When Brooks Paternotte bought his 10-acre property in Owings Mills three years ago, it came with a chicken coop. The coop was rundown and there were no chickens. But Paternotte and his family love animals, they love fresh eggs and the next thing he knew, thanks to a hammer and some nails, they had a home for 13 chickens.
The family collects at least eight eggs a day from their 12 hens (and one rooster). They have seven different breeds, a combination of good egg layers and "what my kids liked at the time we were picking them out," Paternotte, executive director of the Irvine Nature Center, said of his and wife Elizabeth's two children.
The eggs are used for eating and cooking but that still leaves plenty for gifts to neighbors, friends, co-workers — and hostesses. "No need to stop for a bottle of wine on the way" to the party, said Paternotte. "You can always show up with a dozen eggs."
Baltimore County is hardly a poultry powerhouse. It has no commercial operations, defined by the state as more than 3,000 chickens. But there are signs that small-scale egg farms, aka backyard flocks, are on the rise.
At The Mill, a six-store agricultural supply chain, Karen Holloway, livestock product manager, can attest to the increased interest. The stores have sold more chicks every year for the past three years. From 2012 to 2013, the total number of chicks sold nearly doubled, from 3,500 to 6,500 birds.
"We sell the basic backyard breeds — good egg laying ability, good dispositions," said Holloway, who figures a basic coop kit, fencing, feed, heat lamps and four to six chicks costs about $300.
State regulations require small-scale egg farmers who sell eggs to register, a free service. The county currently has 62 registered farms. If the eggs are not sold, registration is not required; there are probably farms in that category but the number is unknown.
For health reasons, the state also requires owners of five or more chickens to register on a different list. That list is confidential.
Last year, the Baltimore County Council acknowledged interest in egg farming with a resolution that asks the county's Planning Board to look into the reducing the existing minimum 1-acre requirement for noncommercial poultry farms.
A public meeting was held on the resolution last month. The Planning Board does not have a time frame for issuing its recommendation, said Jeff Mayhew, Planning Department deputy director. After the recommendation is issued, the resolution will go back to the council for a decision.
Foes of reducing the 1-acre requirement give a number of reasons for their opposition: they didn't buy a house in the suburbs only to find themselves living next to an agricultural venue; they object to the noise and smell; they worry about the possibility of avian influenza.
Proponents of the change talk about fresh, and natural and organic food products. They want to know where their food originates. They say raising and maintaining chickens bonds families.
At Liberty Delight Farms in Reisterstown, owner Shane Hughes keeps a flock of 50 egg-laying chickens on his 80-acre property. They produce 40 dozen eggs per week.
"They sell out in a couple of hours at the farmers market," he said. "These days, people want farm-fresh and locally grown."
On a still-wintry night in early March, The Mill at Hereford, 17106 York Road, held Chicks Night Out, an annual event. A crowd of 60 turned out for a lecture on egg farming and to pick their chicks, $4 each. The chicks huddled under heat lamps, fuzzy yellow and downy brown, impossibly cute and utterly adorable.
When Debby Utz, retail manger, began working at the Hereford store in 2007, it offered 100 baby chicks in three different breeds. At this year's event, there were 175 chicks in five different breeds, sold on a first-come first-serve basis.
"In this area, they love their chickens," Utz said. "They buy them treats — chicken candy."
Emily Schofield has been egg farming for two years. The Sparks resident and mother of two has about 50 egg-laying chickens. Just from her five Rhode Island Reds, she collects 12 eggs per day. Whatever she doesn't use, she gives away.
"I like being self-sufficient. I have a large vegetable garden," she said.
As for Brooks Paternotte, he says the family is having fun with their chickens. The children, 4 and 5 years old, help as best as they can.
"Plus, they learn about nature, about where their food comes from," he said. " 'Pecking order' is very true."