Many of us are staying home, but when we do have to make a grocery run, we're also encountering egg shortages at our local grocery stores. In response, some people are part of a new wave of backyard chicken-herders, buying up chicks at an unprecedented rate. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.
[Chickens in the barnyard]
If you’ve been grocery shopping in the Shenandoah Valley as of late, you’ve likely seen empty shelves where egg cartons used to sit – or a precious few left, with signs asking customers to take only one. In response, so many people are investing in their own backyard flocks that even national suppliers such as Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri, are on a waitlist for their newly hatched chicks – up to eight weeks, in their case.
JEFF SMITH: We ship to all 50 states, and I know we ship a lot to Virginia.
Jeff Smith is with Cackle Hatchery’s marketing and sales department.
SMITH: This is our normal peak season anyway, you know, when there’s a real high demand, and then of course with everyone looking at self-sufficient ideas, they’re turning towards a backyard flock of chickens. So yeah, we’ve had a tremendous demand on top of our normal peak season.
A representative from Tractor Supply’s corporate office said they’ve also seen increased demand from returning and new customers. If you’re looking for chicks from one of their stores in Harrisonburg, Staunton, or Luray, it would be good to call ahead – they get a new batch of chicks in every week, but they don’t stick around long.
HARRISONBURG TRACTOR SUPPLY EMPLOYEE: They were all sold over the weekend. Should hopefully be getting some more in around lunchtime on Wednesday, though.
Small producers are feeling the demand, too, including Jason Myers-Benner, a home farmer who runs the homestead Tanglywoods with his wife Janelle in Rockingham County.
JASON MYERS-BENNER: I would say it’s been unprecedented, in our experience. Yeah, we’ve been selling chicks sort of in a casual way, as a side fringe of our breeding project for four or five years … you know, usually we’ve been able to sell what we have, but this year we could have sold two or three times what we have.
Right now, Myers-Benner has about 140 eggs in incubators, and they’re all spoken for by buyers. He’s developing four new breeds of chickens that are specifically adapted to the Valley.
MYERS-BENNER: One of those would be a grassland-adapted bird, that’s good for using in rotation with cattle in pasture situations … The other is designed for backyard keeping, especially in urban settings … There’s another one that we’ve bred to try to be sort of a semi-wild, woods-oriented chicken … The fourth one is an all-around chicken, but specifically in terms of color pattern, we’ve tried to design that so that it can be the female half of a sex-linked hybrid cross between either the grassland bird or the backyard bird, so that hopefully as time goes along, we will have chicks that we can market to people that will be discernible as to their sex on the day they hatch, because a lot of people want to buy just female chicks.
Lee Swecker’s operation, over in Augusta County, is more of a hobby project with his girlfriend Jenn. They’ve gotten plenty of calls from people who want chicks, but for the time being, they’re only selling a few to friends to limit their exposure to the coronavirus.
LEE SWECKER: A lot of people are just wanting them for the eggs, not having to go out, and stores being sold out. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of people asking about that. Some wanting them more so for meat, a couple people just more hobbies.
His favorite part of raising chickens?
SWECKER: We’re on a pretty large farm so they’ve got a pretty good area to run around and play and stuff. It’s just kind of fun watching them play. Our kids go out and play with them.
Having an educational and productive pet for her children was one reason that Paloma Saucedo bought chicks from Swecker.
PALOMA SAUCEDO: I have a two-year-old, and I thought it’d be the perfect thing for her as well to kind of get her mind off, not understanding why she can’t have her friends over, not understanding why she can’t go to preschool right now, you know, and also like a fun family project even for my teenagers.
Saucedo grew up around farm animals, but didn’t have the time to set up a coop and go through Harrisonburg’s permitting process until now. The city allows residents to have up to six hens as long as they live at least 500 feet away from the nearest poultry industry facility. She’s had to close her daycare business due to the virus, but uses the chicks to stay in touch with the kids.
SAUCEDO: I’ve been putting videos on our Facebook page to stay connected with my other kids, and showing them the growth of the chickens, so they can follow, so when they come back and we have the coop and the chickens, they’ll be excited about meeting them in person.
Lindsay Lam, an orchestral musician in Harrisonburg, got chicks for her family from Tractor Supply. Luckily, she showed up at the store just before a new shipment did.
LINDSAY LAM: I got breeds that were well known for both being egg layers and for having the good temperament I wanted.
Lam had bought two pullets, or adolescent chickens, from the fair last year, but one got snatched by a predator so she gave the other one away.
LAM: I decided to go ahead and get chicks this time, because I wanted to raise them myself so they would know me and hopefully like me a little better than my fair chickens did … It’s fun having my own tiny dinosaurs!