Saturday, March 12, 2016

Seed Starting and Soil Blocking

In an earlier post, I reported on starting seeds with a Park's Biodome. I was happy with it, but as an organic gardener, I had some doubts about the Styrofoam insert used to separate and hold up the plants. It also seems hard to disinfect between seasons, according to the directions.

Submerge Styrofoam in a bleach solution for thirty minutes? Really?

Last year Don and I also visited the Mother Earth News Fair, where Don attended a session on soil blocking. He was hooked! We use compost from our vermicomposting system as one of the ingredients in the soil blocks, too, which is an added bonus.

These soil blocks are a little wet, but adequate. The holes are for easy transplanting of seedlings started in smaller blocks.

The combination of the plant heating-mat and Biodome lid plus Don's homemade soil blocks is ideal for us so far. I can't believe how fast our plants sprouted, how green they are, and how healthy they look. They're growing incredibly fast. We have already needed to transplant some into larger soil blocks. Luckily, the soil-blocking system allows us to do this easily and with very little disturbance to the young plants.

Some of the basil and smaller tomato and pepper plants need transplanting into bigger soil blocks.

We started two kinds of basil, several kinds of peppers, eggplant, and several varieties of tomato. Three of Park's Maskotka hybrid tomato seeds actually germinated decently this time, too, so we're going to see how they grow this season. We will try some in our raised beds and others in our Earthbox gardening system. Weather is already warming up here in Virginia, so we look forward to a bountiful summer.
Getting ready to transplant

The transplants, right, and  the other plants go back under the grow lights.

Update on 3/19/16: These plants have been incredibly healthy and fast-growing. I have never grown tomato seedlings with such thick stems! Thicker-stemmed plants resist pests and disease better in the long run. I'm posting some pictures so you can see how well they are doing:

 The smaller tomato seedling with some peppers and basil plants.

Here are the taller tomato plants stretching toward the light.

Eggplant and tomato plants in my Earthboxes in July

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Avian Influenza and Small Flock Biosecurity

Whether we belong to 4 Chesapeake Hens, Hampton Roads Hens, or some other group, regional chicken keepers want to keep our backyard micro-flocks healthy. My husband, Don, and I attended a presentation in Suffolk on Wednesday with information on how to do that. The presenter was Dr. Tom Ray, DVM, MPH, VMO/Epidemiology, a veterinarian  who specializes in livestock. Aaron Miller, an AHT veterinary technician from Virginia Beach, assisted him. Both work with the USDA, a government agency, to raise public awareness to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in poultry and livestock.

A major concern right now is Avian Influenza or Bird Flu. It thrives in cooler temperatures and in humid environments and survives freezing. Wild birds carry it, particularly waterfowl, often without showing symptoms. It then gets spread by people and equipment, particularly on shoes and vehicles. There are two kinds: "low path," and "high path," depending on how pathogenic  the disease is. Low path is common, and an owner might not know their bird(s) have it unless they are tested, but the viruses mutate easily and can mutate into the high path type.

High path spreads rapidly, has a high mortality rate, and has a severe impact on trade, pets, backyard flocks, and exhibition birds. A recent outbreak of high path avian influenza was first detected in the U.S. in December of 2014 and ended in June of 2015. It affected 211 commercial flocks, 21 backyard flocks, 5 captive wild-bird facilities, and 100 wild birds in 21 states, mostly in the Mid-West, and cost over one billion dollars plus the lives of almost fifty million turkeys and chickens. Egg prices spiked last spring because of a resulting national shortage of commercial eggs.

Dr. Ray showed slides of turkeys infected with the disease. They suffered terribly, and all died within 24 hours of contracting the disease. The birds practically liquify; he says they are all feather and bones and liquid after 24 hours. (Eww!)

The scary part is there's a possibility the disease could hit the East Coast as waterfowl migrate this year. Officials are testing waterfowl like crazy and so far have only found low path, but flocksters need to keep in mind that can change.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The official term for prevention is "biosecurity." The main ideas are to keep a line of separation between your flock and possible vectors of disease, prevent contamination, and maintain cleanliness. The USDA has a fantastic website with all the details for backyard poultry keepers, so I won't repeat it here, but I urge readers to visit the site for more details.

Dr. Ray recommended cleaning all hard surfaces like shoes to remove mud or organic debris and then using a bleach solution or even Lysol to disinfect. Follow the recommendations on the Lysol can and read labels carefully: some types of Lysol work faster than others. A separate set of clothes and boots for visiting the hen house is also a good habit.

