By JIMMY LAWTON
If you’ve heard your neighbors or friends talk about raising chickens in their backyards, or even considered doing so yourself, you aren’t alone.
Livestock Educator Betsy Hodge, who works for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Canton, says the number of people raising their own poultry in St. Lawrence County has grown substantially in the past few years.
“We get a lot of people calling and asking about raising chickens,” she said.
Hodge said the practice continues to gain popularity as people discover just how easy they are to raise.
Given the economy, one might think this is aimed at saving money, but Hodge says people aren't doing it for economic reasons. According to Hodge, raising chickens actually costs more than buying processed birds at the store.
"It's not about saving money. You can buy chicken in the store for 99 cents per pound. You can't raise them for that price," she said. “But people are willing to pay a little more to get good chicken rather than eating salt injected chicken.”
Hodge said one reason people are drawn to raising chickens is the growing national trend aimed at food awareness. She said more and more people are interested in where their food comes from. She said people like to know how the animals were raised and fed and how they were treated.
"I think its more about wanting to support your local community and not have food that has traveled all over countryside. People aren't asking for organic specifically, but they like knowing the animals were treated well," she said.
Hodge said the concept of backyard farming has been gaining steam with consumers for some time and chickens are a good place for people to start because of the ease in raising them.
"The whole locally grown thing has really taken off in the last five years. I think people prefer to buy local products as opposed to buying apple juice from China," she said.
Hodge said some people raise chickens for their eggs, but chickens are an attractive bird for slaughter, because they mature much faster than other animals.
"You can raise a batch of chickens in eight weeks. There is very little investment and not a lot of work," she said.
Hodge said chickens are also easier to market than pigs and cattle due to less restrictions imposed by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Hodge said farmers can raise and sell up to 1,000 chickens annually and sell them directly to consumers, without being subject to USDA inspections.
This allows hobby farmers to sell their processed chickens at local farmers' markets without legal trouble.
Years back, Hodge said chickens could also be sold to restaurants without USDA approval, but that changed when the law was reinterpreted.
“We can’t do that anymore. It’s not legal and it’s too bad, because there is a market for that here,” she said.
Hodge said just because we don’t see locally grown and processed chickens on supermarket shelves doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in buying them.
“The farmers themselves have gotten better at promoting their products. If you watch people check out at Walmart you wouldn’t realize it, but people are more concerned about their food then they were in the past,” she said.
Unfortunately for farmers, the chickens can’t be sold to grocery stores without USDA approval, but that could soon change.
Hodge said the long-anticipated mobile slaughterhouse owned by North Country Pastured will allow local farmers to process their poultry and have it inspected to sell at stores.
“People are definitely ready for the service its something we’ve wanted up hear for sometime,” Hodge said.
Hodge said the slaughterhouse should be up and running soon. North Country Pastured was awarded grants from the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency and the North Country Regional Economic Development Council earlier this year. She said the project was delayed after the manufacturer tasked with building the slaughterhouse failed to deliver the unit on time.
“From what I have heard it should be coming soon, but we’ve already missed the season,” she said.
Hodge said anyone interested in raising chickens can call the Cornell Cooperative Extension for help getting started. She said classes are also held from time to time due to the growing interest.
For more information call 379-9192 or visit http://www.cceslc.com/.