Sunday, April 18, 2010

CHICKEN REVIVAL | City-dwelling poultry lovers have created a growing market

By Diane Dietz

The Register-Guard

Appeared in print: Sunday, Apr 18, 2010

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After 20 years in retail, Bill Bezuk didn’t need a market analysis to recognize a business opportunity.

Then-store manager at Barnes & Noble — after long management stints at The Sports Authority and REI — Bezuk was positioned to detect a topic of growing interest among his customers.

“It seems like every day or so we had people coming in and looking for books like The Backyard Farmer and how to raise chickens and organic gardening,” Bezuk said.

To Bezuk, 45, who was ready to try something new and something hands-on, selling chickens to city folk seemed like a lucrative niche.

So he pushed his “business casual” wear to the back of the closet, put on a bluework shirt and carpenter’s pants and began turning an old auto shop at 5th Avenue and Washington Street into a novice-friendly chicken supply shop: The Eugene Backyard Farmer.

He hopes to ride the urban chickenkeeping wave for four or five years, experiment until he perfects the merchandising formula, and then launch a chain.

“The timing is right for this,” he said. “The trends are obvious. It seems like everybody I know has chickens or knows somebody who wants chickens. Or wants to get chickens.”

Hatcheries confirm the trend that Bezuk detected.

Beginning in 2007, the demand for chicks in urban areas has increased as much as 20 percent a year, growers say.

“Historically, any time the economy has been bad, poultry has always been good,” said Bud Wood, president of the Iowa-based Murray McMurray Hatchery.

Murray McMurray is a leading shipper of retail-bound chicks, hatching 1.7 million annually.

Wood said he can’t stay ahead of the demand. “Right now, if you call in and place an order, it would be four to six weeks out before we could fill it,” he said.

In Oregon, Woodburn High school teacher Peter Porath started a hatchling wholesale operation, Oregon Peeps, after he lost his job in 2007. He sold 12,000 chicks his first spring, and he’s on pace to deliver 45,000 this year, he said.

Salem chicken activist Barbara Palermo said the chicken fervor is driven by economic fears.

“People are getting laid off, losing houses and losing jobs,” she said. “They want to hang on to what they have. A lot of them remember their grandparents telling them, ‘It’s chickens that saved us during the Depression.’ It’s much the same situation now.”

Backyard chicken raising may resonate with the public’s economic anxieties, and it’s certainly a hobby with a return. However the return is more likely to be nutritious than monetary — after the cost of equipping the urban flock is factored in.

“If you look at how much an egg costs you, it’s not break even,” said Mike Lengele, owner of Diess Feed and Seed on West 11th Avenue, who sells chicks by the hundreds through the spring hatching season.

The locavore movement

A spate of books and films is also driving the backyard chicken craze by raising doubts about industrial food sources, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Food Inc.” and most recently “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.”

“The urban chicken is rising because of the organic, healthful lifestyle,” Wood said.

Chickenkeeping appeals to people who want to be sure the hens that lay their free-range eggs have really seen the light of day. They want to know the birds are treated humanely and their food isn’t tainted with antibiotics or hormones, according to the clean-food literature.

And fresh eggs taste better, their advocates say.

Oregon State University Extension officials were shocked in March by the response to their “Backyard Barnyard” chicken-raising seminar. “Our first class got out-of-hand. We had over 75 people,” organizer Linda Renslow said. “We couldn’t accommodate all of the people.”

So the extension scheduled a May 8 repeat, and already has 47 names on the waiting list.

Chicken chic

In recent months, chickens have hit the nation’s trend centers. The September New Yorker featured: “The It Bird: The return of the back-yard chicken.” A top read this year is “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer,” about author Novella Carpenter’s spread on an abandoned lot in Oakland,

“Martha Stewart (on April 2) had an entire segment on raising chickens. So if Martha is doing it, everybody should be doing it,” Bezuk said.

Chickens exhibit sufficient varieties of color and form to give home decor fashionistas free range. In west Eugene, for example, Diess Feed and Seed offers 12 different breeds.

“One week (customers) have got to have Rhode Island Reds,” Lengele said. “The next week, oh no, they’ve got to have speckled Sussex or they have to have the black Australorp. We couldn’t keep enough buff Orpingtons for a while, now we’ve got 15 of them still here. Martha Stewart rants and raves about a certain chicken and everybody has to have one of those.”

The loci of chicken passion in Eugene-Springfield is in the Friendly area, where the neighborhood chicken group has 36 members. The group is planning a second annual tour of coops on May 1.

“Just within the last five years, people have really started to consider growing their own food, raising their own chickens,” said Friendly resident Anne Donahue. “There’s always folks who have done it for much longer than that, but it’s really now become more popular.

“If you were out for a walk, you’d probably hear somebody’s chickens wherever you are in the Friendly area neighborhood.”

Chicken power

Urban chicken farmers are asserting themselves politically at all levels of government. They’re pushing for a bill in Congress (H.R. 4971) to create an Office of Urban Agriculture within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure that urban farmers get a cut of the agency’s $146 billion budget.

Closer to home, in Salem, legalizing chickenkeeping within city limits has become a major topic in the May 18 mayoral race — after the city council turned down urban farmer hopefuls last fall. Chicken advocates rate the candidates on a scale of chicken-friendliness.

“Our efforts made the front of the Wall Street Journal. You don’t get bigger than that, you just don’t,” said Palermo, who is spearheading the campaign for Salem’s chickens. “There are so many chicken lovers out there. You can’t believe.”

The Gresham City Council legalized chickenkeeping in December, but the Beaverton City Council has declined to do so in recent months. The to-keep-or-not-to-keep debate was settled some time ago in Eugene-Springfield. Springfield allows residents to keep four hens; Eugene allows two.

Eugene chickenkeepers, however, say two hens is not enough to feed a big family, and the city should raise its limits.

They have the ear of Mayor Kitty Piercy, who sees urban homesteading, including “micro livestock,” as a way to increase food security.

In the meantime, city nuisance officials enforce the number only when neighbors complain.

Golden eggs?

Bezuk wasn’t the first to see a business opportunity in the urban chicken niche.

Landscape architect Robert Litt opened his Urban Farm Store in Portland, offering garden and chicken supplies, in February 2009 — and he outgrew his space within a year. The demand for chickens took him by surprise.

“It’s become pretty common here in Portland. It’s become a movement with staying power,” he said.

Since then, entrepreneurs from other cities, including Bezuk, have visited the store to get his advice.

Bezuk initially sought outside funding for his Eugene start-up.

He wrote up a business plan, figuring he had the retail trends on his side. And he knows retail: How to produce a 50 percent margin and increased inventory turn rate and reduce shrinkage; how to manage customer relations, merchandising, conflict resolution, budget management, display, inventory control, profit and loss; how to how to hire, train and motivate staff.

In his view, it was an impressive package, Bezuk said, but bankers didn’t buy it.

“I was turned down four times,” he said. “I know how successful I’m going to be, but I can’t quantify it for a banker.”

Two months ago, Bezuk quit the top job at Eugene’s Barnes & Noble store to give his around-the-clock attentions to the new venture — now funded by his life savings. He declined to disclose the sum.

Since then, he has barely had time to sleep as he transformed the old auto repair shop, filled the shelves, built a demonstration chicken coup and nursed a wholesale order of 100 peeps — White Rocks, Production Reds and Cinnamon Queens

Although bleary eyed, he was cheered by the passersby who stopped to chat when his sign went up, even before the store’s April 10 opening.

“They’re passionate about chickens,” he said. “They love them. They give them names and they take care of them. They feed them well.”

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