The USDA urges us to report sick birds. Due to the threat of high-path bird flu, the agency is taking calls of a dead chicken or two even more seriously than in the past. Please realize that pathologists prefer freshly dead or almost dead animals for necropsy and testing. Symptoms of avian influenza include swollen and purple-looking wattles and combs. Other symptoms are almost identical to Exotic Newcastle Disease. Watch for:
  • a sudden increase in deaths in a flock;
  • sneezing, gasping, coughing, and nasal discharge; 
  • watery and green diarrhea; lack of energy and poor appetite; 
  • a drop in egg production or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs. 
Report sick birds to:
  1. Your local Cooperative Extension Office,
  2.  Your local veterinarian or State Veterinarian, or
  3. The USDA Hotline at 866-536-7593. The USDA will come out for free and test your birds and take information from you to keep in a government database in case of future outbreaks.
 Speaking of the government, here is what the investigators will do if they first find a confirmed positive case of high-path avian influenza on a farm or other premises:
  1. Set up a control zone for a ten-mile radius and a buffer zone outside of the control zone.
  2. Set up movement restrictions into and out of the control zone with extra biosecurity measures
  3.  Test everything within it. 
  4. Depopulate infected flocks; see below.
 In the buffer zone, the government will test birds for free with your permission, but within the control zone, the government will test birds (again for free) with or without the owners' permission. This is allowed under Virginia state law.  Inspectors will go door-to-door looking for flocks. If a bird turns up positive for high path, they will "depopulate," meaning kill, the flock using fast and humane methods. Large factory-farms and large backyard flocks are suffocated en mass using a foam; backyard micro-flocks of five to ten birds are preferably wrapped in a towel to keep them calm and gassed with CO2 for ten to fifteen minutes. The incubation period for the disease is five days, so the last 5-10 day's worth of eggs must also be sought out and destroyed.

I know this idea is stressful for those of us who love our birds, but please realize the flock will NOT survive the high-path virus, the birds will suffer terribly dying, and while they die they will shed massive amounts of the virus. They will increase the risk of contaminating other flocks the longer they live. What seems cruel is actually an act of mercy and a prudent course of action. The government tries to depopulate the flock within 24 hours of receiving a positive result to minimize both suffering and the spread of disease. There is an indemnity process through which the government will pay for the death of live animals. The best way to avoid this awful scenario is to practice good biosecurity. Read these 6 Simple Steps we all can follow to keep our birds safe and healthy.

 We asked about the safest way to dispose of a dead chicken in general. Dr. Ray said the virus and other chicken diseases do not survive heat very well, so he recommends disposing of them in a burn barrel.

We should all follow good biosecurity practices. Even if we trust that nature and good care will protect our flocks, we should have a plan to "step up to" if high-path avian influenza is reported on the East Coast in the coming months.  As a public service, Wendy Camacho of Hampton Roads Hens has promised to make USDA-approved materials available at workshops and other events in coming months.

Thank you, Carol Bartram of PeCK, for organizing this important presentation for us.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Seed Starting with Park's Biodome

I have not been very successful at starting tomatoes from seed since I've moved to my current home in Chesapeake, VA. My old place had no trees around it. One bedroom was very hot and sunny, so it was relatively easy to start seeds there. Our current home is blessed with beautiful, mature trees which shade in summer, but I miss the ease with which I started my own plants.

Park Seed Company may have answers for my seed-starting problems. I recently purchased a Biodome with "Whopper" sized cells. I went for the large size because I prefer to transplant my started vegetables straight into my garden, and I know from experience that tomatoes grow so fast that they often are crowded if I start them six weeks or so before the average last frost date, as is often recommended for getting the quickest start on the growing season. The Biodome is designed to keep the plants' roots separated from each other to make transplanting easier. The whole unit is designed to be reusable, although I'll need to reorder Biosponges (see below) from the company and disinfect the styrofoam unit that holds the sponges.

The Biodome comes with a premoistened growing medium called a "biosponge" that already has holes or dimples in it for planting. The germination rate is usually good enough, according to the company, that the gardener can plant just one seed in each hole. After planting and labeling, I put about 1/2" of lukewarm water in the bottom of the tray in accordance with the directions.

