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Hip chicks sell out as urbanites flock to buy

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Friday, May 01, 2009

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STATEWIDE The Urban Farm Store’s main business was supposed to be edible plants and gardening supplies, with baby chickens available for the more ambitious urban farmer. But almost immediately after the store opened in February, the chickens took over.

The Portland store sells between 75 and 100 chicks a week at $4 to $5 apiece. Picture deep basins lined with pine shavings and full of tiny balls of fluff that totter around bumping into each other, and you can see how baby chicks are an easy sell.

Co-owner Robert Litt says sales of chicks and chicken supplies account for between 60% and 70% of the store’s business.

“Right now it’s sort of carrying us as we develop the other aspects like the garden center and the pet supply,” Litt says. “It’s been the driving engine. I did not really expect it to be quite so dominant.”

Whether attracted by the soft peeps of cute baby chicks or the tasty, full-flavored eggs of adult hens, urban customers are flocking to chickens. Keeping backyard hens is popular in Portland and Eugene, and a group called “Chickens in the Yard” is agitating for hen legalization in Salem.

The practice of urban chicken-raising really started catching on over the past two years.

“Demand is so much higher this year,” says Mike Lengele, of Diess Feed and Seed in Eugene. “We saw it increase last year and then more this year. We get 400 chicks a week and they’re sold before they even get here.”

In the past, Diess stopped selling chicks on May 1. But demand is so high this year that Lengele is selling chicks into June, and by special order through September. He estimates sales are up about 30% over last year.

The run on chickens is also hitting the hatcheries that supply stores like Diess and the Urban Farm Store.

“In the last two years, we have been running at capacity and have been selling everything we hatch,” says Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, a large chick hatchery in Texas that mails 1,500 chicks a week through PDX airport.

At the same time, Wood says, individual orders are getting smaller, indicating that it’s urban customers who are doing the buying.

Part pet, part livestock, chicken-raising is more a hobby than anything else for urban owners. Urban chicken enthusiasts read Backyard Poultry magazine, gather on the online message board at BackYardChickens.com, and attend events with names like Chicken Fest and Tour de Coops.

“It’s a thing that people are very excited and very fascinated about,” says Hannah Litt, co-owner of the Urban Farm Store. “We even have customers who offered to work as volunteers in our store.”

ADRIANNE JEFFRIES
 

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