Talk chicken to a northerner and chances are they’ll assume you’re talking spruce grouse…and they’ll probably start to get hungry. But these days, Yellowknifers are more often referring to their downy Buff Orpingtons or their cold-resistant Partridge Chanteclers when talk turns fowl. The hearty heritage breeds of domestic hens, known for their egg-laying bounties, have quietly taken roost in several neighbourhoods around the city, dropping colourful eggs that turn every day into a kind of subarctic Easter miracle.
Erika Janes inherited a henhouse when her family bought a home in Willow Flats almost two years ago. The tin-roofed, fully winterized building could easily be mistaken for a garden shed, but inside it’s home to 15 chickens and a couple of heat lamps. A collective of seven families built the coop in 2012, then flew up chicks from Alberta. “We each looked after them one evening a week, and we had work bees about twice a year for general maintenance and upkeep,” recalls Leanne Robinson, one of the founders of the egg co-op. While none of the original families are involved today, the co-op still runs in much the same way.
On the chilly day I visited in April, “the girls” were clearly not convinced of the merits of stepping outside for a photo shoot, despite having been cooped up all winter. They stood by the open door, heads bobbing, curious; but like most residents in their laid-back, Old Town neighbourhood, they seemed pretty happy with their digs.
“The chicken run is practically bomb proof now.”
The chickens will spend their summer scratching about outside in their wholly contained pen, enclosed 360 degrees with wire and bolstered by large rocks at its base – reinforcements that were made after a fox got into the henhouse and ate half the brood. Janes noticed an upsurge in fox numbers after the blasting on Twin Pine Hill for new condo units, which likely displaced their dens. “The chicken run is practically bomb proof now,” she says.
The hens’ upkeep falls to co-operative members who are each assigned one day a week to check in on them. Chores include cleaning up the poop, feeding and watering, and collecting the six or seven eggs they produce daily. “Inputs and outputs,” is how Janes describes the tasks.
The ladies in their coop
Each member pays a $200 fee to join, which is meant to cover ongoing costs such as feed, supplements and replenishing the stock. Members such as Dave Kellett and Sheila Bassi-Kellett also contribute kitchen scraps and other compostables to the cause.
“Dave and I are Tuesdays,” says Bassi-Kellett as she shows off a half-dozen eggs, one the colour of a pale blue sky and the others soft pinks and browns, that are sitting in a Polar Egg carton she pulls from her refrigerator. “The colours of the shells are just beautiful, and the yolks are so yellow and so flavourful.”
Co-operative members are paying a premium for the taste of those fresh eggs. Bassi-Kellett concedes it would be cheaper to buy eggs from the store, but there are more considerations than just cost when it comes to animal husbandry.
Janes is one of the supporters and developers of the new Yellowknife Food Charter, which she says “is calling for a more just and sustainable food system.” Launched in January as a food security initiative of the Yellowknifer Farmer’s Market, part of the charter’s vision is to have governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses and families work towards providing everyone equal access to an economically viable, diverse and ecologically sustainable food system. While local production is a big part of that, self-sustainability is not the whole picture, says Janes. The charter also deals with food that comes from elsewhere, waste streams — everything that’s involved in feeding people.
A lot of the co-operative members also have children who are afforded wonderful opportunities to learn about how food is sourced and the care and effort that goes into it. Janes says her two children were present when some hens were culled after they were no longer producing eggs. “I think that’s good they understand the chicken that comes in the package actually is a creature.”
The chickens have also become a talking point for passers-by in Willow Flats. Janes says not having a rooster to blast an early morning wake-up call has helped keep the birds and the co-operative in good stead with the neighbours, something she learned the hard way.
“We had a rooster that started crowing in the spring, and my room is right there,” she says, pointing to the house, “so now we don’t have any roosters.”
While it may seem an anomaly to have chickens in the heart of Yellowknife, it isn’t out of place. Last November, a professor from Alaska visited to give a talk on raising chickens in a northern climate and Janes says about 30 people showed up from all parts of the city, all of whom had chickens. They may not be crowing about it, but Yellowknifers, it seems, are increasingly taking poultry matters into their own hands.