Park's Biodome all planted and labeled

Then I put the whole tray on a Kwik Grow Heat Mat, which I had patiently waited for, since it had been backordered. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants germinate much better in warm conditions, so I know we'll get many years of use out of this piece of equipment.

Par's' Biodome, all labeled, watered, and ready to sprout!

I also ordered a table top Grow Light to provide sufficient light for our plants after they germinate. We want them to grow healthy and strong, and they need sufficient light to do that. This light is full-spectrum so will be the next best thing to sunlight.

Park's Biodome with Kwik Grow Heat Mat and Grow Light, all ready to grow!

So what did I plant in the Biodome? Here is the list of seeds, all from Parks:

  • Salsa Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Amadeo Hybrid Eggplant (2)
  • Sweet Rainbow Pepper Blend (3)
  • Parks Whopper Tomato (2)
  • Beefy Boy Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Maskotka Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Parks Nectar Hybrid (2)
  • Astris Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Karma Hybrid Pepper (1)
I planted a little more than I need, but I have a friend who's looking for some of the plants. My only suggestions (so far) for improvement for the company are as follows:
  1. Label tomatoes as determinate or indeterminate with some idea of how tall they grow. This information is available on the website, but I didn't take notes. It would just be convenient to have it on the package.
  2. The Biodome comes with fertilizer for the seedlings. Somehow I doubt this is organic. Again, there's no labeling. I would prefer (and would even pay extra for) an organic alternative. Maybe I can do a little online research to see what might work. 
  3. I'm not too crazy about styrofoam from an environmental point of view. I suppose since it's reusable, it might be OK. Again, it doesn't seem right, somehow, for an organic gardener to be starting her seedlings in a styrofoam tray. Isn't it full of chemicals?
  4. Parks seems to offer more hybrids than other companies. When I shopped, I was disappointed not to find more heirlooms, but I'll see how these plants perform before making a final judgment on this. I don't save seeds, so this may not matter that much to me, personally, in the long run. I'm happy with the company's no GMO pledge and realize there's a big difference between a GMO (genetically modified organism) and a hybrid.
If readers have suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Please note that I am getting a late start this year. It's well after our average last frost date. But I am so excited about the particular varieties of seeds I purchased this year and still want to try growing these before getting plants from a local nursery or big box store. Many of these varieties offer superior disease resistance, incredible flavor, and other interesting traits. Plus I got a discount on some of my purchases by waiting until this late in the season to purchase.

**Update on 5/3/15:

It's been a busy week for the tomato, pepper, and eggplants I planted just last weekend. The Biodome kept the seeds very moist, but it was so humid, I had a hard time seeing through the plastic dome. Between the heat mat and the Biodome, the seeds sprouted much more quickly than the seed packet said they would. As a result, a few of my tomato seedlings got very "leggy" or thin-stemmed, because they were reaching for what little light there was in the room. I failed to see them and provide artificial light in a timely manner. My fault.

Thin stems are a problem, because they make the tomatoes more susceptible to certain diseases and pests.

As soon as I realized they were sprouting, I got the grow light going. I keep it as close to the plants as I can, just above the plastic tags that indicate the variety of plant. Everything I've read said to keep the light just an inch or two from the plants as they grow, so they get enough light and develop strong stems. I removed the Biodome lid when about half my seedlings sprouted and removed the heat mat as well. The remaining seeds germinated more slowly, but they still germinated. And the newer seedlings are growing straight, sturdy stems and turning beautifully green, thanks to the grow light.

I'm still waiting on the Parks Whopper and Maskotka Hybrid tomatoplants to germinate, as well as one of the Rainbow Blend peppers, but I suspect they will, soon, because I can see their swollen little seed heads starting to pop up toward the light.

Parks' Tomato, Pepper, and Eggplant Seedlings after one week in the Biodome

The seedlings will need a weak dose of fertilizer once they form their first true leaves. I talked to Don about this, and we are going to try using a very dilute solution of worm tea from our vermicomposting system instead of the fertilizer that came with the Biodome, because the latter is probably not organic. I told Don that I've killed seedlings in the past with worm tea, but he thinks I probably gave them too strong a dose.

So when the time comes, I'll put him in charge, and we'll give it a try. The worst that can happen is that we kill the seedlings and have to start over. In the meantime, I am saving toilet paper rolls. Another problem I've had in the past is cutworms killing my tender tomatoes plants soon after I transplant them out. I have read that if you plant the tomatoes inside a toilet paper roll, the collar around the stem discourages the cutworms. Worth a try.

