Courtesy of Annie Novak
As the heavy heat of summer presses down on New York City, coming up the stairs to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, I'm met with new company. Looking across the green roof toward the East River, one sees the flowers and herbs first, then the vegetables, and then, behind the towers of cucumbers that match the distant Manhattan skyline, a small flock of chickens.
The hens' coop sits at the far end of the farm, in the last row before the parapet and three-story drop to the street. As I climb the last few steps, the birds come barreling into the long chicken wire-covered run like billiard balls after the break, crowing and crying out. They're hungry, as all animals suddenly are when they see someone who regularly feeds them.
Urban farming has many unique quirks, but one of the most profound in New York City is our search for good soil. Last year, I watched the crops suffer as the summer's heavy rains washed nutrients out of the green-roof growing medium. The weakened plants were prone to pests, so this year, I was eager to amend the unhealthy soil with something easily sourced and renewable. What better than chicken manure? When mixed into the compost pile with food scraps from a local pickling company and grounds from a neighborhood coffee shop, the chicken droppings and nesting hay would make a rich, cheap, and sustainable addition to our rows every 12 to 22 weeks.
Courtesy of Annie Novak
Rather than raising birds in my apartment (the available warm, dry space was instead full of plant seedlings), I adopted the hens at laying age from Liberty View Farm, an organic apple orchard. From the start, I was sold on city chickens. They're fairly self-sufficient, multifunctional, and charming, like a good Le Creuset. When I'm up at sunrise cutting kale before the heat can wilt the harvest, the birds are frisky behind me, happily jogging up and down their run with the amnesiac curiosity of goldfish navigating their bowl.
It's not in my training to name farm animals (except for a close circle of favorites—barn cats and your best woodchuck-hunting dog). Nickname, perhaps—"Fatty" seems to christen most animals nicely. But here in urban farmland, with visitors constantly popping in and out with advice, the hens were all granted proper names within their first week on the rooftop.
Francis, a white Arucuna hen, was named in honor of Francis Perkins Academy, the North Brooklyn high school that built the birds' beautiful coop. Gina, a sophisticated grand dame of a Polish Standard with an incredible partridge-colored top hat of feathers, took her name from the donor who established the farm (an elegant woman in her own right). Lila was so dubbed by a 13-year-old homesteader from Massachusetts, Orren Fox, whose advice I'd come to rely on via his informative chicken and beekeeping blog. He told me that his bellbottom-feathered Cochin, Lola, was my hen's doppelganger. It was Orren who first noticed Lila's easygoing temperament. During a free public lecture on the rooftop on the art of chicken keeping, he held and handled her to explain a chicken's anatomy. Though her eyes blinked like a little raptor, Lila stayed still and unflustered as 60 or so people stared at her claws and comb.
Our two fully black-feathered birds are named Wren (for her scattered, wren-like behavior) and Pecked. Poor Pecked is, in fact, bare-backed near her tail from sitting lowest in the flock's pecking order: the other girls regularly pick on her, leaving a little saddle of skin exposed. The smallest bird is named Bebee. A good New Yorker, she's the same size as a pigeon, and as fussy and dominant as a Chihuahua. Currently, she's brooding (sitting on unfertilized eggs in an attempt to hatch them), squashing her petite body against all the eggs the other birds have laid like a partridge-patterned mushroom cap.
The eggs from our hens are given to the Rooftop Farm's community supported agriculture (CSA) shareholders. Each bird lays a distinctive egg. The most fancy bird (the Polish) lays the most innocuous white egg, while plain white-feathered Francis lays eggs of a very pale blue. Tiny Beebe lays petite and perfect eggs with a distinctly narrow top. Lila's are medium-sized and off-white. Wren and Pecked, regular layers both, produce brown and white eggs of a more substantial size. Between the six hens, we get about four eggs on any given day. Right before the eggs comes out, they crow and fuss, vying with the buzz of biplanes circling in to land on the stretch of water south of the United Nations.
Every now and again a visitor to the Rooftop Farm asks if the chickens are there to be eaten. The high school students who built their coop suggested it even before the birds had arrived, swapping juicy recipes as they assembled the nesting boxes. For the Rooftop Farm, the choice between chicken meat versus the egg is based on economics and ethics. Were I to kill the hens, I'd lose the manure and the eggs, both of which will supply the farm all season with irreplaceable nutrients and income. As for ethics, you'd better believe that as a lifelong vegetarian I have rich and opinionated ones. Ultimately, as Wendell Berry writes in his excellent essay "Stupidity in Concentration," our farm simply aims to show, by counterexample, "the great stupidity of industrial animal production." Industrial meat production is unhealthy for bird and man and will no doubt eventually be remembered as one of the worst elements of our modern food system. It is truly something else to see New Yorkers fall a little in love with a chicken, holding a bird for the first time in the most unlikely of places.