Backyard Chickens
Toni Farmer’s advice on having a coop of your own
By Klein Aleardi

Over the past 4 years, Toni Farmer has been helping SJ Mag’s Marianne Aleardi reach her goal: to become a gardener. From growing tomatoes and building a trellis to answering questions from South Jersey gardeners, Toni has appeared with Marianne on SJ Mag’s Facebook page the last 3 summers for weekly episodes of “The Goal is to Become a Gardener.” And this spring, they’re back with season 4.

So to celebrate the start of the new season, we caught up with Toni to check in on her chickens and get some advice for raising a flock of our own.  

Q: My backyard is pretty small, can I raise chickens?

You’d be surprised to learn that chickens don’t need as much room as you might think. Each chicken needs 3 square feet, and they actually like snuggling together to keep each other warm. 

You will need to make sure they have a place to sleep and a separate place to lay their eggs – those will be in the coop, which is kind of like their house. Then you’ll need a chicken run, the place where your chickens will get some fresh air and stretch their legs. If you live in an area with lots of predators, like foxes and hawks, I’d recommend choosing a run that’s covered. 

Q: What do I feed them? 

The great thing about chickens is they’ll eat just about anything. Whether that’s chicken feed you got from your farm supply store or even scraps from your kitchen – anything from veggie scraps to leftover fish – they’ll be happy and healthy. A great trick I use is letting them out in the yard to dig up some of the grubs and insects in my garden. 

As far as how frequently you feed them, that will depend on how you do it. There are some automatic feeders you can buy that only need to be filled every month or so. In my coop, I refill the chicken feed only twice a week. Very low maintenance. 

Q: Is the coop going to smell?

Here’s a trick for getting your chicken coop to stop smelling – it works like a charm. You don’t necessarily need hay, I use pine chips in my coop. The cold cedar mixes with the hot chicken poop and slowly composts so that it doesn’t smell. Then 6 months later, you can shovel it all into your compost pile. It’s called the deep litter method. 

Q: Will my chickens get cold in the winter? 

Have you ever slept under a feather down comforter? You wake up sweating half the time. Now imagine that’s on you all the time. That’s how chickens are. Plus, they love to cuddle together in their coop – another reason that a small space could be completely fine for your chickens. 

What you should be more concerned about is your chickens getting hot in the summer. Those down coats (you know, their feathers) can get hot in the South Jersey heat. I like to put a fan in front of my chicken coop. And they’ll actually sit in front of it. 

Q: The cost of eggs is so high. Will having chickens save me money?

I tell anyone who asks: having your own chickens will not save you money, but there are so many other reasons to have them. I’m not saying you’ll spend more, it’s just that the cost will be around the same as what you’ll pay in the grocery store for eggs. 

But with fresh, homegrown eggs, you don’t have to worry about ingesting pesticides, and your eggs will actually last longer than the ones you get from the grocery store. When eggs come from mass-producers, the egg’s outer coat, called the bloom, is washed off. That coat allows eggs to stay out on the counter and last a whole month without being refrigerated.  

Q: How many eggs will my chickens lay? 

The number of eggs you’ll get depends on the kind of chickens you have. I currently have 5 chickens and get around 2 eggs a day. Some chickens will lay an egg a day, others will lay an egg every few days. 

Q: Do you eat eggs all the time? 

I use eggs a lot for breakfast, of course, but I also use some for baking – like if I just want to whip up a box of brownies – or if I’m trying out some new recipes (there are a lot of eggs in a quiche, for example). And if I have a week where I don’t feel like eating a lot of eggs, I just give them away to my friends. It’s a great way to become the favorite neighbor.  

Q: Will the eggs taste different? 

The eggs you get from your backyard chickens will be stronger in flavor, but not so much that it’s a reason to have or not have chickens. Fun fact: The color of the egg yolk can change depending on what you feed your chicken. 

Q: Tell us about the egg song. 

When one chicken is laying an egg, the other chickens will sing what is called an egg song. It sounds like cackling, and it’s like the other chickens are saying, “You can do this!” and “You go girl!” 

Q: Does every town in South Jersey allow backyard chickens? 

No. Every city or town is different when it comes to rules about raising chickens at home. It used to be much easier, but in the ’80s, a lot of towns introduced restrictions because there was a movement that deemed animals as dirty and separated consumers from their food supply. The big push was to avoid smells and disease, but a well cared for coop won’t smell and the eggs will be safe. The easiest way to find out if your town allows chickens is to contact your zoning officer.  

The Goal is to Become A Gardener

Season 4 of “The Goal is to Become a Gardener” is underway! Marianne & Toni are tackling lots of new things this season, like enhancing your backyard with a DIY water feature and light poles. They also got an early start – Toni showed Marianne how to start with seeds in the house while the temps are still low, which she’s never done before. They’ll be chatting about chickens, answering your gardening questions, and of course, Marianne is still determined to grow a tomato…it’s only been 3 years.

See the latest episodes – and all shows from past seasons – at SJ Magazine’s Facebook page.


April 2023
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