I also read that tomato stems grow stronger if you simulate the wind blowing on them, either by gently blowing a fan on them for an hour every day or by gently touching them every time you walk by. I have a pen on the table and gently tap them every time I think of it.

Update on May 10, 2015:

Happy Mothers' Day! I feel like a mother to the baby pepper and tomato plants that have been thriving so far in my Park's Biodome. The Nectar and Beefy Boy Hybrids already are developing their first set of true leaves. This means I should be fertilizing them soon, but I don't feel I should until all or most of the other plants are ready for it. If I'd started a whole flat of the same plant, it wouldn't be an issue. The Maskotka Hybrid tomatoes are the only plants that have not germinated so far. I see little seed heads swelling, so I hope they'll germinate this week. They are really slow growers.

Tomatoes and pepper seedlings. Note a few plants have their first set of true leaves.
Update on 2/14/16: The Maskotka hybrid tomatoes did not germinate very well. We only got one slow-growing plant way after the others were well on their way. As you can see from the pictures, everything else thrived. Don and I are going to try soil blocking this February instead of the styrofoam setup, but use the Biodome to start the seeds. We will let readers know how that goes.

Update on 4/2/16: Don and I have been pleased with the results of using soil blocks, which grows more plants in the same space and avoids the use of styrofoam. We also get to use organic materials like compost from our vermicomposting system in the blocks instead of the sterile potting mixture, with great results. Read here for details.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Preparations for Spring Garden Season

I found out at a family gathering that my cousin, Paul, is now president and CEO of a seed company. He put some catalogs in my hand, and I made the mistake of taking them home. Let's just say that I wasn't planning to put a lot of time, energy, or money into my garden this summer. Let's just say I changed my mind.

Or rather Park Seed changed my mind.

What do I like about Park Seed?

  1. It has been around a long time, since 1868. Experience counts in the seed business, and Park boasts of its superior germination rates.
  2. It has a GMO free pledge. I want to grow natural and healthy vegetables.
  3. Its seeds are grown in South Carolina. The company boasts many varieties of vegetables and plants that resist the heat, humidity, and diseases prone to the South. I live in Southeastern Virginia, so I like plants that resist powdery mildew, for example. Park boasts several of these.
  4. Park has exclusive and time-tested varieties of plants that I can't find elsewhere. I can't wait to try their "Park's Whopper" hybrid tomatoes, which the catalog tells me have superior flavor and unbeatable disease resistance.
  5. Park offers a variety of practical-sounding options for seed starting. 
I have had problems starting seeds since moving to my current home, partly due to a lack of sunlight in our front windows. Seeds haven't germinated well and have produced weak plants that developed problems due to too much moisture. I am hoping Park's "Biodome" seed starting kit with a grow light and heat mat will fix all that. I plan to use the setup to start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants indoors.

I also bought flowers to intersperse around my vegetables to attract and feed pollinators and beneficial insects. I plan to intersperse some "Golden Guardian" marigolds with my tomatoes and peppers to discourage harmful nematode worms, too. "Golden Guardian" is supposed to be more effective than the chemicals that I refuse to use, anyway.

I purchased tomatoes and flowers for growing in containers on the sunny side of our house and other flower seeds to plant in a garden on the shady side of our house. The shady side has notoriously difficult growing conditions, so I will be pleased if any of the varieties I ordered will grow there. I looked for varieties that are very hardy and grow in partial shade, a tall order for most flowers.

Specifics about what seeds I ordered: Coneflowers, Park's Exculsive Tomato Seed Collection, Summer Glory Blend Lettuce Seeds, Thai Siam Queen Basil, German Chamomile, Calypso Cilantro, Dill, Amadeo Eggplant, Our Best Pepper Seeds Collection, Maskotka Hybrid Tomato, Astra Double Mix Balloon Flower, Finest Mix Astilbe, Rose Bergenia, Whirlybird MIx Nasturtium, Golden Guardian Marigold, Purple Hybrid Petunia, Sunspot Sunflower, Vinca Flower, plus a Pro Hand Seeder to help me plant all the seeds!

I promise pictures and details when my order arrives and I start planting. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite seed sources and spring gardening tips in the comments below.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

How to Cook Fresh Eggs

Post by my friend Valerie Jean Cudnick, posted with permission. Fresh eggs are hard to peel when hard boiled:

With Easter coming up the how to cook eggs posts are showing up again. When the topic came up last year, I did my own test: 

Batch 1: added baking soda
Batch 2 added vinegar
Batch 3 steamed (steam for 20 minutes, then plunge into ice water)
Batch 4 started the water at a boil and plunged the eggs in all at once
Batch 5 old boil & cool method with nothing added to the water

***Results*** steamed won out by far. Eggs peeled very easily, even super-fresh.

Baking soda & vinegar additions peeled about the same (better than traditional method with nothing added to the water, but not much), but the baking soda eggs were rubbery.

Method 4 resulted in no difference in ability to peel, was just more trouble.

Granted I only did 4 of each method, 'cause that's 20 eggs. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Where to purchase chickens in Southeastern VA

The question of where to buy chicks, hens, or pullets comes up frequently on 4 Chesapeake Hens' website, especially in the spring and early summer. Here is a list to get you started, adapted from a file posted by Hampton Roads Hens (borrowed with permission). A listing here does not necessarily mean an endorsement: this list is for informational purposes only.

Mermare's Cottage Farm in Virginia Beach
Lucky Duck Landing Farm in Virginia Beach
Little Blessings Orps specializes in Orpingtons
Hampton Roads Chicken Swap on Facebook

Tudor Ace Hardware also sells chicks, 1642 Sparrow Road, Chesapeake, VS 23325. Phone 757-366-9506.

Speaking of chicken swaps, you can find these small animal buy/sell/trade events on Craigslist, through signs in farm supply stores, and through Pet Chickens of Virginia or Hampton Roads Chicken Swap.The advantage of chicken swaps is you can meet the people you're trading with directly and see the condition of the animals you are buying. One disadvantage is that biosecurity can be a huge issue at these events and you might bring unwanted diseases home.

Speaking of biosecurity, if you already have poultry, have a quarantine area set up for your new birds before introducing them to your established birds. Viruses take time to manifest themselves. Chicken Health for Dummies suggests keeping the flocks at least 30' apart for 30 days and making sure you feed and water the more established flock before tending to the new one.

Other manuals suggest keeping the flocks apart for at least two weeks. The chickens may look perfectly healthy but harbor viruses, anyway. Signs are more likely to show up and the viruses more likely to shed when the chickens suffer stress due to moving. Live poultry, even those cute chicks, can harbor salmonella, so practice safe handling practices, including for your children. Here are ideas from the CDC.

Back to listings: Craigslist also has listings for chickens if you run searches for "pullets." You can search using other terms, but you'll tend to have to wade through lots of posts selling decorative items.

Farm supply stores stock chicks in the spring. Tractor Supply (various locations), Southern States (various locations), Epps Farm Supply in Suffolk, Farmer's Feed and Seed in Suffolk and Windsor, St. Bride's Feed and Farm Supply in Chesapeake, Currituck Feed and Seed in NC, all sell chicks in the spring. Some sell older pullets or young hens, too. Realize that many farm supply stores sell chicks they've ordered from hatcheries (see below), so if you are looking to buy local, ask questions before you buy.

If you are willing to mail-order chicks, here is a list of some hatcheries:


Please keep in mind that being mailed is stressful, perhaps even dangerous, for the chicks. Some hatcheries will pack extra roosters around the pullets (sexed females), especially in the winter, to keep the girls warm, even if you specifically ordered females. Be aware of each company's policies. Also realize that there may be some humane issues with chicks that come from hatchery stock, whether you get them by mail order or not, a problem that is exacerbated by the demand for pullets over cockerels.

If you live in an area that does not allow roosters, realize that "straight run" means unsexed birds. You WILL have roosters included in the mix. "Sexed" birds in a farm supply store or from a hatchery mean that the chickens have been professionally vent-sexed, and there is a 90% chance or better that you are getting females. This still means you will be getting occasional roosters that you need to make plans for. If anyone guarantees the birds are pullets (female) but won't put the guarantee in writing that they will take roosters back, walk away. If you want to buy fertile eggs and hatch your own chicks, remember there is no way to sex eggs. You will still need a plan for unwanted roosters, which should average about 50% of your chicks.

