Glen Greenfelder grew up with chickens and knows you don't name them or try to interfere with the pecking order. You can still give them the good life, though.
He and his wife, Gail, have created five-star accommodations for their diverse flock of 31 hens, with an elaborate backyard coop featuring a wrought iron chandelier, stained glass windows, automatic water and feeders, and first class bedding.
"That coop is bigger than my first apartment," joked Gail's grown daughter, Megan Moris. "It's no wonder that most of the chickens live beyond their five-year life expectancies."
Gail credits local antiques dealer Dale Laumer for finding the coop's substantial old tobacco door. The Ivy Cottage also provided architectural elements that adorn the weathered lumber and tin exterior. The 15 nesting boxes each include a Victorian glass egg (encourages production), and both Glen and Gail agree that the sweat equity they pour into the operation keeps them grounded.
"They come running when I get home," said Glen, a local attorney. "It's such a contrast to trials and daily activities at the office."
If they lived 200 feet further east into the city limits, however, the Greenfelders' Maison De Poule could find itself running afoul of the law. Dade City commissioners are pecking at a possible chicken ordinance to restrict backyard coops to just six hens kept in confined spaces. Loose chickens and their owners will soon be outlaws.
All the squawking began earlier this year, as residents complained to code enforcement about abandoned fowl roaming the city streets. City attorney Karla Owens discovered chickens were protected by the local bird sanctuary ordinance, so no one was allowed to trap them. In July, city commissioners removed chickens as a protected species and went a step further, saying residents may not "harbor, feed, water and or shelter wild or domestic chickens or roosters within the city limits." The only exception was for people keeping fowl on agriculturally zoned land.
(In addition to sitting just outside the city limits, the Greenfelders are on agriculturally zoned land, so their chickens are in the clear.)
Still, Dade City officials have held off enforcing the ban until they could craft a measure allowing residents to keep a few chickens in secure coops.
"The plan now is to introduce the new ordinance on Sept. 10," city attorney Karla Owens said at Tuesday's meeting. She is drafting the new language and said public hearings will be scheduled for Sept. 24 and Oct. 9. Barring anything unforseen, she said, the new law would become effective on Oct. 10.
Some residents have told commissioners they rely on their backyard chickens for cheap, fresh eggs. But there's nothing cheap about the Greenfelders' operation.
"Gail spends $5 a dozen to raise their eggs because Glen always wanted a farm after he got his law degree," said Frank "The Chicken Man" Bennett, who designed happy homestead for the couple's flock of Black Stars, Americana, Polish, Sussex, Faverolle, and Mille Fleurs. (The eggs are for personal consumption, as state regulations prohibit the Greenfelders from serving home-grown eggs at their Dade City restaurant, Kafe Kokopelli.)
Bennett, a local chicken farmer for over 40 years, thought it was an overelaborate operation. At first.
"I must admit," he said, "that allowing them to run free in this environment trained them to the point that they come running. Ninety-five percent of all chickens in Florida are in cages.
Glen got his start in chicken farming as a 7-year-old in Dade City. "I started mucking coops at Bottom Lay Farm," he said. "I eventually did it all, from collecting eggs, incubating, grading, and packaging them for sale in bulk at Featherhill Farm."
His backyard operation these days includes an 800-square-foot enclosure and 5 acres of free range roaming room. The diet cycle from beak to craw to gullet to manure to fertilizer is made up of yard worms and bugs. On the advice from MaryJanesFarm magazine, the Greenfelders supplement feed with all natural Layer Crumble and occasional vegetable and fruit scraps. Only the strongest hens get to the bok choy and other cruciferous treats.
"They're composting and dust producing machines," Glen said. "Each one has their own characteristics. But they're basically livestock and I learned a long time ago that we ate our animals and you don't need to get too friendly."
Bennett begs to differ. "Glen says that," he said, "but you always see him go out and affectionately pick them up."
The Greenfelders cull out the roosters when their combs show up and they start crowing.
"There's only one rooster in our hen house," Gail said, "and that's Glen."