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Green Living: One Mom Tells All about Her Family's Urban Farming Adventures

Traci Fontyn's Kippen House chicken coopsAfter interviewing Seattle mom Traci Fontyn for our article about urban farming with kids, we were so impressed with her family's dedication to their DIY back-to-the-basics lifestyle approach. Upon losing her job as an architect in 2008 due to the recession, Fontyn quickly reorganized her family's budget and looked for simple ways to cut costs: clipping coupons, planting a garden to save on produce costs, preserving foods, and getting a small flock of hens.

However, Fontyn notes that after taking those initial steps into living a thriftier lifestyle, her overall reasoning behind the simple changes began to shift. Her lifestyle modifications became less about saving money, and more about nurturing a healthy lifestyle for her husband and 5-year-old son. She loves knowing where the food that she feeds her family comes from -- and she feels a great sense of pride in knowing that she is capable of providing for her family all on her own.

Claiming that her family caught "the urban farming bug" after tackling chickens and that they naturally just progressed into urban farming, the Fontyn brood now includes four chickens, one beehive, two goats, and a recently adopted pair of ducks. The family couldn't be happier with their city farm!

Creating the perfect urban chicken coop

Armed with her background in architecture, Fontyn took it upon herself to create the perfect chicken coop for her clan. She didn't want a "coop from China that looked like it belonged on Old MacDonald's farm" -- she wanted a henhouse and a run that fit her small urban plot -- and she wasn't willing to sacrifice any of her precious garden space in the bargain. After evaluating available options on the market, Fontyn decided to design her own chicken coop with a garden-bed rooftop -- an ideal happy medium for both her garden and her backyard space.

Family and friends encouraged Fontyn to consider selling these coops after seeing her gorgeous eco-friendly, modern designs. In 2010, she did just that -- founding Kippen House in Seattle. Available for free local delivery or free shipping, Fontyn's coop business has enjoyed a fantastic couple of years so far -- and it's easy to see why! Currently, Kippen House offers large and half-sized garden-roof chicken coops, chicken run extensions, mini coops (for decorative planting only), custom project options, and a bevy of additional add-ons.

We caught up with Fontyn to get the full scoop on her coops and to learn more about her family's urban farming adventures. We'll be the first to admit it -- Fontyn has plenty of good advice for getting started.

You said that it was a natural progression for your family to begin urban farming -- what encouraged you to get chickens?

In 2008, I met a group of friends in Portland that had chickens in their urban yard. It definitely piqued my interest because it was unique and I didn’t know that it was even possible to have chickens in the city. I had just gotten into gardening and adding chickens seemed like a natural progression. I also saw the educational value and companionship opportunities -- my son was four at the time, and I wanted him to feel the same pride that I felt when I brought in the bounty from our garden.

Most young children don’t have the attention span to dedicate to gardening, but they are capable of waiting one day to get that next egg! Now, he helps me feed the chickens, gather eggs, and handle them. He has his favorite chicken, which he chases down so that he can pick her up and pet her. 

Traci Fontyn's urban chicksWhere did you find the information that you needed for raising your chickens?

I took a class with Seattle Tilth to get the 101 basics on chickens. It was very informative and I was ready to jump in! There are many books out there as well. Seattle Farm Co-op has a great listserv, and I found comfort in knowing that I could email the group with any questions or concerns that I had. They are very supportive and informative in all things urban agriculture.

I raised my chickens from chicks, so they got used to being handled and they are very friendly. Also, don’t be scared by all the possible ailments that your chickens could get -- if they have a balanced diet, plenty of water, good housing, and protection they will be fine!

Did you run into any problems, or have a hard time when you were first starting out?

My main obstacle was actually finding a chicken coop that I liked. Since I am an architect, I had a critical eye for the look of the coop as well as how easy it would be to clean and maintain, and I didn’t have the space to make gardening and installing a huge chicken coop work. The architect in me snapped into gear and I thought, "I’ll just build it myself!" I built a chicken coop that had a raised garden bed as the roof so any ground space that I took up with the coop was "recouped" on the roof. Being an architect, you are observant about scale. Most chicken coops I saw were built at a human scale. I had no intentions of wanting to walk into my chicken coop when reaching in with a rake is all that is needed to clean it. Chickens don’t need all that wasted space above them; this allowed me to bring the height of the chicken coop down and add purpose to the roof.