Be responsible. The plan should NOT be to dump them somewhere. Be realistic. The plan should NOT be to eat them if you don't have the skills or the heart to do that. Some localities, like Chesapeake, prohibit slaughtering chickens in residential areas. The plan should NOT be to keep them if prohibited, either. They crow loudly and will quickly become a nuisance to the neighbors. Too many roosters will fight and will wear out the hens, too. They have a strong sexual libido. Some can turn overprotective of their females and attack people, especially children. The plan should NOT be to take them to animal control except as a last resort; excess numbers of unwanted chickens turned in can jeopardize the legality of chicken-keeping for more responsible owners. A responsible plan is to have arranged with someone out in the country IN ADVANCE to take unwanted roosters, or to have plans to eat them that are legal and you know you can follow through with, or to start with older pullets that can be sexed, young hens just starting to lay if you can find them, or sexed chicks.

Auto-sexing breeds of chickens are relatively rare. These are breeds where the males and females look different upon hatching. But hybrid sex-link chickens are relatively easy to find. These are crosses between two different breeds of chicken where the male and female chicks can easily be told apart due to differences in coloration. You can know with 100% certainty that you are getting females, and the hybrids are usually very consistent layers.

Be aware that some farmers will sell hens that are two years old or older or even spent hens (past laying age) as young hens. After the age of two, egg production slows down as the hen ages. Know who you're dealing with, and let the buyer beware.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to get backyard chickens legalized in Virginia's cities: one perspective

I am the founder of a grassroots network, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied the Chesapeake City Council to make up to six "female chickens" legal in the backyards of all single-family residential lots, with certain restrictions.

Bernadette Barber is a Virginia Farmer who is pushing for the Virginia Food Freedom Act. This act, if passed, would allow all Virginians to sell their homemade foods and baked goods legally to others under the following conditions:

  1. The sale is made face-to-face,
  2. The maker's name and address is labeled on the item sold,
  3. The list of ingredients is included on the label.
Right now Bernadette cannot legally make a pie with farm-fresh eggs and other ingredients grown right on her own farm and sell it to her neighbors. To do that legally would require government inspection and approval.

This makes little sense to me.

Anyway, Bernadette says her group has been getting many inquiries about backyard chickens. She asked me to write a post about how to get them legalized in cities. I agreed, so here is my advice:

1. Have a thick skin. In the course of your efforts you will hear all kinds of negative comments about what you are trying to do, about how City Council will never listen to you because you're not a rich developer, etc. If you feel you are right, keep going. If you get answers from government officials, and they don't sound right because they don't jibe with your research (see below) or don't seem well documented by facts, don't give up.

2. At the same time, listen to people. If these same people are spreading misinformation, find out what it is so you can do your research and counter it. If there are valid concerns, work on addressing them.

For example, a Virginia "depredation law" originally required Animal Control Officers who caught a dog in the act of killing a chicken to kill the dog on the spot. This concern was unsuccessfully raised by those who opposed backyard hens in Chesapeake. And it has been one of the roadblocks thrown against our sister group "4 Virginia Beach Hens" in a neighboring town. This state law was disturbing, so our group combined with the Virginia Beach group to address this law at the state level. Once it came to several humane organizations' attention, we had no difficulty in getting this law changed so that ACOs had the option to seize the dog, instead. Problem solved.

3. Do your research. Our group has the reputation in Cheseapeake of being polite and extremely well-informed. This has gone a long way with City Council.

Start with actually reading the ordinances that address keeping backyard chickens in your community. Don't just call zoning: actually get the ordinances and read them. They are often available online through Municode or you can go to your local public library for help.

Read all you can about backyard flocks. Read the CDC and USDA websites on keeping chickens and disease prevention, too. Other good resources are Chickens and You, including 7 false myths about urban chickens. Pat Foreman, a Virginia resident, wrote a book called City Chicks that has good information and a chapter about changing city ordinances. Any information you can get from government or university publications should carry extra weight and be even more useful. We also found it helpful to research when and why chickens were first banned in residential areas in Chesapeake.

Did you know that, under Virginia law, chickens under the age of eight weeks of age can only be sold in flocks of six or more? This is a good example of doing your research before heading to council. A neighboring municipality only allows four birds, for example. Its residents are often frustrated when they stop at a farm supply store for chicks in the spring and are told they may only buy six or more. Research leads to better planning in advance to hopefully avoid these kinds of situations.

4. Network, reminding your supporters to be polite and well-informed every step of the way. Find ways of using your volunteers' strengths: whatever they are willing to give time and commitment to. Get them working together. Use online social networks,, etc., but don't discount the importance of face-to-face time. Those willling to take the time to meet in person will mostly be the backbone of your movement. Also reach out to those contacts within city government who are sympathetic to your cause, willing to listen, and willing to work with you. They will be crucial. It is especially helpful to find those in the mayor's office or on city council who will support your efforts. Here in Chesapeake we were lucky to have the support of Councilman Robert Ike early on in the process.

