Friday, November 12, 2004
Raising chickens in Carlisle
Did you know that there are 33 families, or should I say residents, living in Carlisle who are raising chickens? Yes, that is what Carlisle Animal Inspector Sally Lakness reported on Friday. That number sounded right, for here in my neighborhood of Estabrook and Bellows Hill Roads there are three chicken-raising families. On South Street, practically across the road from each another, are the Carpenitos and the Wesselhoefts, both with chickens.
Back in the 1930s, according to Larry A. Sorli of Westford Street, his father Larry O. Sorli and his uncle Charles Sorli, both living on Westford Street, had chicken farms. They provided enough eggs for each to conduct egg routes in Belmont, Watertown, Arlington and Cambridge. There were several other poultry farms around town at that time: Paul Swanson's on Curve Street; the Larsen's on South Street; and a turkey farm at what is now Palmer Way. But by the '70s, Larry's dad let the chicken business go when the cholesterol scare of the '60s brought about less egg consumption.
So why are people going back to raising chickens? Some say that factory farming has bred all the taste out of eggs. "Producing one's own food is a satisfying and an ancient tradition," said Lakness. "People are re-examining what we are told about food," she added. Others say that once you taste fresh eggs you can't go back to store-bought ones. And as for doctors, they are now telling patients not to avoid eggs, especially freshly-laid organic eggs full of omega-3s and lutein. With these eggs the yolk stands tall, the whites don't run, and they taste the way eggs are supposed to taste.
To see what is happening with chickens in Carlisle's backyards, we spoke with several modern-day poultry farmers.
Alex Wesselhoeft, an eighth-grader at the Carlisle School, and his mother Dianne Wesselhoeft, are raising a flock of 12 chickens in a small barn in the back of their property on South Street. The 70-year-old, one-stall horse barn was moved from West Street by the Heald family to its present location about 30 years ago.
Growing up in Wayland, Dianne had chickens and ducks in her backyard. Once married and living with her husband and three sons on a quarter-acre lot in downtown Concord, there was no way to have chickens. However, since moving to Carlisle four years ago, their property with a barn and an added 1/6 acre with an electric fence has lent itself well to raising chickens. "We've checked with our neighbors and we are far enough away for there to be no problems. They like to hear the chickens," said Dianne.
Alex lets the chickens out in the morning, feeds them and does the farm chores, reported Dianne. The birds include a guinea fowl, two roosters, and nine hens, several of which are exotic varieties — a Golden Penciled Hamburg, and a Silver Phoenix that can fly over the barn. The chickens were purchased from Erickson's Grain Mill in Acton, Tom Doherty's in Westford, and by catalog from Murray McMurray in Webster City, Iowa. "It's so much fun watching the social order of the flock," continued Dianne. "They come up on our back deck; they like to be around people. They are our pets."
Lena Shubina of Curve Street, a freshman at Concord-Carlisle High School, has been raising chickens for the past two years. She had chickens in Russia "many years ago" before she was adopted by her parents Clyde Kessel and Francoise Bourdon. "Clyde and Francoise had a farm in New Hampshire with chickens and goats so it wasn't hard to convince my parents to get chickens," explained Lena.
"We have a bird barn on the property. Written down on an inside wall are dates and the number of eggs produced on that day," she added. "In the backyard, in a pile of trash we found old rusted-out watering cans."
Today, Lena has 24 chickens, including three roosters. Her chickens lay about nine eggs a day, but it was only three or four weeks ago that she started selling her eggs. "We put a sign out front and neighbors and people who just drive by stop to buy them. We cover the sign when we go away," she reported. Asked about predators, she explained there had been a problem with a weasel and a skunk when the door into the barn had not been shut. As for chores, she is grateful to Clyde who helps out a lot, while she herself is in charge of cleaning the coop and collecting the eggs. The neighbors will help out when the family is away.
