Leigh Bray, a former general contractor, electrician and world traveler who now builds deluxe coops full-time. His least expensive model sells for $850; his bestselling coop goes for $950. Bray's Chicken Coops of Colorado
was born about seven years ago, shortly after he finished building his family's sprawling, 6,200-square-foot home on two acres, not far from the University of Denver campus, where his wife, Diana, a psychologist, earned a doctorate. "Looking for the next thing to do," as he puts it, he built his family -- Diana and their four kids -- a chicken coop. Next thing he knew, a neighbor wanted one. The list of coop customers has grown every year and includes the aforementioned Chilton Parris. Last year Bray sold 35 coops.
"I don't do it for money," Bray says. "I do it to demonstrate to the kids the importance of keeping busy."
Bray says one of his daughters is a vegetarian, and that inspired the rest of the family to embrace a more local, vegetable-oriented diet, though not to a strict vegetarian extent. Along with the chickens, the Brays have two honey-yielding beehives, and an attached greenhouse with crop-producing banana, fig, passion fruit and lime trees.
"I'm the least close to vegetarian," says the 60-year-old Bray, chuckling. "Coming from Australia, it's embarrassing to say you don't eat meat. Kind of like saying you don't drink beer."
Austin Johnson recognized an opportunity in the poultry industry -- not just chickens, and not just for backyards. Six years ago he launched efowl.com
, an online marketplace headquartered in Denver that connects poultry suppliers and hatcheries with mail-order customers all over the country. Available birds include chickens, waterfowl, turkeys, pheasants and more. Though efowl.com caters mostly to small family and organic farms, it also has backyard chicken hobbyists as customers. Johnson estimates he has 60,000 customers in every zip code in the country.
"I've seen the year-over-year growth going along with the backyard chicken trend, as well as just the rise of organic agriculture, sustainable agriculture, kind of a resurgence in family farms and pasture-raised poultry," says Johnson, 31, who grew up in Boulder. "What we're growing into is a marketplace for many of the small to midsize agricultural producers who participate in this space to connect directly with customers. You go onto efowl.com and you can see the profile and background on the farm you're ordering from and place an order with them. We handle the communication and the transactional infrastructure, and then that farm will get the order fulfilled."
Johnson was exposed to farming as a kid when he'd spend parts of summers at a family member's farm in northern Minnesota. He has his own theories why backyard chickens have caught on in Denver and other cities.
"People want protein that's sourced in a sustainable way and livestock that's treated humanely," he says. "So I think backyard chickens kind of hit that trend very well. In addition, people want a localization of their food sources, and so localizing where your eggs come from is one of the ways to do that very simply and easily. These sorts of practices aren't necessarily anything new in the American lifestyle, but I think over the past decades we've seen an over-industrialization of our food sources, and this is simply more of a reversion to some of the things that were very popular several decades ago but not too far in the past."
This is a first in a series of stories exploring backyard animal husbandry in Denver. Read the second one, on goats, here, and the third, on bees, here.
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.