All of the nearly 100 seats were filled, leaving some members of the overflow audience to stand.
The attraction: an egg production seminar that was part of the University of Florida Cooperative Extension's regional AGRItunity 2013 Conference in late January.
Speaker Dennis Mudge, the Orange County extension agent, began with an announcement about the business of raising poultry: "You won't get rich. Most people who get into chickens lose money."
He paused theatrically, then invited those dismayed by his statement to leave.
No one got up.
Mudge, who helped to ferry a backyard poultry ordinance through the Orlando City Council, grinned knowingly. He acknowledged an "explosive interest" in small poultry flock production, in urban centers as well as rural.
"Chickens are in style," he told his audience, whose members ranged from city slickers to general farmers.
Mudge said most people raise chickens in pursuit of "safe food," not profit. Also, keeping backyard egg layers — fewer folks raise chickens for meat — provides an engaging, hands-on family project, teaches youngsters responsibility and finishes the family garden by providing nutrient-rich fertilizer, he said.
Recognizing their constituents' interests, city and county officials around the area — even some homeowners associations — are reworking zoning laws and ordinances to allow small poultry flocks, Mudge noted.
In unincorporated Hernando County, an ordinance approved last week allows up to four hens per parcel of property in many single-family residential areas.
The ordinances are not without problems.
Mudge cautioned those thinking about raising chickens: "The biggest problem you'll face is your neighbors."
The Hernando ordinance requires that chickens be housed in a secured coop with 3 square feet of floor space per bird, ventilation, doors and gates. The coops would have to be in a back yard and not visible from an adjoining property or street; they would have to be at least 25 feet from a neighboring residence and 5 feet from the property line.
Also, the facility would have to be kept clean, sanitary and odor-free. The flock would not be permitted to create a nuisance of odor, noise or pests, and chickens would be kept for personal use only.
Stock manager Robert Santo at Western Stampede Feed and Seed in Masaryktown said "most certainly" the demand for chicken peeps will increase with passage of the Hernando ordinance. The store occasionally has peeps for sale when available from local producers, he said.
Santo himself raises chickens and is a staunch believer in the endeavor.
Of his homegrown eggs, he said: "You can crack it open, and it's bright orange, meaning it has more vitamins. Have you ever bought eggs from a store and cracked it open and it's pale? (Homegrown) is a healthier egg all around."
Ranch Hand Feed Depot in Brooksville has peeps for sale regularly, except during the coldest winter and hottest summer months, said spokeswoman Jamie Berg. Day-old peeps arrive direct from a hatchery. Standard varieties are priced about $3.99 per bird, a couple dollars more for exotic breeds.
"Rhode Island reds are the most popular layer," Berg said, echoing Mudge and Santo.
Also readily available are white and brown leghorns, Americanas that produce pale green and blue eggs, DeKalb Amberlinks in white or amber feathers, and brightly colored bantams.
Tractor Supply Co. of Brooksville is offering peeps for sale weekly through April 22 — $2.99 each for females, with a minimum purchase of six birds.
Andrew Heltsley, poultry chief at the company's corporate headquarters in Tennessee, said the minimum is set so customers won't buy one or two birds as an Easter or child's gift. Such purchases generally die, he said.
At Tractor Supply, choices generally are available from pens filled with red or white layers, Cornish rocks, bantams and a featured variety of the week. Brooksville store manager Joyce Moore said stocks sell out quickly.
Abundant information is available on raising chickens, said Hernando extension director Stacy Strickland. He said his office at 1653 Blaise Drive in Brooksville, off the State Road 50 truck bypass, can provide printed instructions.
Via its electronic connection to the extension service at UF, the local office can download a collection of poultry subjects, from starting peeps to feeds and nutrition, housing, health, economics, pests and management.
"We have all kinds of things that are going to steer people in the right direction," Strickland said.
With demand expected to rise, Strickland said he also is putting together online classes. Visit extension.hernandocounty.us.
At the AGRItunity gathering, Nick Place, the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences dean for extension and director of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, said outreach efforts such as the conference's poultry production seminar respond to the college's aim of connecting people with the food they eat.
Similarly, Place said, local ordinances will facilitate that connection.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]