UNION, Mo. – A sport utility vehicle loaded with 1,200 baby chicks in cardboard boxes pulls up to the Clearview Feed and Seed store, where customers come to pick up their peeping, cheeping poultry orders on a recent spring day.
Poultry dealers, chicken feed businesses and self-proclaimed "chicken enthusiasts" nationwide report city slickers and suburbanites are showing greater interest in raising small flocks of chickens far from the farm.
Store workers whisk boxes from the vehicle — where the heat is cranked up to keep the chicks warm — and gently sort the downy birds born at a hatchery into smaller containers. Temporary color-coded dots on the chicks' heads help employees divvy up individual orders.
Mostly farm families wait to pick up the chicks, but mixed in with the veterans are first-timers like Justin and Stacey DeWeese, both 25. They collect a box of 30 chicks they plan to raise in suburban St. Louis.
Motivated by the taste of farm-fresh eggs and a desire to try something new, the couple built a coop at a friend's house and researched how to care for a flock. Stacey said the couple wants chickens "for the eggs, to watch them play in the backyard."
And to "kill the bugs," Justin added.
Clearview's manager Karen Ruck said about every 10th person who calls to inquire about ordering chicks says they've never raised chickens before. She hears from suburban moms who want a few hens to teach their kids responsibility, and new gardeners seeking birds to go with their attempts to grow backyard vegetables.
Livestock feed and pet food maker Purina Mills is seeing double-digit growth for its small, 5-pound bags of all-natural poultry feed marketed since 2003 to people who raise small flocks for eggs or as companion animals.
Backyard Chickens, a Web site that began to help city residents raise chickens, says its community of about 27,000 people is growing rapidly, with about 100 new members daily.
The Web site's owner, Rob Ludlow of Pleasant Hill, Calif., attributes the increased interest in raising suburban chickens to three factors: their relative ease of care as pets; increased interest in getting food from humane, local sources; and a desire by some to produce their own food in tough economic times.
"With the way the economy is going, people like the idea they can have access to quality eggs and meat right from their backyard, if they need to," Ludlow said.
But, he added, "It's actually a misconception that it's cheaper to raise your own chickens for the eggs and meat." Chicks cost about $2 to $5 each, plus chicken owners have to pay for a cage or coop, a chicken run and a feeder and waterer.
Raising a couple of chickens isn't without challenges. Disputes have surfaced in cities and suburbs over concerns the chickens will reduce property values or that their feed could draw rodents.
Some communities ban chickens or just roosters, mainly because of their early morning crowing.
The DeWeeses said they planned to raise their chicks in Valley Park. An official for that St. Louis suburb said that chickens aren't allowed within Valley Park's city limits; they are permitted in the nearby unincorporated area.
Nancy Hermanns, owner of Country Feed and Pet Supply in Bend, Ore., said many communities, however, are rewriting their rules to allow residents to keep a few chickens.
Her business has been holding seminars about backyard flocks — where they serve deviled eggs. City dwellers often come in armed with chicken research they've done on the Internet and need to be steered toward more suitable birds. "The pretty ones aren't always great egg producers," she noted.
Ludlow with Backyard Chickens added that some first-time chicken owners get in over their heads, and turn to online communities to find them new homes. But, he said, many urban and suburban chicken owners, including his family, enjoy the experience of having the birds and value them as far more than a food source.
"The line of demarcation between eating your chicken and not eating your chicken is if they have names," he said. "We have no problem eating other chickens, just not our own."