College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Agricultural & Resource Economics

Has Hens, Will Travel

University of Maryland Extension specialist packs poultry road show in back of pick-up truck
Extension specialist Dale Johnson talks to a young boy about chickens.
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

It sounds like an odd job: traveling around the state with three hens and a collapsible chicken coop in the back of your pick-up truck. But for Dale Johnson, a farm management specialist with University of Maryland Extension (UME), it provides the perfect opportunity to promote a very simple message.

“I’m just trying to teach people about agriculture,” Johnson said.

This summer, Johnson started taking his poultry road show – dubbed “Loan a Layer” – to different events, organizations and schools around the state, particularly those in inner cities, to reach out to kids and adults alike who aren’t exposed to agriculture on a regular basis. Participants can collect eggs, practice moving the pen around like they would in their own backyards and feed, water or pet the chickens Johnson brings with him.

“I let the kids at the schools name them,” he said. “That’s why they all have several names.”

At a recent event at the Sheridan Street Community Garden and Center for Educational Partnership in Riverdale, Johnson fielded questions for hours about how the chickens stay warm in the winter, how to provide them with enough water and why eggs are sometimes brown or greenish instead of white – all with a docile Buff Orpington hen tucked securely under his arm.

“I’ve never touched a chicken before,” one young boy said, after stroking the chicken nestled in the crook of Johnson’s elbow.

Johnson’s small flock expertise is currently in high demand as interest in raising backyard chickens for eggs and meat has been growing across the country. Maryland and the mid-Atlantic are no exception. Last spring, Johnson and other Extension specialists hosted the Small Flock Poultry Expo in Carroll County. The event attracted more than 400 people from seven states.

“We had hoped to get 100 people,” Johnson laughed. “There are obviously a lot of people getting interested in this.”

However, Johnson says many mistakenly think backyard birds are going to save them a few bucks. In reality, the cost of constructing a coop and feeding and caring for chickens cancels out the free egg supply.

“It’s really not economical to produce your own eggs,” he says.  “If you’re going to keep chickens for years, then maybe it can be economical. But it has to be years.”

Johnson, who also teaches a farm management and sustainable food production course for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR), says people should consider raising chickens because of the health benefits and to help teach their children about where food comes from – not the free eggs. He also advises people to do their research before committing fully to a flock.

UME will be hosting another Small Flock Poultry Expo on February 2 in Westminster. Click here for details. Also visit www.healthybirds.umd.edu for advice and more information on raising home chicken flocks.

Contact Sara Gavin at 301-405-9235 or sgavin@umd.edu.

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