You can reap the delicious rewards of urban agriculture right in your backyard with a chicken coop here and a honeybee hive there.
Elysia Woodall, 4, has an important job in her parents’ backyard on Milwaukee’s South Side: assistant chicken poop scooper-upper.
“Yes, chickens poop a lot,” says her dad, Shane. “Elysia scrapes it up with her little shovel and throws it into the garden for compost.”
Elysia’s parents began keeping chickens four years ago when her mom, Rebecca Kellogg, was pregnant. At the beginning of her pregnancy, Kellogg felt nauseous when she ate store-bought eggs. After trying a home-grown egg and finding it both delicious and easier on her stomach, the couple decided to raise their own. The couple first got approval from their neighbors – a necessary step in Milwaukee – then scoured the Internet for information, secured a permit from the city and ordered four chicks from Farm & Fleet. They picked up the chicks at the post office and put them in a storebought coop.
They were now chicken keepers – enjoying the tasty yolks and firm whites of the eggs, and appreciating the rich compost generated for their large garden.
Four years later, the family gets about 20 eggs per week, and Elysia enjoys playing with her feathered friends. “We got the Australorp breed because they’re docile and cuddly and good with children,” says Woodall, a 40-year-old electrician. “Elysia picks them up and walks around with them. She calls them ‘my babies.’”
The city of Milwaukee passed an ordinance permitting backyard bees in 2010 and one allowing backyard chickens in 2011. Ald. Nik Kovac (3rd District) was instrumental in getting these “honey & egg” ordinances passed. “People teased me, calling me ‘Chicken Man,’” Kovac says with a smile.
“But seriously,” he continues, “the ordinances are part of a larger movement to change consciousness about where food comes from. It speaks to the deep psychic disconnect about what sustains us.”
Adds Gretchen Mead, executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative, whose mission is to help people grow their own food, “In my mind, this is part of the vision for a sustainable future. It’s especially important that children have a connection to the natural world.”
DID YOU KNOW
Chickens are omnivores – they eat grass, fruit, bugs, worms, fatback, bread dough, table scraps – you name it.
Chickens can lay for years (they can live up to 10 years), but their output lessens as they get older.
A healthy chicken will lay about 265 eggs a year, depending on breed.
People have been raising chickens, first domesticated in India and China, for over 7,000 years.
Getting Help with Chickens
Owner Karen Krumenacher, who has been raising backyard chickens for 20 years, offers a variety of consulting services, including the new Rent-aRoost for those wanting a trial run before committing to full-time chicken raising.
Although not as active as it once was, the organization still answers emailed questions (email@example.com).
These helpful websites have articles, blogs, resources, products and specialists ready for live chats. Backyard Chickens has a subgroup specially for new chicken owners.
When you walk into a yard that has chickens, the first thing you notice is the soft background noise: cluck, cluck, cheep, cheep, the flapping of wings and the occasional loud squawk. The chickens will come up to you, curious. If they trust you, they’ll let you pick them up.
Those who raise chickens say every bird has its own personality, and most breeds make great pets. “You’d be surprised how friendly and cuddly they are,” says Jessa Lane, co-founder of Cream City Hens, an education and advocacy group that was instrumental in the grassroots lobbying effort that led to Milwaukee’s chicken ordinance. “They come when they ’re called, eat out of your hand, hang out.”
Kids love collecting the eggs, which can vary from white to pale blue to tan to deep brown, depending on breed. Other factors that vary by breed include quantity of eggs produced, egg size, docility and adaptability to confinement.
The Fowlers had a conditional permit for their chickens and bees for a year before Tosa passed its ordinance. “A week before the vote, I invited the alderpeople to our house, and it changed some of their minds,” says Fowler. “They thought there was going to be a noise problem and a smell problem. There were neither of those things.” Fowler says his neighbors have been “incredibly supportive.” They, and their children, often drop by to check out how the chickens and bees are doing.
To date, Milwaukee has issued only 37 permits to keep bees and 130 for chickens. But experts believe there are probably many more hives that don’t have permits. “There are always going to be more than what you can find out about,” says Linda Reynolds, beekeeping instructor with the Urban Apiculture Institute, part of Milwaukee County UW-Extension. “There are rogue hives because [municipalities] don’t have the resources to inspect everything.”
DID YOU KNOW
Every third spoonful of food in the world depends on pollination. The extinction of bees would have dire consequences for humans.
