EASTSIDE EGG CO-OPERATIVE
Fifty Chickens and a Grand Idea
By Angela Sanders
Eastside Egg Co-operative member and two Barred Rock hens.
Photo by John Valls
Early on a November morning when it was still dark, fourteen members of the Eastside Egg Co-operative braved the driving rain to gather at Zenger Farm. They had come to move a chicken coop.
The coop movers, the smarter of them wearing rubber boots, walked past a field of leeks to a coop smaller than an upended outhouse. The 50 hens shut in the coop started to cluck as they heard people approach. As the coop was lifted, the hens’ cackling jumped to a fevered pitch. Once the coop was set down in its new home in an adjoining field and the coop’s door opened, the hens shot out like cannonballs, quickly scattering to peck at chickweed. A glance back showed the chickens’ old field pecked clean down to the dirt.
The Eastside Egg Co-operative is a group of Portlanders who take care of a flock of Barred Rock hens in exchange for eggs. Zenger Farm, a nonprofit educational farm in east Portland, provides supplies, land for the hens and coop, and room in the barn to store eggs and supplies. In return, Zenger Farm receives free fertilizer for its fields and an educational opportunity for visiting school children.
Patrick Barber and Holly McGuire run the co-op. They manage volunteers and work with Laura Masterson, who farms at Zenger, to coordinate where to move the chickens so that they forage from finished crops and fertilize fallow fields in preparation for the next crop.
The chicken coop on Zenger Farm and the bounty shared
by Eastside Egg Co-operative members. Photos by John Valls
Last April, Barber idly mentioned to Masterson that it might be interesting to start an egg co-operative. Instead of selling eggs as a business, a group of people could tend the chickens together, sharing labor but also sharing eggs. He and McGuire had worked for a car co-op in Oakland and liked the idea of co-operative agriculture.
As it happened, Masterson had thought about keeping chickens at Zenger Farm. She had drawn up a crop and chicken coop rotation schedule and even bought an electric fence to keep chickens in and predators out. Right away she offered to put Barber in touch with a farmer who was getting rid of his hens.
Helping to move the process along, Zenger Farm had just received a two-year grant from Heifer International to raise livestock, including chickens, worms, and bees. If Barber and McGuire could find enough volunteers for two daily shifts of chicken duty, the grant would pay for chicken feed, bedding, and building materials for the coop. It would be, as McGuire said, “a thought experiment come to life.”
Barber and McGuire put out the word for volunteers. They hung notices at cafés around town and posted on a listserv. In the end, almost twice as many people applied for the co-op as there were shifts available. “We didn’t even think we’d get enough volunteers to cover all the shifts,” Barber said.
The Eastside Egg Co-op’s members draw from a wide swath of Portlanders. One member is a school teacher, another is a firefighter, and yet another is a “polysomnographic technologist” (someone who measures sleep patterns) at Oregon Health & Science University. One member looks forward to bringing her grandchildren to feed the chickens, and another member plans to track the yield of eggs by the phases of the moon.
The co-op’s first task was to build a chicken coop that could be moved between fields. It turned out that many of the members of the co-op had definite opinions about what sort of coop should be built, and soon ideas floated for a five-star hen paradise on wheels. Sacha White, the owner of Vanilla Bicycles, a custom bicycle frame builder, agreed to make armatures for the coop’s wheels. After friendly discussion and White’s practical suggestions, the coop’s original grand design became a simple 4′ x 4′ x 8′ coop with nesting boxes that open to the outside. By the summer solstice, the coop was up and the hens were in residence.
Since then, the egg co-operative has had a few minor setbacks: One hen died of natural causes, the barn door froze shut, the coop blew over in a windstorm, and the coop’s wheels still haven’t been mounted. Perhaps the most visible problem has been that a handful of hens peck at lower status hens to the point that they’ve yanked out all their tail feathers and drawn blood. In a large chicken operation, chicks are often de-beaked to prevent this problem. The co-op’s consensus was that 50 beakless chickens roaming the field might put visiting children off agriculture for good. Other options deemed impractical were purchasing headgear for each hen to prevent her from seeing hens nearby, and painting each hen’s hind end daily with a sour liquid. Finally, the co-op gave away the five meanest hens.
For the most part, the co-op has run smoothly. Co-op members have faithfully made their shifts, unlatching the coop’s door as the sun rises or watching the chickens go to roost as the sun sets. The hens have steadily laid eggs with latte-colored shells and firm orange yolks.
The next step will be to determine how to make the co-op financially self-sustaining. Since hens lay fewer eggs as they age, the co-op will need to give away some hens and buy or hatch chicks. (At one co-op meeting members briefly discussed getting a noise variance to bring in a gigolo rooster.) The co-op may also start to charge a low monthly fee to its members or offer chicken husbandry classes.
Ultimately, Barber and McGuire would like to see egg cooperatives spread throughout the city. Families could save money and labor by linking backyards and sharing chickens. As McGuire said, “People need to work together. We’re stronger and we get more done collectively.”
Angela Sanders writes about Pacific Northwest history and culture. For more stories, please visit Edible Portland Magazine.