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New Hampshire's Backyard Hen Boom

The roadside signs are everywhere: “Fresh Eggs,” “Local Eggs,” “Farm Fresh Fggs,” “Fresh Local Eggs”...

Wayne Welch, who owns Radio Grove Hardware in Raymond, has been selling about a thousand chicks a year to people from surrounding towns, and he says the increase in fresh eggs for sale is just the inevitable result of a chicken boom that started in the state four or five years ago. “Everybody's buying chickens, and if you buy twelve chicks, eventually you're going to be getting eleven, twelve eggs a day,” he explains. “Unless you're a big egg eater that's more than most families can eat. That's why you're seeing signs up: People are selling excess eggs.”

Welch says he's seen a steady increase in backyard chickens, coinciding with the local food movement. “Raising your own food isn't as cheap as going to the grocery store, but it's quality and you know what you're eating, and that's what we're seeing here.”

Barry Brearley, of nearby Deerfield, is one of the many people who have made that choice, although this is actually his second time raising chickens. The Brearleys started their first flock twenty years ago, when a farmer friend from Vermont recommended them as a chemical-free and egg-producing way to get rid of the wasps nesting under their barn.

The new flock of fourteen includes Leghorns, which lay white eggs, Heinzs and Comets, which lay brown eggs, and Araucanas, a South American breed that lays green eggs.

Brearley sells the eggs from home, in multi-colored dozens. “I have a theme where I mix them up,” he says. “It's like an Easter egg thing.”

It seems like a good marketing ploy, but Brearley isn't in it for the money. “We just do it for the fun of it,” he says. “Really, if you wanted to make any money you would have to sell them for a buck an egg.

“And we give a few away, you know; giving's fun.”

Brearley's neighbors, the Stimmells, also appreciate the fun of chickens, and of sharing eggs. Sadie and Sean Stimmell, and their son Finnbar, 4, and daughter Josette, 2, got a flock of seventeen chickens last spring, all green-laying Araucanas.

“They're fun, they're friendly, enjoyable,” says Sadie Stimmell. “The kids get the eggs every day.”

Like Brearley, the Stimmells also appreciate the pest control: their free-ranging chickens keep backyard ticks in check.

And while there's no sign for eggs up in front of the Stimmells' house, Sadie says they're doing plenty of sharing. “It's been great to give some to friends and neighbors. My husband brings some to work. I got to barter the other day for three pounds of asparagus for a dozen eggs, so we've got some old-fashioned neighborhood bartering going on.”

More people have chickens than not in this neighborhood, and that means the Stimmells also have a support network as they figure things out. When the Stimmells' chicks grew up, and they discovered they'd gotten a couple of roosters they hadn't bargained for, Barry Brearley was happy to take one. “When we've gone on vacation that's another consideration of someone to take care of them,” Sadie Stimmell adds, “So that's nice to have neighbors that know chickens well and are happy to help.”

Since they're pecking around private residences, there are no official numbers to show how common backyard hens are in the state. But recent ordinance changes to allow them in Concord, Manchester, and Durham show it's a state-wide trend, and the numbers are rising.

Before I left this chicken-filled neighborhood in Deerfield, Barry Brearley reached into his coop and pulled a few eggs out for me, two of each color.

There's an old jingle: “Brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh!” But here in New Hampshire, local eggs are now brown, white, or even green – and, coming straight from a neighbor, they couldn't be fresher.