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Oaklanders not too chicken to try urban farming

on September 28, 2010

Mossberg speaks to a crowd

Jonah Mossberg leads a presentation on backyard chickens at the North Oakland Farmer’s Market on Saturday.

“It’s the chickens!” cheered visitors to the North Oakland Farmer’s Market on Saturday as a person on abizarre-looking bike rode in, a chicken hutch propped on the back, squawking emerging from within.

Carefully dismounting his bike, Jonah Mossberg, assistant garden teacher at Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard, scanned the cramped parking lot, already filled with numerous food stalls, for a safe place to set down his precious cargo.  At the Edible Schoolyard, a garden and kitchen installed by the Chez Panisse Foundation at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in North Berkeley, Mossberg says he spends his days helping the kids to “see the full cycle.”

“We feed the chickens,” Mossberg said.  “They are eating our scraps and compost, and in turn they are giving us delicious eggs.  We take their eggs to the kitchen.  We take their eggshells and bring them back to the compost.”

Finding the only available shade, a small patch next to a giant, royal blue port-a-potty — which was emitting a smell to rival any chicken coop or fraternity basement — Mossberg gingerly leaned his bike against the latrine, hutch and chickens still attached, and went in search of a more odor-friendly site for his presentation.

With all tents already in use, Mossberg explained that his “ladies” needed shade in order to be properly displayed. Chickens, like humans, don’t do well sitting in direct sunlight on 95-degree days, especially for two hours.

The ladies and their keeper had been invited by Phat Beets Produce, a North Oakland group whose website promotes the idea of “food as a human right.” Phat Beets hosts Saturday workshops every weekend at the North Oakland Farmer’s market, with workshop topics ranging from wild fermentation to growing mushrooms in coffee grounds. On Saturday, the topic was raising backyard chickens, an urban trend that has recently taken root in Oakland, and the instructor was Mossberg.

The musical performers gallantly offered up their tent so the chickens could get their shade.As soon as the music tent had been re-erected at its new location, the crowd snagged every shady seat available.  People sat on wooden slats atop upside-down blue milk crates, and even spilled onto three worn-out rugs laid across the white lines of reserved parking spaces.

Mossberg, wearing chunky work boots, a torn bright yellow t-shirt worn inside out and two tiny silver nose rings, opened up his presentation by asking about his audience members’ comfort and if they were ready to begin.

A man holds a chicken

A young man holds one of the chickens after the instructor, Jonah Mossberg, demonstrated how.

“I just like to have a deep connection with the food that I eat,” Mossberg said.  “Of course we are limited in urban areas, but I felt like chickens were a doable way to have fresh eggs, and know exactly the origins of the eggs and where they are coming from.  To have that direct link.”

Many at the presentation said they had been inspired to come by observing other backyard chicken owners.  “My neighbors have chickens,” said audience member and Oakland resident Jacob Campbell.  “So I wanted chickens.  I like chickens. I want the eggs.”

Waking up to free fresh eggs is only one of the perks of chicken ownership, Mossberg observed.  Chickens can also help turn your table scraps into fertilizer, cultivate your soil and eat up any gross bugs.  Chickens are omnivore garbage disposals, Mossberg said.  They will even gobble down scraps of chicken meat.

The extremely participatory audience asked questions, shared personal experiences and cracked jokes throughout Mossberg’s talk.

A young guy sporting a buzz cut, sleek black sunglasses and tattoos on both arms was the most enthusiastic participant, announcing that he would be welcoming his own backyard chickens soon.  Sitting on his heels, and leaning as far forward as was permitted by the chicken hutch directly in front of him, he asked about the advantages of raising chickens from chicks, which Mossberg suggested be mail-ordered from Iowa. “You can have a deeper connection with them,” Mossberg replied.   “It definitely helps as far as being friends with your chickens.  Raising them from chicks, you can have more control over if they are going to be nice to you.”

On the subject of chicken runs, Mossberg advised that people have a place where their chickens can “run around, and move their bodies and be chickens.” Chicken runs should be covered in dirt, which chickens like to bathe in, thereby eliminating the need for owners to manually bathe their chickens.  There are a few bathing options, some using Diatomaceous Earth, a fine powder made from crumbled rock fragments.

Mossberg recounted his personal favorite bathing technique to the crowd.

A chicken up close.

A woman holds one of the chickens.

“I’ve heard about people who take a bag and put some Diatomaceous Earth in it,” Mossberg said.  “Then they put the chicken in there with its head sticking out and kind of shake it around, like Shake ‘n Bake.”

After the laughter died down, Mossberg added, “It’s probably not very fun” for the chickens.  “But it does help to get rid of the mites.”

Oakland city ordinances allow residents to keep chickens, in an enclosed coop, as long as their enclosure is at least twenty feet from houses, schools or churches. “It’s not really regulated,” Mossberg said.  “There isn’t a chicken police going around saying, ‘Oh you have chickens!’  But these ordinances exist, so it’s good to be aware of them.”

It is illegal to own roosters. “He’ll start crowing and attacking the other chickens,” said crowd member and veteran chicken owner Tina Kimmel.  “And you know it’s time for dinner.”

The choice of whether eventually to eat one’s backyard chickens seemed to be something of a delicate subject.  Most members of the crowd talked about chickens as they would their pets, and indicated that they plan on having those chickens into their (the chickens’, that is) ripe old age.

“I just recently enclosed [my chickens], with the intention of killing a few,” Kimmel said.  “And I haven’t had the nerve.”

Kimmel’s chickens are unnamed, a technique that she has read is supposed to lessen one’s connection to one’s chickens, making the slaughter less emotional.

But she sounded dubious.  “I can still tell them all apart,” Kimmel said.  “The black and white one, the brown and white one, the white one with the comb that stands up.  I know them.  I’m still very attached.”

At the Edible Schoolyard, Mossberg works with chickens and children every day, he said, and for many of the children, the schoolyard chickens are the part of a memorable first experience with animals.   “A lot of them have never held another living thing before,” he said.  “It’s really a cool way for them to become connected with another life form and know what it takes to take care of something other them themselves.”

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