Food
7:42 am
Mon August 5, 2013

Backyard Chickens Take Roost in Midsouth

It's Sunday morning at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral and the collection plates are headed toward the altar. At the end of this processional, two kids are walking up the aisle with a large wicker basket filled with dozens of multi-colored, farm-fresh chicken eggs. When the eggs reach Laura Gettys, the canon pastor for the parish ministry, she blesses the lot of them.

Each week, volunteers turn these precious eggs into delicious casseroles and serve them to the needy. Now, if you buy your eggs at area farmer's markets, it's likely that you're mildly shocked by this charitable extravagance.

Yes, you -- who want your eggs to be as close to the way God intended eggs to be -- you pay top dollar for eggs that taste of freedom and the open range.

How does one church get such a good angle on the fresh egg market? Partly, it's because chickens are the it thing. 

These hens are among those being raised on Dennis Clark and Mark Henderson's farm to provide free-range eggs.
Credit Christopher Blank

Across the country, cities and counties are revising old ordinances designed to curb nuisance animals. That goes for Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County, which changed its law in 2010. Noisy roosters are still not allowed in Memphis, and there’s a limit of six hens per yard.

But because of these changes, what was once a quaint necessity for country folks and Boy Scouts earning the coveted Poultry Keeping merit badge is now a trendy hobby appealing to lovers of both animals and healthy food.

Unlike dogs and cats, chickens are pets that put food on the table. For Midtown Memphis musician Jim Spake, owning chickens has an aesthetic appeal as well. 

"These chickens have gotten me out into the yard more," he says. "I'm pretty sedentary and indoorsy. I find myself pulling weeds more, and sort of taking ownership of my yard, and I've really been enjoying that."

Plus, he says, they don't demand too much affection in return.

"It's funny, I think of them as pets. But unlike a cat or a dog where you'd really be sad if it died... if a chicken dies or gets really sick. It's 'so long chicken.' What kind can I get now to replace that one?"

Assembling a flock is part of the enjoyment, Spake says. Chickens come in all different sizes, colors and temperaments. Almost every breed can be purchased over the Internet. The hobby is so popular right now that local enthusiasts maintain a Facebook support group called Midtown Chicken People. It has 144 members so far.

Artist Melissa Bridgman has raised chickens on and off for more than a decade. She swears by the wholesomeness of the eggs which, compared to their flabby jumbo grocery store counterparts, have a meatier flavor and a more cohesive texture. The yolks are firmer and taller, and have a striking dark orange color.

"When we had a friend over spending the night and he was making breakfast and he cracked an egg into the skillet he said 'Wait, what's wrong with this egg? Eggs don't look like this,'" Bridgman said. "And I said, well yeah, they do when your chicken is eating grass and organic feed and is a happier chicken."

It’s hard to find two bigger chicken evangelists than Dennis Clark and Mark Henderson. They enjoyed raising chickens so much, they sold their house in Midtown and bought a small farm out in Somerville. Clark says they wanted to expand their operation.

"We're kind of doing a little bit of an urban-rural experiment to prove that it's possible to eat well and eat wholesome food and healthy food, but do it in a way that's also humane for the animals," Clark said. "Because they get to exhibit all their natural behaviors and it's healthy because they're getting lots of omega-3 from the bugs and lots of beta-carotene from the grass. So you're getting a healthier egg. It's better for them, and it's really not very expensive. It probably costs less than it would cost to take care of a cat."

As we walk around the farm, Clark’s fine feathered friends take turns visiting with us. They all have names. The chickens follow us as we visit their elaborate coop, which became something of a conversation piece among local chicken owners.

"Living in Midtown, this thing looked enormous," Clark said. "And when we moved out onto a 21-acre farm it kinda gets smaller. It looks like a monopoly house."

Mark Henderson built this coop with stained glass windows, solar powered cooling and automatic doors that open during the day and keep predators out at night.
Mark Henderson built this coop with stained glass windows, solar powered cooling and automatic doors that open during the day and keep predators out at night.
Credit Christopher Blank

  Actually, it's more of a miniature country farm house, red with white trim and a tin roof, about the size of a child’s playhouse. When Clark opens the door, afternoon sunlight pours through handmade stained-glass windows. Interior fans, running on solar power, keep the inside nice and cool. Little curtains in front of the brood boxes give the egg layers some privacy, like a maternity ward for fowl.

You might think Henderson and Clark have set out to create chicken utopia out here on their farm. Clark says that’s not far from the truth. 

"You know when you think about it: every time you go to McDonald's and you get a chicken nugget or you get a chicken sandwich, you are supporting an industry that isn't concerned with their day to day lives," Clark said. "You're supporting an industry where the animals live in very small cages and never get to see the light of day. They never get to scratch to look for seed or to look for a worm. They never throw dust on their back or roll in the sun. So they never experience what it is to be a chicken."

Clark and Henderson have never actually eaten any of their chickens. In fact, no one I spoke with has ever cooked one of their own hens for dinner, though I'm told it’s not unusual for old birds or disruptive roosters to find open arms at the Memphis zoo, where they are, as humanely as possible, fed to the lions.

Still, Clark doesn't rule out eating his happy chickens sometime in the future. Every Sunday, Clark and Henderson make the 45-minute drive to church in Downtown Memphis. The three or four dozen eggs they bring each week are the bulk of St. Mary’s Chicken Ministry, which is where this story began.

They encourage other members of their congregation to take up the hobby, and give chickens to folks who want to help with the effort. Given the number of meals that have been served over the past year, it’s safe to say that, once in a while at least, good things do come from putting all your eggs in one basket.