May 20 is the United Nations-recognized World Bee Day. This May, BeeVangelists held its first World Bee Day Block Party at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Circle the date for next year.
One way to track the growing trend in chicken raising is to note what feed companies are selling. “In the last five years, feed stores have started carrying many more chicken-raising products,” says Karen Krumenacher, owner of Royal Roost, a backyard chicken consultant in Pewaukee. “Today you can find chicken scratch blocks, water dispensers, leg bands and snacks to supplement their feed and the bugs and grubs they eat.”
Chickens are relatively low-maintenance, especially in the warmer weather when they can forage for food in the yard. Once they reach adulthood, they need only feed and water to survive.
Getting Help with Bees
Its “Helpful Resources for Beekeepers” is a reliable and frequently updated list of information, contacts for several southeastern Wisconsin beekeeping associations, beekeeping supplies, books, articles and more.
This grassroots organization provides training, products, lectures and courses in beekeeping, which it describes as “a spiritual journey.” Among its initiatives is the Bee the Change program, which empowers low-income and homeless people to become certifified in beekeeping.
This “all-in-one beekeeping” organization sells supplies (including a top bar hive designed especially for urban environments) and offers classes, on-demand beekeeping education, varied support tools (phone, email, videos) and a blog.
“The whole family has joined me in my passion for raising chickens,” says Krumenacher, who has four children, ages 12 to 19. “As part of their daily routine, the kids feed and water the chickens and clean the coop. They have fun doing it, and having those responsibilities is good preparation for adult life.”
Getting Started With Chickens
Ready for fresh eggs and feathered friends? Here’s what to consider:
- MAKE SURE they’re allowed in your municipality, and obtain a permit. Milwaukee allows up to four hens (no roosters) and charges a one-time fee of $35.
- EXPECT TO SPEND $52-$330 to get set up: as much as $250 for a coop and $12-$80 for four chicks. Feed should run $10-$35 each month for a 50-pound bag.
- DECIDE WHICH BREED is best for you. Do you want lots of eggs? Colorful eggs? A more docile, pet-like hen? Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chick Chart is a good place to start.
- BUY OR MAKE A COOP. Keep in mind, some municipalities place parameters on location and design.
- BUY CHICKS. Blain’s Farm & Fleet and most feed stores (such as Merton Feed Co. north of Hartland) sell them. Depending on breed, they can cost $3-$5 per chick (you won’t see an egg for six months) or $10-$20 per pullet (a “teenaged” chicken about to start laying eggs).
- IF YOUR CHICKS are a few days old, you’ll have to keep them warm (100 to 105 degrees) under a brooder lamp until they grow feathers. A large plastic tub will do, but be careful that it doesn’t melt or catch fire from the lamp.
- GUARD AGAINST predators. Even in the city, chickens can fall prey to raccoons, opossums, foxes and hawks. At night, enclose chickens in a coop covered in mesh or better.
Bees aren’t as pet-like as chickens, but they can be fun to raise. Entering a backyard with bees, you’ll notice a constant, low-level hum from their rapid wingbeats. The bees are fascinating to watch, as members of the hive – the queen, the female worker bees and the male drones – cooperate to build their nests, collect food and rear offspring.
Backyard beekeepers insist that homegrown, raw honey tastes better than commercial honey, which has been pasteurized to prevent crystallization. The pasteurization process destroys much of the honey’s nutritional content and aroma. Commercial honey is also strained, removing the nutritious pollen.
“We call our honey ‘seasonal regional,’” says Charlie (“CharBee”) Koenen, executive director of BeeVangelists, a local nonprofit community organization. The flowers of spring are different than those of summer and fall, and thus so is the nectar and honey. Also: “Honey should never be heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit or microwaved,” he says. “It kills any benefits beyond being a sweetener.”
Although most keep backyard bees for the honey, some also use the wax for candles, soaps and balms. Still others, such as the Fowlers, keep bees only for pollinating their garden – they leave most of the honey for the bees. “We leave it in there,” says Eric Fowler. “The bees work hard for the honey, so they should be the ones to have it.”
Bees are also low-maintenance – they need a good water source and extra room once they start laying eggs and making honey – but their keepers should be prepared for loss. Hives can fall victim to mite infestation, poor ventilation, pesticides, habitat loss and – especially during Wisconsin’s harsh winters – cold. Over the winter, bees cluster together for warmth; the cluster rotates so that all of them get to be in the warm, 100-degree “heart.” Of particular concern are very warm days in winter that cause a false start for activity outside the hive, followed by a return to bee-killing cold.
