First ‘little e’ packed with events

Interest high in backyard chicken coops

The Recorder
April 22, 2013
David Rainville

GREENFIELD — Where can you buy hand-dyed wool, shop state-of-the-art heating systems and learn how to raise backyard chickens?

At the “little e,” that’s where.

Saturday and Sunday, the Franklin County Fairgrounds was turned into the little e, an event that combined the Franklin County Home Show, Green Fair and Farm to Fiber show.

In addition to area farmers, artisans, contractors and vendors, the little e hosted workshops on topics from energy efficiency to herb gardening.

Jessica Van Steensburg of We Can Farm in Heath, told a standing-room-only crowd all about raising backyard chickens Saturday.

“If you’re looking to raise chickens to save money on eggs and meat, you probably won’t,” she said. “But you’ll get a great experience raising them, and you’ll know where your eggs and meat are coming from. It’s also a great way to teach kids responsibility.”

Growing up in a homesteading New Hampshire family which raised its own food, Van Steensburg learned to care for a flock at a young age.

John Thompson of Greenfield hopes to raise a small flock this year. He brought his 9-year-old son, Gillis, to the workshop, to see what they could learn.

“I learned a lot, I think it will help,” said John Thompson.

He’s tried keeping chickens at his Davis Street home in the past, but was ill-prepared and unsuccessful.

“We had two chickens a few years ago, but we didn’t have a great set-up,” he said. “One died, and we brought the other back to the flock.”

He had a tiny coop for them to take shelter in, and when they were outside, they had free range of the yard.

“Sometimes I’d have to catch them, and they’d zigzag up and down the yard,” said Gillis. He was looking forward to a new coop and some spring chickens.

“We’ll get six birds, they’re all supposed to be layers,” he said. “You can’t have roosters in town.”

Many towns have bylaws regarding chickens, said Van Steensburg, some limiting the number of chickens that can be kept by residents, others outlawing roosters for their loud crowing. However, she said, it’s uncommon for towns in western Massachusetts to forbid the fowl altogether.

She suggested that folks research their local laws, as well as chicken-keeping in general. Some breeds are better for meat, while others are more prolific layers. The cost to keep and feed different breeds can vary greatly, too.

“Budget” bantam chickens take up half the space of standard breeds, she said, and 12 bantams will eat about $95 worth of feed per year. A dozen standards, on the other hand, can cost up to $750 to feed for a year, but lay more and larger eggs than bantams, and have more meat to them. They can also produce $1,400 or more in eggs, she said.

Whatever breed people go with, said Van Steenburg, they need to buy or build a coop and fenced-in outdoor area before they order chicks or buy full-grown birds.

Chicks can be ordered online, and sent priority mail.

“A lot of people are kind of freaked out sending them through the mail,” said Van Steenburg. “But when they hatch, they absorb the yolk sack, and that gives them food and water for three days.”

They won’t end up sitting at the post office unnoticed, either, she said.

“The post office will be quite willing to call you when they arrive at 6:45 a.m.,” she said. “Chicks are cute, but they’re loud.”

Van Steensburg started We Can Farm last year, and raised chickens, turkeys, and herford hogs. She’s also part of Just Roots. In both capacities, she hopes to educate people on agriculture, and reconnect them with their food sources.

“I’d like to do a backyard pig workshop through Just Roots,” she said. Van Steensburg would also like to make her farm accessible to those who want to learn, and hopes to organize some events there in the future.

Farm to Fiber

The Roundhouse was full of brightly-colored fabrics, hand-spun yarn, finished fleece goods and raw wools, for the annual Farm to Fiber show.

Linnie Dugas and Claudia Benoit of Woollies of Shirkshire Farm displayed an array of multicolored wool grown and dyed in Conway.

“We raise our own sheep, grow plants (to use for dyes), and dye the wool ourselves,” said Dugas.

The two got their start in 1999, and had eight sheep at their peak, though they’re now down to three. In the future, they plan to buy wool from other area shepherds, and color it with their homemade dyes, because it’s more affordable.

The beauty of homemade dye, they said, is the unique colors they get every year. The marigolds, goldenrod, black walnut, orange cosmos, tansy, juniper and nettles they grow produce different shades and hues every season.

“You never get the same color twice, because you get different amounts of rain, or use more or less fertilizer,” said Dugas.

They sell their wool at fabric fairs across New England and in New York, to those who spin it into yarn or turn it to felt.

“Nobody else here dyes wool on this scale,” said Dugas. “Most dye pre-spun yarn.”

The two enjoy their little cottage industry.

“It keeps us young, and connects us with the community of shepherds and fiber people,” said Dugas.

Fellow fiber expert Gail Callahan, of Greenfield’s Kangaroo Dyer, was downstairs in the Roundhouse with her dyed yarn and fabrics, along with copies of her book, “Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece,” which comes with a custom color-matching card of her own design. She said it’s a great way to find matching analogous colors or complementary ones that make each other “pop,” for all kinds of artists.

“I even sold one to a tattoo artist, for his parlor,” she said.

The book, she said, was a happy accident.

“I was speaking with a woman who had sheep and I asked if she’d ever dyed wool,” she said. She came by to see the process, and asked Callahan if she’d ever written a book.

“She turned out to be an editor for Storey Press,” she said. Without the chance run-in, Callahan said she would have never thought to write a book.