Meet the Chickeness of Somerville

Experience with animal husbandry? Check. A passion for ecology and green living? Check. A knack for pubic speaking? Check.

It wasn’t always obvious to Somerville resident Khrysti Smyth, also known as the Chickeness of Somerville, that she would become an ambassador for urban chicken keeping. But it turns out that her various educational paths and jobs prepared her perfectly for the role.

“I am the chicken lady,” Smyth said. When locals learned of her backyard coops, “people started asking me questions. This is what people wanted and it was what I wanted to be doing.”

So earlier this year, Smyth launched Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, which offers a variety of chicken-related services, including providing permanent or rental coops or chickens to urban (or suburban) homesteaders.

Smyth began her chicken-keeping odyssey nearly four years ago after selling her car when she moved to the Boston area. She missed being able to get out of the city, so Smyth decided to bring some of the pastoral world that she longed for into her own backyard.

Her passion for backyard chicken-keeping dovetailed perfectly with the growing D.I.Y. and locavore movements. As people began to seek out more information on where their food was coming from, the appeal of raising backyard chickens started to grow.

“It’s having skills from an earlier time,” Smyth said. “People had a relationship to and understanding of the food life cycle.”

Smyth is a natural teacher and began doing school programs, classes and workshops for people in the community interested in chickens. She regularly attends poultry shows and chicken swaps, festivals that focus on green living and other regional agricultural events.

The public appearances are a way to educate people about keeping chickens, especially in urban settings, and often lead people to contact Yardbirds Backyard Chickens for additional services. One of the most popular right now is the rental coop and chickens. This allows potential chicken-keepers to test the waters before committing to a permanent structure and a flock that could live for 10-15 years.

Prior to acquiring chickens and coop, Smyth recommends that her clients create a proposal outlining how many birds they want and the size and layout of the structure they will be housed in. This is also a good time to approach neighbors about chicken-keeping plans. So far, Smyth said that all of her clients have lived in places very receptive to backyard birds.

For people concerned about the smell, noise or pests commonly associated with livestock, Smyth said that if the coop and chickens are installed and maintained properly, they shouldn’t be an issue.

“This highlights the fact that it’s a commitment,” Smyth said of renting the coop and chickens and creating the proposal. She also recommends planning for the endgame.

Chickens can live for 10-15 years, but stop laying productively long before that. For Smyth, her chickens are pets, but many people choose to eat the birds after they have passed their prime.

“It’s logistically tricky in an urban setting,” Smyth said of slaughtering and processing chickens. If you’re preparing it for your own food, the health department doesn’t need to get involved, but then the meat cannot be sold, or even given, away. Smyth is working with the cities of Somerville and Boston to determine what type of laws and infrastructure should be in place now that urban chicken keeping is becoming more popular.

In fact, Smyth was heavily involved in formulating the new urban agriculture ordinance that recently passed in Somerville.

“I’m really proud of my city,” Smyth said. “It’s really progressive about a lot of stuff.”

Indeed Somerville has been busy spreading the word about urban agriculture this year as part of its Shape Up Somerville program. And with Smyth’s assistance, it won’t only be edible fruit and vegetable gardens sprouting up around town, but chicken coops with birds providing protein as well.

“It’s about understanding where your food comes from,” Smyth said. “It’s a push back against the industrial food system.”

Smyth talks about her own chickens, of which she has 12, lovingly. Each one has a distinct personality that shines through in the photos she showed me and in their names. It’s clear that her backyard chicken business is much more than that.

“This is something that people need and want and it doesn’t exist,” Smyth said. “I’m the person people think of when they think of chickens.”

All photos courtesy of Khrysti Smyth. Top image by Jenny McCracken.

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