There is maintenance involved in cleaning out their coop to prevent any smells. I personally just add more wood shavings to the coop every two months and do a deep cleaning of the coop every 4-6 months. It all depends on your setup. Any odors are only noticeable in/around the coop when it’s really wet outside, so no worries…your neighbors will not complain of any odd smells wafting over the fence.

You do need at least two chickens since they need companionship. Overall, their personalities and the fact that I get an egg from each of my hens is gratifying. There’s a saying that you are what you eat. Once you have eaten fresh eggs for awhile and then go back to trying store-bought eggs, you will taste, smell, and see the difference. There is a level of quality that comes with farm-fresh eggs that any store-bought carton cannot achieve.

Many city dwellers will be surprised to know that access to poultry feed is not an obstacle. Seattle Tilth offers a resource page for local feed stores, veterinarians, and chicken coop builders. The cost is minimal -- whatever you can afford! Buying chicks, pullets or hens ranges from a couple of bucks (chicks) to $20 (hens). Their feed is only about $15-25 for a 40-50 lb. bag, which lasts about 2-3 months for my four hens. The main cost comes from their housing. Many people build their own using free and salvaged building material and others order a coop online or from a local business. There is a wide variety of costs, layouts and designs, on the market! Overall though, they cost less than a dog or a cat and you get eggs -- a pet with benefits!

What was it about the coops out there that you didn't like? What should families be aware of when looking for a coop?

When you first start off, you generally don’t know what to look for in a coop. It is a mix of personal preference and learning from others' mistakes. First off, I suggest going on the Seattle Tilth coop tour to see what other people are building. Everyone has learned from their mistakes and after awhile you will notice a trend with all the coops. One of them being material… you don’t want a coop that uses material that cannot stand up to the weather or that requires high maintenance. I would also suggest incorporating adequate shelter from the rain.

Since we live in such a wet climate, you need to ensure the henhouse will not leak and also try to incorporate some sheltered space in your run. This will help cut down on any offensive odors if you can keep the ground dry. Lastly, consider the height of the coop in your decision. Chickens are small, therefore they don’t need a human-sized coop. But you also don’t want one that is too small, or you won’t be able to clean it, refresh food and water, and collect eggs with ease.

When I say coop, I mean "henhouse" and "run." The henhouse is generally only where they go at night and where their food is. It is a very tight space and you wouldn’t keep your chickens solely in the henhouse. The run is where they go during the day. It can be enclosed or not…it all depends on personal preference.

Typically, the run is not secure from predators, but mainly keeps the chickens contained. One great feature of my Kippen House coops is that they are a hybrid to that approach; the henhouse feeds into the run -- in a secure space. The area that is allotted as the run is just big enough to give them room to roam.  The coops are also very durable and low maintenance.

I am also working on adding another coop to my line-up, in response to people asking for a tractor coop. These are coops that can be moved easily, so you can fertilize different areas of your yard. That idea is still in the works, but I’m hoping to have it out soon.

What are the benefits to having a garden-bed rooftop?

There is a great ecological cycle that can be created once you incorporate gardening with chickens. Chickens eat the garden scraps and then produce wonderful natural fertilizer for your garden. After composting the chicken manure, you can put it back into your garden to help your plants thrive. By placing the garden on the roof of your chicken coop, you are taking advantage of mother nature's resources. Rainwater is now being harvested to water your garden instead of being diverted to the ground like a traditional roof. The massive amount of soil also becomes a heat sink, keeping the interior of the coop warmer in cooler months and also cooler in hot months. By placing your garden up off the ground you eliminate the amount of pests that can reach your garden. It was a chore to get rid of slugs from my main garden, and not one could make it up to my garden roof! It’s also a great way to garden…standing up!

Now you've progressed to including bees -- how has this experience been for your family?

My husband is to blame for the addition of bees and goats! He became interested in bees due to the colony collapse issues and took a class with Seattle Tilth to learn about what was involved. Surprisingly, they are really low maintenance. We bought an already established hive from a company in Oregon -- yes, he drove with a box full of 10,000 bees back up to Seattle!

You do need to do hive checks and keep up with providing them space for their production of honey. There is a decent amount of money involved initially with getting the bees, hive, supplies, and equipment. It does take a level of courage to get your gear on and open up a hive full of thousands of bees. I haven’t done it personally, but I watched my husband from a distance the first time he checked on the bees; he could hear them buzzing around him, which was intimidating. However, we didn’t notice a huge influx of bees in our yard or have any issues.

