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The New Hampshire chickens at Shinn Estate Vineyard in Mattituck lay their eggs in old wine barrels. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTOThe New Hampshire chickens at Shinn Estates Vinyard in Mattituck have their laying boxes in old wine barrels.

There is no denying our society’s growing desire to know where our food is coming from.

It is evident from the popularity of slogans encouraging us to “eat local” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign. That trend is now making its way to our own yards.

The USDA considers the popularity of raising chickens in backyard coops a “ growing phenomenon” across America.

The North Fork is no exception.

Talmage Farm Agway manager Bill Van Schaick said the Riverhead garden and farm supply store has sold more than 6,000 baby chicks to locals interested in raising backyard chickens. And this year’s numbers are already shaping up to rival last year’s.

In March alone, the business sold 1,104 chicks, which it considers a staggering amount.

“There is a large and growing interest in raising backyard chickens,” Van Schaick said. “People are trying to take more control over their lives. They want to know where their food comes from. Having a flock that allows people to harvest their own eggs is very appealing to people this days.”

Increasingly, chickens are being viewed more as pets than poultry found in a supermarket, Van Schaick said.

“We just got in chicken-walking harnesses and chicken leashes so people can take their chickens for walks,” he said. “There are also chicken jackets that come in different colors.” Whether you’re interested in having a chicken pal, just want your own fresh eggs or both, there are some pointers Van Schaick shares with all prospective chicken owners.

First, don’t jump into it. Before purchasing chicks or a coop, it is important do your research.

Van Schaick recommends checking into local regulations and homeowner association rules. Many municipalities have their own ordinances governing the number of birds you can have and the size of chicken coops. For example, New York State law requires people to purchase at least six chickens when starting a coop. This mitigates the problem of people purchasing a chicken as a novelty gift on occasions such as Easter, Van Schaick said.

“Chickens are flock animals,” he said. “They won’t survive on their own.”

Another caution is to consider the presence of other pets or small children, which can harm or kill the chicks. It’s also critical to recognize the significant amount of time and money involved starting a coop.

And, of course, you must select the right breed of chicken from among the hundreds that exist. Van Schaick recommends that people choose the breed they’ll raise based on the role the chickens are expected to play in your life. Do you want them for food production only? Do you want them as pets? Perhaps both?

Researching the breeds will help you identify the bird best suited to you. You can also select breeds based on your preference for their size, plumage color, number of toes and even the color of the eggs they produce.

It’s also important that you entertain your chicken. Each chicken has its own unique personality, Van Schaick said, and it’s vital that you don’t let them get bored, as chickens can be destructive to your yard and each other if they aren’t paid the proper attention.

“Any time you give a chicken something to do, they won’t get into mischief, they won’t hurt each other, they won’t do bad things,” Van Schaick said.

So how, exactly, do you entertain a chicken? Well, you could walk it across the road on a leash or let it play with various types of chicken toys that are on the market. If your chicks are well-behaved you can even reward with special chicken treats, another increasingly popular item.

Remember: “Happier chickens produce better,” Van Schaick said.

Interested in learning more about chicks? Talmage Farm Agway will host “Raising Healthy Chicks 101” seminars on Friday, April 17, at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 18 at 11 a.m. The free 90-minute presentation, by a Purina poultry specialist, will address several other components that go into raising chicks, including nutrition needs, disease prevention, managing predators and choosing the right breed for your family. Talmage Farm Agway is located at 1122 Osborn Ave., Riverhead, NY 11901.

The cost of raising chickens:

Cost of a ready-made coop: $200 to $9,000-plus. The most popular coops run about $500. If you build your own coop from recyclable materials it will cost you less to nothing.

Cost of chicks: Roughly $3 to $30 per chicken depending factors such as age and breed.

Brooder lamp and bulb: Roughly $28

50-pound bag of chick starter food: Around $15

Food and water containers: About $10

Wood shavings (bedding): $12

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