"Chickens are my pets...they are cuddly and furry," continued Lena. "My favorite is a rooster named Gizmo, from the movie Gremlins. A lot of my chickens have names," she added. And what about the eggs, I asked? "My fresh eggs are all sizes, both brown and white, and they sell for $2 a dozen."
Alison Saylor is raising chickens again on Maple Street after a ten-year hiatus. "It all began when my seven-year old son Gavin asked about the trophies on display in the house. I explained that they were won by his older sisters for their chickens shown years ago at the 4-H Fair in Chelmsford," said Alison. "Why can't I raise chickens?" asked Gavin. Alison, a former leader of a 4-H poultry club, agreed to let him try. Now they have a flock of 17 chickens, including 6 chicks for sale.
My own family got into the chicken business in 1979 when our sons joined the Carlisle 4-H poultry club. Before that, a wonderful man named John Duston, who lived on Pope Road in Acton, delivered eggs and fresh chickens to our doorstep each week.
We started out with a small wire-mesh chicken coop that someone had given us, which we placed out back in a fenced-in dog-run area. Later, when the need for a raccoon-proof structure became apparent, my husband helped the boys build a larger, wooden coop. The wooden laying boxes in the coop were given to the boys by the late Paul Swanson, a chicken farmer of Curve Street.
We ordered our chickens by mail from Murray McMurray. In the spring we would get a call, around 5:30 a.m., from the post office telling us to get down there quickly to pick up our chicks. Speaking recently with postal clerk Kevin LeBouef about those early morning calls, he admitted that "after getting over the screeching, we [at the post office] think it's pretty cute." This past year we got 13 Black Star chicks from the Codman Farm in Lincoln. Adding them brought our flock size up to 42.
Over the years we have had many different breeds of chickens, both standard size and bantam. They included White Leghorns, Black Australorps, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and Buff Cochins. We get brown, white and blue eggs, most of which are large and extra large.
My sons, Will and Tim, liked to name their roosters. I remember two special roosters named Boris and Francis. And speaking of roosters, let me say that it is not unusual to get calls urging me to take on someone's extra rooster. One has to be careful, however. With more than one rooster in a flock, they tend to fight. Also, one has to be considerate of neighbors living nearby. That early morning cock-a-doodle-doo can lead to all sorts of contention. We're lucky — our neighbors say they like to hear the rooster in the morning.
So why have we continued to raise chickens for 25 years? We admit it, we love a fresh egg for breakfast, at least every other morning. A poached egg on toast for breakfast can't be beat. Or is it that I just like having chickens in my own backyard, hearing the cheerful clucking sounds and watching their playful antics? I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin next door to the university barns where I could see cows out my bedroom window and hear the roosters crowing two blocks away. My husband grew up in New York City, and he loves the chickens as well.
Maybe it's the selling of my fresh, nutritious eggs to my neighbors and co-workers at the Mosquito that I especially enjoy. One neighbor living on the edge of the Estabrook Woods rides her bike to pick up a dozen on a bi-weekly schedule. I stop at a home on School Street every Tuesday afternoon to sell eggs to a Mosquito columnist. There are always good conversations with both buyers — whether the topic is artistic, political, or biodiversical. I also deliver eggs to the dental office in the center of town. And I thank my friends at the Mosquito who are often willing to buy a dozen when there are extra eggs to sell.
So what is it that I have learned from modern-day egg farmers in Carlisle?
Sally Lakness finds it is satisfying to produce fresh food at home.
Dianne and Alex Wesselhoeft are happy to be living in Carlisle where
they can raise their own chickens without concerns for the proximity
of neighbors. Larry A. Sorli continues to enjoy raising enough chickens
for eggs to share with his parents and cousin down the road. Lena Shubina
says her chickens make good pets. Alison Saylor looks forward to a second
time around, this time raising a flock of chickens with her seven-year-old
son Gavin. As for me, I wonder what I would do without having an egg
route and those wonderful conversations.
There is one thing that everyone can truly agree upon: there is no substitute for truly fresh eggs.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito