By Maxim Garshman
Mark Gallagher was the first customer in line at East County Feed and Supply in Santee when the store sold its most recent shipment of 70 chickens.
His reasoning for buying was simple.
“We have three teenage boys at home and eggs are expensive,” Gallagher said. “So, we’re hoping to offset the cost of food by having our own little farm.”
Raising backyard chickens has long been a common practice in many rural areas across the country, and with interest spreading to urban districts, many cities have begun to rethink their laws on raising hens. San Diego is no different.
In January 2012, the city legalized the ownership of backyard chickens. Previously, the law said that 25 chickens were allowed, but they had to be kept at least 50 feet away from a dwelling.
Following suit was El Cajon, Lemon Grove, Santee and La Mesa, whose local governments enacted similar chicken ownership laws. Since the new laws were enacted, owning chickens has become a growing trend across the region.
With the new laws came business opportunities. East County Feed and Supply on Woodside Avenue in Santees saw their profits increase drastically.
“It has really picked up,” said store employee Dennis Cody, “and we’re doing super good in that.”
The store had always sold chicks but capitalized on the opportunity to sell chickens, even selling them in bulk. Now, people come from all over the county, including La Mesa, Santee and Pacific Beach. Store owner Marty Barnard said almost half the people that buy poultry from her store are first-time owners.
“Fresh eggs are a novelty,” Barnard said. “You go to the store and the eggs are at least a couple weeks old.”
For those who have big families or those looking to save money on groceries, raising hens has become a valuable option. A laying hen will lay about one egg per day.
Christina Phalen, a chicken owner in La Mesa, said she saves about six dollars per dozen eggs. She saves up to $21 per week and just over $1,000 a year, she said.
“I mean the eggs are amazing,” she said. “It feels like an Easter egg hunt every day. I bring my kids out and see if there’s eggs and I love how they feel. Of course, they’re so delicious as well. We go through a lot of them with baking and breakfast.”
Although there are many positives to owning chickens, there are also risks involved.
A major concern for those against the legalization of chickens was the diseases and illnesses that could be spread from poultry. Barnard is aware of that concern and keeps her store’s chickens in a secure area that only employees are allowed to access.
“We keep them (chickens) totally separate away from the public,” Barnard said. “We don’t let outsiders back there to view them or interact with them because a lot of disease can just be transmitted on your shoes.”
Phalen makes sure her kids wear certain close-toed shoes when they go out every morning to gather the eggs.
East County Feed and Supply holds free beginner poultry classes once every few months to address health concerns, but they also teach people how to properly feed, house and raise chickens.
And while some view chickens as just a way to save money, many find them to be much more than that.
“I think people start out wanting the chickens to have for eggs,” Cody said. “Once they get the chickens, and they can see the chickens have different personalities, different traits and act as a society that’s when they just fall in love with them and have them as pets.”
Getting to know each chicken’s personality is half the fun, Phalen said. “They all have their pecking order, they fly around, eat bugs and they’re just so funny.”
Phalen finds that chickens are also great companion animals for her and her family. Every morning Phalen and her kids go out to grab the eggs. She says it has taught her kids responsibilities, and it also shows them where food comes from.
“It’s an easy pet to learn with,” Phalen said. “To teach them that responsibility is important.” She adds: “They’re my favorite pets.”