Our first hive was very successful, especially since last summer’s temperatures were not optimal. Our first harvest of honey was also a moment of pride due to the feeling of being self-sufficient. Once you get involved in doing something you are completely capable of doing and then compare the quality to what you would typically pay for, you realize how much more nutritious and delicious your version is. The life and colony structure of bees is very interesting. Keeping bees has opened up the conversation with my son about their colony and the daily life of a bee. He has a few children's books about bees and knows much more than I did at his age…or even more than what I knew a few years ago!

Traci Fontyn's two urban goatsAnd as for your goats, any tips for beginners?

The goats were added after we had moved to a bigger house with a bigger yard! This meant more yardwork, and we had already tackled chickens and bees, so why not goats? We added them so that we could maintain the lower half of our yard -- it is amazing how much they eat! Once their job is done we will look into renting them out to our neighbors who have expressed interest in having them do the same to their yard. We got the goats for the practical reason of tending brush, blackberry bushes, and overgrown ivy in a large space.

I wouldn’t say goats are a useful option for the urban dweller, but that they are a good option for companionship. They are friendly, but again…you will need two since they seek companionship among each other. They are vocal only when they see us and want our attention. We didn’t take any classes or dive too deeply into research before getting the goats. I think we were feeling confident that we could make it work. In hindsight, we should have prepared our enclosure better. We had to come up with a fencing solution quickly since we got the goats before the fence! They are very nimble and great escape artists. The goats also needed a shelter, but luckily, I had an extra chicken coop in our garage and the interior height was perfect for the goats. Overall, they are very easy and inexpensive to care for -- they just need good fencing to confine them, shelter, alfalfa, and goat chow, along with regular vet checkups.

Why is urban farming important for families to consider? Also, thinking about your original goals -- have you ended up saving money from your experiences?

I think urban farming is helpful in bringing you back to the basics and creating self-awareness about what you really are consuming. It feels good feeding your family nutritious food that you actually grew, and there is a level of pride in knowing that you can do it by yourself. There is an educational value, as well as value in the memories you are creating together as a family. My memories of visiting my grandparents' farm and gathering eggs have definitely influenced my desire to create similar memories for my son. It’s comforting. Yes, he could read about this in a book instead of actually experiencing it, but that lacks the value of a precious memory and real-life experience.

I can see how people would want to justify this change in lifestyle with a savings in money. I think in the end it all washes out to neutral depending on what you find value in. It is as much of an expense as you want it to be. It will take some time to understand the optimal garden plot to plant every year and the number of chickens that is best for your household needs. I have taken advantage of the novelty of fresh eggs by giving them to my neighbors as payment for trimming the hedges between our lots or bringing them into work and sharing them with my coworkers. It has become a currency for me! If eggs are dollar bills, then honey is 20-dollar bills! Think of how rich you can become by leveraging your new bartering power!

Traci Fontyn's son with one of their urban chickensHow would you say that urban farming has helped shape your son?

Urban farming has helped get my son outdoors and to appreciate where his food comes from. When we got our first eggs, we were so excited and thanked our chickens! Keeping a garden full of vegetables and fruits that he likes has been helpful as well. We sneak snap peas off the vine, carrots, and strawberries. I have not been able to harvest any snap peas or strawberries because my garden is a snack bar -- but, I don’t mind at all!

As your son gets older, what do you hope that he learns from these experiences?

I hope that he gains confidence, courage, and tenacity to trying new things. We haven’t gone into this pretending to know everything. When there are problems we talk about them and he offers his own solution. Recently, we noticed a mouse was getting into the chicken coop and eating the chicken feed. It was bugging me because it was wasting feed and the mouse was digging under the coop and creating a mess. I expressed my frustration and my son quickly spoke up and said, "I have an idea!" His solution was to go to the desert and trap a rattlesnake in a box. We would then let the snake out inside the chicken coop so when the mouse comes back through his tunnel, the snake would eat it. What a great idea from a 5-year old! He understands the cycle of life and hierarchy of predators. When he gets older there will be a lot of knowledge to draw from these experiences, not to mention the memories of living simple where we can.

To learn more about Traci Fontyn and her gorgeous garden rooftop chicken coops, visit kippenhouse.com.

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