Chickens coming to Champaign yards
CHAMPAIGN — The Wolske farm in southwest Champaign has been growing since they put in their first garden in 1996.
So much so that Martin Wolske has to look at his hand-drawn map to remember that he'll have squash growing, too, among the peas, potatoes, leeks, asparagus, peach and pear trees, alfalfa, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries. You can never have too many strawberries, Wolske says.
And through a gate, you'll find Sassafras — or "Sassy," a nickname Angie Wolske says the lady rabbit has earned. Barley is Sassy's male counterpart, and the two team up to produce little rabbits whose ultimate fate is the Wolske's dinner table. The little ones don't get names.
This year, the Wolske farm will grow again. Six hens are keeping warm under a heat lamp in the Wolskes' home. As soon as it's warm enough, they'll be moved outside, where they can help out with the farm chores and start producing eggs.
But the Wolske farm isn't in your typical sprawling, country field. They have a corner lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and their chickens were made legal for the first time this spring under the city's new ordinance that lets residents keep hens in their backyards.
"This is an urban farm at this point," Martin Wolske said.
The Wolskes are one of eight households so far who have had their applications for backyard chickens approved by the city, said city planner Lacey Rains Lowe, and she expects more as chicken season starts ramping up.
Workers at stores like Rural King have been telling city officials that they're getting lots of questions about raising chickens in Champaign, Lowe said. Rural King now has packets they offer to their customers outlining the city ordinance.
The city began reviewing applications at the beginning of this year, and more likely will come in as the weather gets warmer.
"Many of them came in right away," Lowe said. "And then we've seen sort of an uptick, I think, in the past the month."
No major issues so far, she said. City officials are responsible for ensuring that each chicken coop is built to code and that keepers are following all of the city's new rules on hens that were put in place to minimize the potential for complaints. For example, chicken keepers may raise only between two and six hens — and absolutely no roosters.
Beyond that, violations will be enforced on a complaint basis. The city of Urbana has always allowed backyard chickens with very little regulation.
The Wolskes do not expect to have any problems, Martin Wolske said. Their neighbors have been accepting of the "urban farm" they have been planting over the years and do not think adding chickens will change anything.
In fact, the chickens are expected to be an integral part of that urban farm life, Martin Wolske said. Their manure will help make a higher quality compost, and the chickens could be used to till some of the Wolskes' garden beds, saving the humans some trouble.
They are expecting as many as 42 eggs per week once the hens, which are now about six weeks old, start laying closer toward fall.
It's an important part of the urban farm that was missing before the Champaign City Council made backyard chickens legal in December.
"They're just part of the ecosystem," Martin Wolske said.
He sees his farm as an opportunity to rethink the way people get their food. He points out that victory gardens planted on both public and private land during World War II to reduce pressure on the food supply at one point produced up to 40 percent of consumables in the United States.
"You look at what that could mean again," Martin Wolske said.
And as community gardens and "neighborhood gardens" like his become more popular, he looks at it as an opportunity for people and communities to again take control and cooperate on their food supply.
"We've lost a lot of that by going to a very individualistic, isolated society," he said.
The Wolskes produced 300 pounds of produce the last time they actually weighed in 2012, and they've expanded since then. With the chickens, the Wolskes are estimating more than 1,000 pounds of food this year will come from their farm.
It won't all be for them: They're planting a strawberry patch at the corner and encouraging their neighbors to help themselves, and Martin Wolske said he's had an inquiry about rabbit meat from a coworker.
Angie Wolske was a supporter of the campaign to change the city council's mind on chickens. During an informal look in 2011, city council members balked at the idea of reversing a decades-old rule that prohibited residents from raising chickens or keeping them as pets.
She was "very surprised" when the council changed its mind last year.
"I figured we'd be fighting them for a couple of years," Angie Wolske said.
Now as six hens warm under a lamp, she said she did a lot of research before they got their birds from Rural King.
"It was very stressful the first couple days: Are they warm enough? Are they getting enough to eat?" Angie Wolske said.
Or maybe they're too comfortable. She said she had been putting plates with different bits of food for them to eat in their indoor pen. When she dropped an earthworm directly in one day, the chickens snubbed it.
But when she put the earthworm on a plate, they were all over it.
"They're princesses now," Angie Wolske said. "They'll only eat off china."
5 things to know about raising chickens, based on questions that city officials had to address as they wrote new rules to legalize backyard hens:
1. Chickens are social animals and should not be alone. That's why the city of Champaign requires that backyard farms house a minimum of two hens but no more than six.
2. It's sometimes hard to determine the gender of a chick, which means that you might be getting a baby rooster when you think you're getting a baby hen. Because roosters are prohibited in Champaign, chicken keepers should have a plan for when their chick matures into a loudmouth bird.
3. Hens do not lay eggs their entire life. This varies from breed to breed, but some may lay for as little as two years. People who raise chickens might want to have a plan for when a hen stops laying. Many do have a plan; they'll just need to figure out if they'd prefer it fried or grilled.
4. The city of Champaign has specific rules on coop design and how far cages must be from property lines. People with smaller backyards might have trouble meeting some of those requirements — you'll want to check before you buy your chicks.
5. Chicks typically go on sale around March or April at farm supply stores. Or you can order live chicks online and they'll be delivered by mail.