PORTLAND — Michela Jenkins grew up on a farm in Prospect, where her family kept chickens. In 2003, she moved to a home less than a block off busy Brighton Avenue in Portland. Although she loved living in the city, a piece of her longed for the rural life.
So in 2012, Jenkins and her family joined the ranks of Maine’s urban chicken farmers.
“We thought getting a chicken coop would bring a little country into our lives,” said Jenkins, a 35-year-old special-education teacher.
Last week, her 6-year-old daughter, Ruby, and 3-year-old son Ellis, took one of the chickens — a New Hampshire red named Minerva Louise — out of the coop and played with the hen as though it was a member of the family.
“I like the chickens more than eggs,” Ruby said.
Backyard chicken farming arrived in Maine cities about five years ago, when communities from South Portland to Bangor debated whether to allow the practice in urban settings. Supporters said chicken keeping was part of the sustainable living movement, providing a source of fresh eggs while teaching children about where their food comes from. Opponents cited concerns about potential foul smells and chicken noises degrading the quality of life.
Five years later, there is a small but dedicated community of city-dwelling chicken owners, and scarcely a peep about problematic urban chickens. While roosters remain exiled to rural farms, laying hens seem to have settled into the urban fabric of population-dense neighborhoods in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Saco and Auburn.
“I am not aware of any significant problems with respect to backyard chicken keeping in Portland,” said Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, whose assessment was echoed by others.
Other cities, such as Bangor and Lewiston, considered allowing egg-laying backyard hens in dense residential neighborhoods, but ultimately decided against it, keeping chickens in agricultural zones.
The issue was hotly debated in Lewiston. Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s director of planning and code enforcement, said officials decided against allowing urban chickens because they feared the chickens would create too many problems.
“The net effect would (have been) more negative than positive by a substantial margin,” Arsenault said.
Portland and South Portland are the most densely populated communities in Maine. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Portland had 3,106 people per square mile, while South Portland had 2,085 people per square mile.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people actually are keeping chickens in those communities, since not everyone gets the required permits, and code officers do not actively patrol for rogue chicken coops.
According to city records, Portland — a city of about 66,000 people — has 30 residents permitted to keep chickens. South Portland — a city of 25,000 — has 29 residents permitted to keep the birds.
By all accounts, those who keep chickens are passionate about it. Some spend hundreds of dollars on their henhouses.
Augusta-based Roots, Coops & More offers custom-made coops that can approach $2,000 each. National retailers such as Williams-Sonoma also have gotten into the chicken coop business, offering similarly priced and designed coops for America’s growing flock of suburban and urban chicken farmers. But when it comes to luxury chicken coops, Neiman Marcus rules the roost. The retailer offers a $100,000 coop that is inspired by the Palace de Versailles in France. The multilevel coop comes with a nesting area, a living room, a broody room, a library with books, two grazing trays and a chandelier.
Portland resident Jenkins, who is married and has two children, spent about $400 on a prefabricated chicken coop.
Madeline Goodman, who lives in Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood, spent at least $800 on her chicken set-up — a bight red 4-foot-by-6-foot barnlike coop with a green metal roof and linoleum flooring on the inside. The coop, which is wired for electricity and has two windows, sits on top of a 12- to 16-foot enclosed chicken run.
“The granite countertops are coming,” quipped the 49-year-old psychiatrist, whose set-up also includes a brooding pen and a heat lamp for the chicks’ first weeks.
Jenkins said she uses the chicken manure as fertilizer in the four 4-foot-by-8-foot raised garden beds on the 6,500 square-foot lot where she and her family grow salad greens, kale, tomatoes and the like. They use a rain barrel to conserve water, and they compost to cut down on their waste.
Goodman, who also plans to use chicken manure in her gardens, has never kept chickens before but decided to give it a try on her 6,800-square-foot lot at the urging of her 8-year-old son, Sammy, and 10-year-old niece Eliana.
Goodman said she will be getting her six hens next weekend. She is looking forward to the eggs, but she chose her chicken breed based on temperament rather than egg-laying prowess. She called the Buff Orpington breed the “golden retriever” of chickens.
Portland and South Portland have similar chicken ordinances. Only six hens are allowed per lot. Roosters, and their early morning crowing, are not allowed. Chicken keeping must be for residential, not commercial, use, which means residents cannot sell surplus eggs or manure, odors and noise may not be perceptible at the property line, and the chicken coops must comply with zoning setbacks. Limits also apply to the amount of chicken manure, which is a good source of fertilizer, that can be stored on site. Annual permits, costing $25, also are required. Slaughtering is prohibited.
Efforts to allow backyard chicken keeping have been spearheaded by residents. In Portland’s and South Portland’s case, those residents were young girls.
South Portland was compelled to consider — and pass — an ordinance in 2007 proposed by a 10-year-old girl whose family made a website, T-shirts and signs that begged, “Give peeps a chance” and organized other residents to attend numerous meetings on the subject.
The debate about the ordinance was intense, with opponents expressing concerns about noise, smells and rodents. but South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said there have been few problems to date.
“Personally, I find it pretty neat to drive through neighborhoods and see chickens walking around people’s yards,” Gailey said. “I know this is common in the more rural communities, but in as dense of a community as South Portland is it brings a different twist.”
In Portland, a 14-year-old girl who lived on Great Diamond Island successfully helped persuade the city to pass an ordinance in 2009. The meeting drew a large crowd, and applause broke out when the measure was passed.
City Councilor John Coyne was the only councilor to vote against allowing chickens back in 2009, because there was no enforcement mechanism, he said. Coyne said he has received no complaints since the ordinance passed.
The Portland and South Portland ordinances were passed at a time when backyard chicken keeping was grabbing headlines across the country. Most news accounts declared backyard hens a growing trend but never cited any data to back it up.
National chicken keeping statistics are scarce. It’s also unknown how many suburban Mainers are keeping hens, because smaller towns don’t keep track. Local businesses say more and more people are becoming interested in chicken keeping. The trend is most common among young families with children, and among retirees.
Lori Gingras owns the Augusta-based Roots, Coops & More, which offers a variety of hand-built coops, root cellars, goat sheds and raised garden beds. The business started in 2009 and continues to grow, especially in the realm of chicken coops, Gingras said.
“Our sales have been strong. It seems to be building more and more,” Gingras said, noting the heaviest demand is in southern Maine. “We just brought a couple of chicken coops to Portland last week.”
Chick sales also are booming.
Fred Rolphe, vice president of Paris Farmers Union, said sales of baby chicks have been growing since 2008, with a 10 percent jump last year. That growth shows no signs of slowing, Rolphe said.
“The growth is mostly in egg birds,” he said.
Paris Farmers Union has eight retail stores in Maine, including one in Portland. The backyard chicken business is especially hot in less developed areas of the state, but growth is significant in Portland, too, Rolphe said.