At age 4, Sara Yellich saw her first farm animal slaughtered for food. Living on a 40-acre farm in Minnesota, she and her younger sisters stumbled upon their neighbor, axe in hand, slitting the throats of a flock of turkeys and letting them run themselves around the yard until they bled out. But the scene—like something from a horror film version of "Charlotte's Web"—came to be ordinary for Yellich.
"My dad would buy a pig and hang it from our swing set," recalled Yellich. "He would spend the day breaking the pig into cuts of meat, and we would wrap it in butcher paper and run it down to the freezer in the basement. I thought that was normal."
Yellich's graphic understanding of food production was passed down from her father, who himself was the son of a slaughterhouse employee.
Downtown Bend may not offer 40-acre plots like where she grew up, but Yellich, along with her partner, Rob Landauer, have been able to carve out a small farm here. Landauer, a nurse, and Yellich, a chef and writer, currently host six hens, a fully stocked greenhouse and two hives of bees—one that Yellich shipped in from Portland and one she salvaged locally that she calls her "free bees." The two are even starting window boxes to grow food specifically for their chickens—Pretty Girl, Big Girl, Little Runt, Rosie, Esmeralda and Jan.
"I wanted an urban homestead," explained Yellich, who has a culinary degree and plans to start the Two Benches Supper Club, which will produce community dinners with food from her own garden, her own canned goods and other local products.
Today, a transparent food system is increasingly normal—and increasingly consumers understand the good, bad and ugly about the production chain. Just last week I read the label on a tray of ground beef that contained an amalgamation of cows from five countries. Yuck. And if insightful documentaries like Food Inc. and The Future Foods aren't enough to repulse most thinking homo sapiens to the point of cultivating their own food, no matter how convenient Safeway is, then certainly last year's pink slime chicken debacle should have been.
The burgeoning return of backyard gardens over the past decade certainly has been one response. In addition, small-scale urban animal husbandry has becoming remarkably common as dozens of North American cities have passed ordinances allowing residents to keep chickens and bees in their yards.
New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago and Seattle all allow chickens. Atlanta allows up to an alarming 25 chickens (including roosters) on one single premises, and websites like thecitychicken.com and magazines like Backyard Poultry have emerged to document the lifestyle.
In 2006, Bend changed its city ordinance to allow homeowners four hens per residential lot of 5,000 square feet without a permit. No roosters allowed.
The response has been huge.
"We have sold around 4,000 chickens since February," said Joel King of High Desert Ranch and Home. "It's cool that people are in touch more with where their food is coming from. Now it's about the quality: You know what goes into it and comes out of it."
This Saturday is the annual Chicken Coop Tour. It is an opportunity for like-minded urban farmers to show off their feathered friends and surrounding gardens—and interested residents to find entertainment and inspiration.
The brainchild of Liz Lotochinski, the Bend coop tour was hatched in 2010. Lotochinski had seen similar coop tours in Portland and Austin and knew that Bend had similar interest—and coops. She also recognized the value of kids learning about food production and started her own coop, which led to the eventual initiation of the tour.
"I wanted something that I could do that would be a farm-based thing that my two sons could get involved in. I was looking at different animals. Goats are hard on fences, and what do you do with a llama?" asked Lotochinski. "Chickens lay eggs every day, and it was something I could do without a great deal of assistance."
The popularity of in-yard chickens is understandable. They are cheap to feed, reportedly about $2 a month per bird, using table scraps to supplement. They also are hilarious, little feathered dinosaurs scratching around the yard. On top of that, they produce a constant stream of eggs. When compared with the store-bought variety, home-hatched eggs are vitamin- and protein-rich, fresh, tasty and convenient—just reach into the roost.
"What other pet makes you breakfast?" asked Rebecca Charlton, owner of the coop tour's title sponsor, Cowgirl Cash.
The Bend Chicken Coop tour offers as many as 25 hutches from Tumalo to Deschutes River Woods for exploration. Some are extravagant, like Michelle Tullis' reclaimed henhouse with a ceramic heater and aluminum siding for her rare Quechua, Rapa Nui and Kiri Kiri chickens. The tour also includes creatively assembled vintage roosts and makeshift coops constructed from junkyard scraps.
Bend's Annual Chicken Coop Tour
10 am to 4 pm, Saturday May 11
Tour booklets available at High Desert Ranch and Home, Riverwoods Country Store, Cowgirl Cash, Oregon Feed and Pet, Celebrate the Season, Newport Market and Eastside Gardens.
Proceeds benefit Healing Reins & The Alyce Hatch Center
$10 per car