Agent for Change – backyard hen activist – Part Two

These days, we could all use a little inspiration.  Our Agent for Change series features an interview with everyday people creating big changes in their little corner of the world. The goal of these stories is to spark a passion, help you set a goal, or move past some frustration as you work to be an Agent for Change in your own system.

This month we’re revisiting Haddon Township resident Gwenne Baile, who successfully championed for an ordinance allowing hens to be raised in residential backyards. Gwenne is an active member of our SCH Garden Task Force, Haddon Township community garden, GMO Free NJ and Camden County Chickens.

Gwenne Baile with backyard chicken, Rosebud.

Gwenne Baile with backyard chicken, Rosebud.

SCH: Tell us about life with your hens.

Gwenne: With early dawns at this time of year, they usually are in their predator-proof run around 6. In anticipation of that, the previous evening after they have gone in the coop for the night, I put out something for their breakfast. They only get organic pellets and treats. That way, they will be a bit quieter, for my neighbors’ sakes, in the morning. The run is so predator-proof that nothing can get into the run to get the food. A couple hours later, I go out to do my daily maintenance of the coop and run which really only takes about 15 minutes. The girls, Marigold, Iris, Haddy and Rosebud follow me to my garden with the enticement of some bread and “work” in their turning the soil, scratching and looking for insects while I rake out the run, change their water and put a block of ice in it to keep it cold. All the droppings go into my composters. I clean the chicken droppings out from the coop as well. The best thing is the last thing and that is to collect eggs. Nothing is better than getting a warm egg out of the nest box. I generally get two eggs in the morning and one in the afternoon although the hot weather does decrease the number of eggs sometimes. They have to spend more energy staying cool so can’t put it into making eggs. I let them play and work  in the fenced in garden for a while and then let them and the dog free-range in the yard for a bit often enjoying my coffee watching their antics. I am teaching Haddy (named after Haddon Twp.) to do agility training although, so far, we have only been weaving through some stakes I put into the ground. She is the smartest hen and most adventurous. They rest follow her around as if they know she will show them a new spot. Mid-afternoon, I generally give them more cool, fresh water and a piece of watermelon which they love. They get their dinner of pellets and veggies around 5 and they put themselves to bed by 8.

SCH: How has this ordinance approval impacted your community?

Gwenne: As of now, we have 22 families with licenses to be in the pilot. We have not had any complaints made to the township nor to the Mayor and Commissioners. I have been told that people have commented on why there was so much dissension over this last year since the hens haven’t been an issue. We have participated in two town events having hens  with us and I will be at our farmers’ market when the weather isn’t so hot just for education and fun. We have a wonderful, active group of pilot participants. We meet every other month and always have some continuing education at our meeting. We will be having a picnic soon for the group and everyone is encouraged to make something to bring and share that contains eggs from their hens. I have had both nursery school children come and visit the girls as well as two second grade classes from the local school. Other members of the pilot have done the same. I have given eggs to neighbors and others. I feel it has been great for the community and our governing body has received recognition for being progressive. We have continued to remain in the media and will have a story and photos in South Jersey magazine shortly. It all has really helped the backyard chicken movement grow.

SCH: Where else in Camden County are we likely to see similar ordinances? How’s the progress on approvals?

Gwenne: Actually, tonight Oaklyn will have its first reading of an ordinance change and next week, it will be official. I was thrilled to be named to their task force which includes the Mayor, President of Council, and 3 residents that have hens. I will remain on their Backyard Chicken Advisory Board. It is so rewarding to see this happen and to have played a big part in actually writing the ordinance. The same thing is happening in Merchantville and they will get a pilot program in September. I was also appointed by their Mayor and worked with two council people and two residents to tweak the Haddon Twp. pilot. I helped get the movement started in Gloucester Twp. which just enacted a pilot. I have been working with the new leader of the movement in Cherry Hill and we attended a caucus and regular meeting and had a private meeting with the Mayor and his Chief of Staff. We spent over an hour with them and provided them with a lot of valuable information. We are waiting to hear from them. We certainly hope since the town’s sustainability report was issued recently, that they agree the backyard chickens are part of that and part of the local food movement and will allow a pilot program. I personally doubt that an ordinance change will happen but am optimistic about a pilot. Other towns in the tri-county area that are looking into it and that I am mentoring include Haddon Heights, Palmyra, Delran, Tabernacle, Lumberton, Medford Lakes, Maple Shade, Monroe Township and Pitman. There are many other towns where residents want to have chickens but it is difficult to get someone to step up and lead the charge. It does take lots of time, patience, perseverance and compromise. Nothing hurts me more than to hear from someone that they really want chickens but they can’t because it isn’t allowed. Then do something to make it be allowed!

IMG_3836SCH: What are some surprises and challenges you’ve experienced with your hens?

Gwenne: I knew that summer is harder on hens in this area than winters but it has been worse than I expected. My small coop is like an oven and I have to constantly be concerned with the temperature and humidity. I am using a mister when it is appropriate. I thought we would have more shade than we do. I now have taken about 50 hours of classes on raising chickens. I recently completed a course via webinar on Summer Care and learned that at 93 degrees with the relative humidity of 50%, chickens can only get rid of 50% of their body heat and it gets worse as either the temperature or humidity increases. Since I only have 4 and have a very large kitchen, it was recommended to bring them in during the heat of the day when those conditions are met. Otherwise, they can actually get heatstroke and die!  I have also completed a Therapy Chicken course and Rosebud is my therapy chicken. We are looking forward to visiting some extended care and assisted living facilities. This is so important because it demonstrates that they are pets and not dirty farm animals. Backyard hens carry no more disease than a dog. Rosie loves people and loves being petted and held. They have been found to be wonderful for autistic children, people with Alzheimer’s and dementia as well as depression. All over the UK, there are programs using hens and many facilities have actually started coops to give residents the opportunity to interact with the chickens on a regular basis. That is right up my alley! As a retired nurse midwife and educator who loves interacting with people, I am so excited about this possibility and ask that if anyone would like us to visit a school or a facility, to please contact me.

SCH: What would you like to see happen next?

Gwenne: I truly believe in my heart that if someone wants a couple of hens, they should be legally able to have them—end of story. The ridiculous outdated ordinances either banning or severely restricting hens to huge properties, essentially farms even if you want three chickens, need to be updated. I see myself continuing the fight. I attend council meetings when I can (why do they always meet on Mondays or Tuesdays!) to answer questions and support the local residents. I feel that the more towns that come on board, the better. It will serve to motivate other neighboring towns. I want to educate, educate, educate and correct myths and misconceptions. I feel residents should run their own pilots and programs because it not only saves the town money since the town enforcer doesn’t have to do it but it involves the community more and the more involved, the more successful the program will be. I continue to speak to groups and have two presentations scheduled at this time. I will be teaching the formal class that Camden County Chickens provides. Most of the ordinances and pilot program have followed my lead and require an approved class to get a license. I feel a class must be mandatory for the sake of our hens as well as our towns. I still love tabling and getting out there meeting and talking with residents.

I see  how this movement meshes with all the sustainability and gardening groups that I belong to or are on the board. What’s better than local, sustainable food and knowing what is in that food! I truly love being called “The Chicken Lady of South Jersey”.