DeKALB – Christine Schilling recalls the time she found her son watching TV on the couch with a chicken with fond memories.
Schilling, who lives on a farmstead on the outskirts of Earlville in DeKalb County, has been around chickens her entire life and considers them part of the family.
"Chickens are smarter than what people think," Schilling said. "They're very humanlike. And they definitely have a lot of character."
As food consumers become more concerned about where their food comes from and how the animals that provide it are treated, more people are becoming interested in keeping chicken pens in their own backyards. Schilling uses her chickens' eggs as a way to feed her family, and she said it's nice to know where some of her family's food comes from.
Andy Larson, local food systems and small farms educator for the University of Illinois extension, hosted a how-to seminar in early July about raising chickens, and has created informational web videos about the topic, as well.
"[Raising chickens] has been trending upward recently, and I don't have a good explanation as to why," Larson said. "I think it's primarily important to people who are interested in hyperlocal foods. People are getting interested in where their food is coming from. People are concerned about what they're putting in their [mouths]."
Schilling's 70 chickens, some for show and some for laying, have about an acre of land to roam. She trades the eggs with neighbors, and her children love the animals, as well.
"People we give [the eggs] to say they are the best eggs," Schilling said. "They are free range. They get plenty of grass. That's probably why [the eggs] taste so good."
Larson said his group of participants at the University of Illinois Extension program was varied, with some people looking for new innovations while others were curious as to what the fuss was all about. Larson said many people are even interested in keeping chickens as pets.
However, it's important to note that in some cities in Illinois, chickens cannot be kept within city limits. In DeKalb, Sycamore, Kirkland and Cortland, chickens are not allowed to be kept within the city limits. In Genoa, chickens can be kept in the city limits, but permits are required, and there are limits on how many chickens can be kept, along with other restrictions.
Steve Miller, who participated in the program, lives in an unincorporated area of Kirkland and has raised just a few chickens for the past two years.
"We give them food; they give us food back," Miller said. "The whole experience is sort of enjoyable. You get back what you put into it."
Miller said he attended the program to make sure he was on track with raising his chickens properly. He said it's important to start out small with raising chickens, because many people find them cute and may end up with 10. He said it just means more work.
"It's a lifestyle thing," Larson said. "People like having the manure for fertilizer, using chickens as insect control. That comes with any kind of backyard livestock. But people also like them as companion animals."
Schilling suggests figuring out the best uses for chickens on one's property, such as for eggs or for companionship, before making any decisions.
"They have personalities of their own," Schilling said. "I just really love them, and I grew up with them. They were also an easy thing for the kids to do for 4-H. When they show them, they feel really good about themselves, like they achieved something."
Larson has tips for those living outside the city limits who are interested in hosting some hens.
"There are two absolute must-dos before getting into the chicken biz," Larson said. "If you're in an urban area, check your local ordinances. And if you're building your own coop, build it like Fort Knox. Anything with a backbone and pointy teeth will want to eat your chickens."
To watch backyard chicken how-to videos, visit the blog of Andy Larson, University of Illinois extension local food systems and small farms educator, at web.extension.illinois.edu/bdo/eb358.
Contact your city clerk's office for information on local ordinances.
Chickens cannot be kept in city limits in DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland and Kirkland.
Chickens can be kept in the city limits with certain restrictions in Genoa.
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