Chickens in the city

Sarah and Sonny Padula and their three kids say it’s easy to own and operate a fully functioning chicken farm in a large, metropolitan city.

They would know, because that’s what they’ve been doing in their CARAG neighborhood backyard for the past four months while leading ostensibly normal, modern, urban lives. One goal they share is for the kids to learn valuable lessons about personal and social responsibility in the face of global climate change.

It’s not every day residents of Uptown can walk up someone’s front steps, veer around the side of the house and proceed forward under a garden arbor, past a scraggly jumble of tomato plants into a family farm — complete with hay bales and a chicken-wire fence covered with plastic. It can be done at Sarah and Sonny’s, though. Throw in the fact that said fence coops up four fluffy chickens scampering around, several young children following in hot pursuit, and it’s hard not to believe in Star Trek-like teleportation. The kind that can send people instantaneously from a home in Uptown out to rural Minnesota, in a farmyard with free-ranging hens.

This cannot exist where the broad-shouldered, spired skyline of Downtown Minneapolis towers above in plain view.

This cannot be next-door to a car care service center on Lake Street, in close proximity to Lyndale and Hennepin Avenues — with their trendy coffee shops and watering holes, ethnically diverse cuisine joints of the chain and independently owned varieties, their supermarkets, office buildings and gas stations.

But it is.

Neighborhoods in the expansive Minneapolis residential grid can feel cramped (or cozy, depending on who’s talking). People next door are often within earshot and can easily see through windows with open shades or blinds into neighboring houses’ family rooms and kitchens.

But by no means does this mean farming, by nature a rural undertaking, has to be a prohibited activity, or even one that causes stress. In fact, raising urban chickens is said by those who do it to be quite easy, or even — get this — relaxing. Just ask the Padulas; raising chickens in a backyard farm is their reality.

To be fair, it began when her mother, Anita Thies, of Minneapolis, told Sarah of her idea to raise chickens. Thies had been planning to move out of Minneapolis to the hobby farm she owns, where she could raise chickens. Thies stayed put but convinced Sarah it was up to her to introduce chickens to the CARAG neighborhood.

So Sarah signed up for “Raising Chickens in the City,” taught by local chicken-raising legend Peat Willcutt through Minneapolis Community Education at Southwest High School. Then the family walked through the snow collecting signatures from neighbors this past winter — 80 percent of neighbor approval within 100 feet is required by the city of Minneapolis to receive a small animal permit — and took Highway 169 northbound to Anoka Ramsey Farm and Garden Center. They purchased four chicks; the rest is history.

Or present, because Holly the Partridge Cochin, Girdie the Blue Cochin, Flapjack the Rhode Island Red and Apona the Buff Cochin are there in the backyard, waddling through the relatively vast chicken pen. According to Sarah, chickens only need a couple square feet to survive, but these four hens share a space of more than 100 square feet, according to Sarah, including a homemade coop nestled under the kids’ cedar playground structure with a green plastic slide. Sometimes they even let them out of the pen into the rest of the yard, where a long rectangular patch of clover (also planted by Sonny) awaits the hungry chickens.

The hens stick together as if attracted to each other by magnets, gradually reverting to a four-chicken clump whenever one has wandered away and walked the plank ramp up to the hay-filled chicken stand only to decide it’s too lonely up there. Or if one sidles up to a stack of hay — rye grass that Sonny grew this summer — the others follow suit and start pecking at the stuff, too. Each chicken is over a foot tall and has wings just as long that can lift them up several feet, but none has tried to escape the pasture yet.

“They don’t seem like they want to get away at all,” Sarah said, “and they don’t like to be on their own. It’s funny, it’s like they’re a little family in there.”

A little chicken family that her real family has taken a huge liking to. Sarah wasn’t sure her husband was even going to like the idea of owning chickens, much less revel in their feathery company. Soon enough, Sonny was sitting in the backyard watching the hens go about their business.

“It was my idea, so I was worried that he wouldn’t be that into it. But he’d pull up a chair and watch them for hours. The chickens have these simple social patterns that are so interesting to watch. Because we’re from the city, we’ve never had chickens before. It’s hard not to watch them.”

The couple’s kids, Oscar, Lena and Nykos, judging by the way they chase the chickens and scoop up their plump, feathered torsos, are also “into it.” While Sarah and Sonny talk about life after chicks (the chickens hatched in late May and are now practically full-grown) the yard fills with cacophony — children in the pen laughing and yelling, while the hens’ gentle coos and clucks rise and fall.

As shown by Oscar, with Flapjack in his arms, holding the chickens is customary here. The birds seem to enjoy the company — just mind their long talons, which are fairly sharp and can leave lasting impressions on forearms when they decide to squawk and flap away. Other than that, the chickens pose no threat and haven’t had any conflicts with raccoons, housecats, or neighbors. If anything, their presence has been peaceful.

“To us, it’s really soothing to hear the hens out in the yard. The clucking of the hens provides a familiar sound, as some people get from water fountains. It’s really nice to have that,” Sarah said.

The hens are too young to have laid any eggs, but Sarah and Sonny say the egg phase should begin this December. Winter in Minnesota can be harsh, but Willcutt assured them the hens will survive. The family plans to enclose the coop under the slide with boards and put in a light bulb to provide warmth for the hens and keep their water from freezing. As far as caring for them when they start laying eggs, clamshells will be incorporated into the hens’ diet to promote harder eggs, Sarah said.

As well as free eggs for as long as the chickens produce them — and they can live for several years, Sarah said — the family also benefits from chicken manure, which they scoop up with the hay and put into the garden. Sarah said it’s proved to be great fertilizer all summer.

If a busy working family with children at various schools can make sustainable farming look this easy and fun, surely the urban chicken movement will soon be catching on in all parts of the metropolitan area.

Willcutt, who looks after 27 chickens, a rooster, geese and ducks at Nicollet Island’s MidRiver Coop, according to the coop/co-op’s website, says more and more people across Minneapolis are joining the urban chicken movement — even on the outskirts of the city and in Edina. And according to Matt Laible, city of Minneapolis media relations manager, 40 small-animal permits, which give residents permission to keep multiple animals, were issued to city residents thus far this year. Most have been for chickens.

According to Tom Neiman, Minneapolis Community Education Specialist, Peat’s remaining classes this year at Southwest are filling up fast. Oct. 3 is sure to be full and Dec. 5 is already half full.

“Peat brings in his chickens and they run amuck,” Neiman joked. “But really, people taking his classes are reassessing the degree to which they’re stressed with contemporary lifestyle. They’re thinking about simplifying and not being so consumer-oriented.”

For Sarah and Sonny, opting for sustainable food sources and teaching their kids about environmental stewardship is a priority.

“It’s a learning experience for our children, who are already scared to death about global warming. They get to take care of the hens and learn about chickens while they watch them grow up.”

Possibly the best thing Oscar has learned from his pet chickens so far must be told in joke form.

“Guess what?” he said with poignancy.

“What?”

“Chicken butt.” To a boy with four pet chickens, that joke can never get old.

Contributing writer David Streier lives in the Kenny neighborhood.