By John Toole
---- — CONCORD, N.H. — The story of chickens is coming to New Hampshire students.
A state-backed farm advocacy program is recruiting volunteers to help teach children about chickens, even as communities struggle with how homeowners can live in harmony with their hobby farmer neighbors.
Volunteers will read Hannah Ray’s “Down on the Farm: Chickens” to students across the state, including Rockingham County, during the next few weeks.
Kickoff is tied to National Agriculture Day tomorrow, but officials said presentations could take place as late as May, depending on school schedules.
“Please join our ‘flock’ of volunteers to read the book in a local classroom sometime between now and the middle of April,” the New Hampshire Agriculture in the Classroom program said in a recent appeal.
There’s a lesson plan and the program would like volunteers to have company when they go to school.
“If you can bring along a chicken friend or two, even better,” the group said.
Debbi Cox, state coordinator for the program, said chickens are the latest topic in an annual series that in prior years has looked at dairy farming, maple sugaring and beekeeping.
“We try to find volunteers to go into the school and read a book,” Cox said. “The ultimate goal is to just enlighten everyone, primarily elementary students, about how important agriculture is in their lives.”
She said chickens are all around, even if children — or grownups — just think they come from the grocery store.
“I live in Derry and we have chickens in our neighborhood,” Cox said.
Derry knows about chickens.
The Planning Board will hold a hearing as soon as next month about new proposed regulations prompted by complaints to town officials about crowing roosters.
The draft ordinance introduces a previously unrequired 20-foot setback from the property line. It also would mandate that chickens not just be properly enclosed, but at all times.
It adds a requirement that pens have to have a mesh roof or suitable cover. Another new requirement would be that areas should be maintained to prevent the accumulation of mud or manure. It would prohibit stockpiling of manure as well.
“You can’t create a nuisance,” planning assistant Elizabeth Robidoux.
The proposed language spells out that a nuisance constitutes interfering with someone’s enjoyment of their own property, “by being offensive, annoying, dangerous, obstructive, or unhealthful.”
The idea behind the regulations is to improve the code enforcement officer’s ability to respond to complaints, she said.
“We wanted something a little more stringent for roosters,” Robidoux said.
Southern New Hampshire towns typically control backyard farms through acreage or lot setback restrictions.
Salem requires people to have 5 acres to raise chickens. Plaistow uses setback requirements. Cages have to be 100 feet from a lot line in Plaistow.
Three years ago, Windham replaced an acreage requirement with lot setbacks recommended by the state.
Jim O’Toole, poultry manager for Dodge Grain in Salem, said it’s a good idea “Agriculture in the Classroom” chose chickens this year.
“In recent years, there’s been a big jump in the number of large, backyard flocks. Every year it keeps growing,” O’Toole said. “People are looking at them as a blend of a farm animal and a pet. We try to teach them a farm animal is not necessarily like a new dog, cat or guinea pig.”
Chickens used to be seasonal business for Dodge Grain, which has customers throughout Southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts.
But O’Toole said it’s now year-round. The business sells 10,000 birds a year, most of them chickens.
“There’s been an increase in the number of residential people who want to have a small flock of three, four or five chickens,” he said.
O’Toole understands the appeal, given people’s interest in saving money and their desire for natural food.
“It’s such an easy activity and gratifying to grow a little food, it’s kind of like a vegetable garden,” he said.
People often convert a shed to a coop, O’Toole said. “Startup costs for a dozen chicks, equipment and feed can run as little as a couple of hundred dollars.
Most customers want chickens for the eggs they produce, but he said some want them for meat, too.
His advice to people who want to raise chickens is to check with their town office to learn the rules, because they do vary.
“There are not a lot of real solid ordinances. Towns are usually dealing with an individual complaint, so there’s not a real clear-cut law,” O’Toole said. “So find out what the zoning is.”
Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of agricultural development for the state, serves on the “Agriculture in the Classroom” advisory board.
Any farm topic could be picked in a given year, she said.
“But the thinking was it was time for chickens,” she said. “There was discussion about the interest in backyard production.”
The state doesn’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally the conversation in farm circles is more people are doing it, in part because of the economy, Jellie said.
“There does seem to be more interest,” she said.
The New Hampshire effort to teach youngsters about chickens pleases O’Toole.
“Poultry is really up and coming,” O’Toole said. “It’s simple, easy to get into and doesn’t cost a lot of money. I don’t see it waning.”