Chris Steinkamp, a relative newcomer to beekeeping who started last year, lost both of his hives this winter. “I was pretty bummed,” says Steinkamp, 32, who lives with his wife on Milwaukee’s South Side and works at the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center. “But I made a lot of rookie mistakes.”
Corey Zetts is no rookie. She took a beekeeping certification class through UW-Extension, and she and her family started keeping hives in their Riverwest yard 10 years ago. Each winter, she makes sure her hives have enough honey left for sustenance, and she leaves the hive undisturbed – no peeking – all winter so no unnecessary cold air gets in. Even so, this year none of her three hives – which she now keeps near her workplace in the Menomonee Valley – survived. She’s not sure why.
“It was sad,” says Zetts, 43. “In my first few years of beekeeping, I never saw that happen. Maybe they get fooled by the first few warm days of spring, and then the cold nights do them in.”
Steinkamp is restarting with four hives this summer, but Zetts plans to take a year off. After a decade of beekeeping, her wooden hives need some R&R.
Even Koenen lost 75 percent of his hives this winter, and probably few people in Milwaukee know more about the challenges of keeping bees alive and productive than he does. BeeVangelists, based at Redeemer Lutheran Church near Marquette University, runs community-supported apiaries in Milwaukee and holds workshops and classes for those curious about bees. A beekeeper since 2003, Koenen quit a tech job and now devotes himself full time to spreading the gospel of beekeeping.
When Koenen started 15 years ago, beekeepers could typically expect a winter die-off of 20 percent of their bees, he says. Today, the die-off is 40 to 50 percent, and in many cases worse.
“I think it boils down to the way humans have decided to do agricultural development,” says Koenen, 56. “Monoculture on such a large scale is counterintuitive to what bees do. They’re all about biodiversity. The more there are different types of nectar and pollen – from wildflowers, vegetables and fruits – for them, the more bees and other insect pollinators thrive.”
Monoculture farming might have contributed to worldwide occurrences of colony collapse disorder, especially in 2006. With CCD, the majority of worker bees in a colony simply disappear, leaving behind a queen, food and a few nurse bees. There are many theories about what causes the disorder, none of which have been proven conclusively; most likely CCD is caused by a complex group of stressors and pathogens.
Koenen manages between 20 and 40 hives all around the city, on rooftops and at ground-level properties such as homes, schools, churches and retirement communities. He even installed hives at the mother house of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis, whose orchard – once doomed to be cut down because it was not producing – is now so abundant with fruit that limbs are breaking due to the weight.
His workshops offer participatory activities, such as making candles, hand cream and lip balm, and honey spinning (extracting honey from a comb). “I want to teach people about the importance of bees and how easy they are to get along with,” says Koenen. “Some people think that everything that flies – wasps, hornets, bees – are bad. But bees are not scary, they’re fabulous.”
And he has his eye on the bigger picture. “Around the world, people are recognizing that bees are in peril,” he says. “If we can keep bees alive in the cities, we can understand their impact on local food,” Koenen says. “But the cards are stacked against us – which is all the more reason to do it. Urban pollinators are good neighbors.”
Keeping chickens may not have quite that global impact, but it has its own rewards, Fowler says: “Everybody should be keeping them. It’s an absolute blast.”
Getting Started with Bees
Keeping bees will not only yield honey and wax, but your vegetable or flower garden can’t help but flourish, thanks to these active pollinators. Before taking any of these steps, study up on what’s involved. (See the preceding page for resources.) Bees are local, and the way you take care of them is local
- EXPECT TO SPEND between $800 and $2,000 to set up your hives. Starting with at least two is recommended.
- OBTAIN A PERMIT from your local municipality. (Milwaukee requires a onetime fee of $81.)
- REACH OUT to a local beekeeping group for contacts. Hobby beekeepers are usually happy to share what they know.
- PURCHASE BEES and a queen from a commercial source, such as Heritage Honeybee in Sullivan or BeeVangelists in Milwaukee. You’ll also need to purchase a frame or make one. Alternately, you can obtain a queen and frames containing bees and honey from another hobby beekeeper
- MAINTAIN YOUR HIVE by monitoring it for such issues as drought, unusually wet weather, overcrowding and disease.