October 7, 2012

Pecking away at chicken raising in Waterville

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Heather Merrow scattered shredded cabbage on the ground and her chickens came, clucking.

click image to enlarge

Heather Merrow tends to her chickens at her 9 Autumn St. residence in Waterville. City councilors voted last week to allow chickens at private residences in city limits.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Chickens peck at feed in the grass in the back yard of the Merrow's 9 Autumn St. residence in Waterville. A new ordinance was passed allowing citizens to house up to six chickens at a private residence in city limits.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below


Waterville officials' recent approval of allowing chickens in the residential zone was the second instance of the City Council dealing with the matter. Two years ago, councilors voted to allow them, but then-Mayor Paul LePage, now Maine's governor, vetoed their decision, saying many people had contacted him to say they did not want chickens in the residential zone.

Portland has allowed chickens since early 2009, according to Nicole Clegg, that city's director of communications. About 20 licenses have been issued for chickens there, she said.

"We rarely get complaints, but if we do, it's typically that a chicken has escaped and is in the neighbor's yard," Clegg said.

Like Waterville, Portland allows people to have up to six laying hens -- and no roosters. Hens are female chickens; roosters are male chickens.

They snapped up the cabbage in their beaks, strutted around and waited for the next treat she dispersed: cooked rice.

"We've had no issues whatsoever with our chickens," said Merrow, 46. "No noise issues, and I mean, they're healthy chickens. They're cute to watch and they're friendly."

Her husband, Ralph, 48, concurs.

"They love scraps," he said. "They'll eat just about everything."

That was Thursday as the couple gave a tour of their backyard pen and chicken coop off Autumn Street in the city's South End. They have five chickens -- two white and three red.

"The white ones are Thelma and Louise and the red ones are Fran and Rose and Georgette," Heather said. "One of our chickens, Blanche, died."

The Merrows bought their chickens on March 22 -- Heather's birthday -- at Tractor Supply for $2.39 each, they said. They were 1 day old and they lived in the Merrows' house until April.

That was long before city councilors voted -- last Tuesday, in fact -- to allow people in the city's residential zone to have up to six laying hens, under certain conditions.

The couple is not concerned that they housed chickens prior to the city's approval. At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Heather Merrow admitted to "harboring illegal chickens," when Councilor John O'Donnell, D-Ward 5, said he was told she had them.

The Merrows said they now plan to apply for a permit from the city for housing chickens; the process requires a henhouse inspection by Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins, for a $25 fee.

Heather Merrow, a certified nurse's aide, co-chairwoman of the South End Neighborhood Association and vice president of the Board of Directors of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said she had long wanted to have chickens at her Autumn Street home.

She grew up on a small farm in Monticello -- a town north of Houlton -- where her family had hens, pigs, a pony and other animals.

She decided to buy the chicks on her birthday this year, despite the city's rule against housing them anywhere except in the rural residential zone. She and her husband figured the state would allow them to have chickens under a rule called "Maine Right to Farm," but they recently learned that if they make less than $2,000 from their chicken operation, they do not qualify.

"The city doesn't allow us to sell the eggs, so that's counterproductive," said Ralph Merrow, who works for Prizm Painting and is Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop.

The couple enjoys having fresh eggs, they said. The hens lay a total of about five eggs a day, and the Merrows give most of them away, to co-workers, neighbors and family members.

The eggs taste much different from those available in stores, Heather Merrow said, "and they're a fluffier egg than store-bought eggs."

Hen investment

Start-up costs for housing chickens are significant, but the Merrows say they will recoup their costs in the number of eggs they will garner.

Their hens are housed in a coop Ralph made, for a cost of about $500.

The coop is framed in wood and has chicken wire for walls except for a walled-in shelf where the chickens roost and lay their eggs on a bed of wood shavings.

The Merrows have motion lights and a security camera to help protect their coop.

"You can't get onto my property without my knowing," Ralph Merrow said.

Ralph built a removable wall that allows Heather to clean the wood shavings easily once a week; he also built a tiny door outside the coop that Heather opens to reach in and remove the eggs. Both that door and the door to the coop itself are locked.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Heather Merrow handles on of her five chickens at her 9 Autumn St. residence in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


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