Part of networking is linking up with groups in your area that might already be working on legalizing or keeping or educating about chickens. In Southeastern Virginia there's Backyard Hens for Norfolk4 Virginia Beach HensHampton Roads HensPortsmouth Hen Keepers, and Peninsula CHicken Keepers, to name the most popular and active groups other than 4 Chesapeake Hens. There are active groups in Richmond and in Fredericksburg, too.

Another networking idea is to be willing to attend local educational events for public outreach. Bring some hens with you if you can for the public to meet first-hand. While you're at it, remember to network with other "chicken groups," especially in your region and across your state. If a neighboring community with legal chickens is having a backyard "coop tour," invite your local decision-makers to attend. Give them sufficient notice. Hopefully they will attend so they can see for themselves how little noise, fuss, or odor backyard hens make.

5. Use the media to your advantage. Our group has used blogging, Facebook,  XtraNormal, Youtube, news releases, letters to the editor, Craigslist, and Twitter to advantage.  This has gotten positive exposure --free publicity!-- in our local and regional newspaper and local television station(s). Those who contact or talk to the media should always be aware that reporters may have biases. Talk to them anyway, but be cautious about what you say. Prepare some talking points in advance if time allows. Eventually you will know which reporters you can trust and which ones you cannot. Obviously, work with those who have a track record of being open-minded and fair (supportive is even better when you can get it).

6. Be prepared to appear as a cohesive, unified group in front of City Council on a regular basis. Get yourself on the agenda if you can. If not, most communities have regular times where open meetings or non-agenda items are scheduled for public input. Take advantage of these, but make sure a variety of speakers talk on various occasions on a variety of related topics. Have two or three speakers cover the evening's talking points, then invite the rest of the audience to stand at one point to show support. Get everyone in the group to wear the same color for the event. Group T-shirts or even stickers make a visual impact.

Research the rules for getting in front of council in advance. If your speakers must sign up in advance, do that. If only three minutes are allowed per speaker, be sure every speaker knows that and has actually timed the intended speech. Saad Ringa, a member of our group, has collected many of these speeches on his Youtube Channel for those who want to watch some sample speeches.

When you attend meetings, bring any supporting documents you want to submit, assuming your council allows them, and bring extra copies of these plus your written speeches to give to any reporters who show interest. Be sure they have the contact information of your group's leadership. Publish the speeches online through Google Drive and share them publicly.

If your item actually comes up on the agenda, find out how far in advance to submit any documentation you want council to consider and give them out within that time frame. Here in Chesapeake we were told two weeks in advance was good lead time, so that's what we did.

Another idea that worked for us was to have a "City Council Member of the Week" whose contact information we posted online. As a group, we all contacted that one council member with our talking points. We then moved on to another council member the following week.

Contact can be positive rather than confrontational. One time our group gave free samples of fresh, local eggs for Council Members' consideration. Another time we wrote them all thank-you notes just prior to Thanksgiving. Sometimes you can catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes.

If you need to make Freedom of Information Act requests to get information you need from city government to make your case, put in your requests, but realize these take time and sometimes significant money.

7. Keep at it. One of the biggest differences between "4 Chesapeake Hens" and similar efforts by individuals and community groups before us is that prior speakers took the city's initial "no" as a final answer. We never gave up. We never had to make backyard hens an election issue, but our group was prepared to do that if necessary. Any public official who says he or she supports the environment or individual property rights but is against backyard hens is not "walking the talk" and needs to be held accountable at election time.

If this seems exhausting and time-consuming, nevertheless this is probably what it will take to get change made. Our group had it easier than many other localities. We faced opposition but we were polite, well-informed, persistent, organized, and lucky.

As my husband and I shut our laying hens into their hen house at night, as we listen to their gentle and contented cooing when they lull themselves to sleep, or as we eat the best, freshest eggs we have ever tasted, we find these efforts completely worthwhile. So have many others who helped us: some of our original supporters have found the educational side of our efforts so rewarding that they went on to start Hampton Roads Hens, a group that continues advocacy, education, and outreach on a regional level. We all wish you the best of luck with your own efforts at chicken activism. If we can do anything further to help you, please let us know.