The story below is a preview from our September/October 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Chicken coops in the urban areas of the Roanoke Valley are a relatively new phenomenon, but the chicken ranchers just love their livestock, some of which they consider family.
When Teal Batson , who co-owns three Roanoke restaurants with her husband Jeff, discovered that Chef Travis Powell of Table 50 in downtown Roanoke was raising his own chickens, she was intrigued. Shortly thereafter, she joined an ever-growing number of urban chicken ranchers in the Star City and was, herself, spreading the joy.
It has become a neighborhood thing in parts of the Roanoke Valley. Neighbors hover and fawn over new chicks down the street like they were admiring the baby just home from the hospital. They are adding rooms to their coops instead of their houses, having egg hunts rather than play dates, sharing egg recipes and tips on where to buy the latest trendy brand of exotic chick. The chickens have names and, NO! they are not for food. Any chicken at the dinner table is a guest, not an entrée.
They’re smart, friendly, curious, great with kids, relatively quiet (except some who “sing”) and they provide fresh local eggs. What could be the downside? Well. There is one.
Salmonella lurks in the background and 19 Virginians—two in Roanoke—have had to deal with it this year. The Centers for Disease Control says chickens can be one of the causes. Most recently, the CDC identified seven species of salmonella in 35 states. There have been 324 human cases nationally. It is, in the larger picture, pretty small stuff, but still dangerous.
What to do? Wash your hands after playing with the girls. Chickens have salmonella in their feathers and the strongest advice is this: Chickens are not dogs. They are livestock. Treat them that way. Don’t kiss them.
Chicken ranchers love to compare notes and they have formed the most modern of communities: Roanoke Chicken Swap, a Facebook page with well over 1,000 members. Here, the members (and you can find out who they are simply by going to the page) chat, sell chickens (a couple of bucks to $25 or $35 for exotics; mypetchicken.com), and chicken gear, exchange philosophies and new information and just wallow in their chicks. They chat about their coops, some of which might be named Taj Ma Coop for all the money and expertise—not to mention time—that went into their construction.
There’s no real way to determine just how many people in the Roanoke Valley own chickens (up to 12 at once and generally no roosters, though that may be about to change), but hardware stores are selling them now and that will tell you something.
We talked to ranchers all over the Roanoke Valley and came up with some interesting info that we thought we’d share with you. One conclusion: these chicken people are curious, interesting, involved, often high-end professionals and they love to talk about the girls. And the girls love to be talked about.
Teal and Jeff Batson own Wildflour Towers, The Green Goat and On the Rise, restaurants and bakeries. Their children, Kylie (6) and Mason (8) have held a neighborhood Easter egg hunt (using plastic Dollar Store eggs), and Mason has become something of a neighborhood entrepreneur with his egg business.
Like so many urban chickens, the Batsons’ range freely during the day and stay inside at night. Predators like raccoons make the night very dark and during the day, there is the looming potential of hawks. “We’ve lost a few,” says Teal, as matter-of-fact as a farmer.
The Batsons moved to Roanoke in the late 1990s, she originally from New York, he from Pittsburgh and the chickens have helped them get to know their neighbors, she says.
“We furnish the neighborhood with fresh eggs” pretty much says it all. “It is a nice way to get to know the neighbors. People bring their children over, they feed the chickens through the fence” and they are generally more neighborly than one might expect.
This is not completely new for Teal. “I had chickens as a child,” she says. “I thought my kids were missing out.” These days, she is “getting into different breeds … exploring the exotic.” She has white fuzzy chickens (cochins) and is looking at Easter eggers, a popular exotic.
Ron McCorkle, an auditor, landscape designer and community activist, has squeezed quite the farm into his 3,000-square-foot Southeast Roanoke lot. It includes, of course, a substantial chicken coop, which he built. He wanted the chickens “first, because of the eggs,” he says. “They help with composting, keep insects out of the garden, do a little weeding and they’re fun.”
They are also, he stresses, “less maintenance than a cat and their sociability is a cross between a dog and a cat.” Ron likes the minimal requirement for upkeep.
“I spend about a minute every day, opening and closing the coop. I collect eggs and once a week, I take five minutes to clean the coop and provide fresh food.” Fifty pounds of food—a lot—he says, costs about $15—50 cents a day—and results in four eggs a day.
Heidi and Chip Cressman, an occupational therapist and a building contractor in Raleigh Court, used to live on 20 acres in the country, but chickens were not part of the deal. When Heidi first heard of the urban chicken trend, she says, “I thought it was creepy.” But then, one day, “I looked out in the back yard and Chip was building a coop.” What else would a contractor be doing?
They didn’t get wildly involved, but these days they have three chickens, Billie (after Holiday and Billie sings jazz, says Heidi), Lulu and Barbie. The neighbors caught on and now there is a group of them. The chicks provide “good eggs; there is a visual difference.”
The neighborhood kids love the birds and “I was really sad when a couple of families near us moved” and took their children, Heidi says. “They brought us a lot of joy, squealing, digging holes for worms.” Their own son, Nicholas, is grown and lives away.
“Wanna see chicken crack?” Heidi says, That would be canned corn. She holds the corn at arm’s length toward one of the chickens and the bird jumps like a pup.