Jennifer Murtoff’s best marketing device is her rubber chicken purse. People always ask about the rubber chicken purse. That gives her an in to talk about chickens, about how she started raising them in the 4th grade in rural Pennsylvania, about how she has loved them ever since and now loves helping other people figure out how to raise them, too.
Then she pulls out her business card. It’s got a photo of her holding a chicken on one side and this quote from Frank Lloyd Wright on the back: “Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.” When she hands it to people, she introduces herself as Jennifer Murtoff, urban chicken consultant.
“And then they usually say ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard! How do you make any money at that?’” Murtoff laughs.
This may be the best (or at least, our favorite) indication yet that food-conscious city-dwellers are increasingly bypassing the supermarket for the back-yard urban farmstead: There is someone in Chicago who works as an urban chicken consultant.
Granted, the gig isn’t full-time (although Murtoff would like it to be). The 36-year-old works as a freelance editor, writer, and translator by day. But demand is growing for her chicken seminars, chicken house calls, and chicken hand-holding. Murtoff's bundle of services include teaching clients how to set up a chicken coop, how to identify a sick chicken, and what to do about the ones you want to eat. She will not, however, do the killing. “I point them to a butcher shop,” she says.
The whole idea originated, in fact, with the chicken purse.
One day in 2008, she carried it to see her accountant (yes, her accountant: “I am completely unashamed about carrying the rubber chicken purse anywhere,” she explains). He remarked on it, as people do, and they got to talking about chickens and the coop he wanted to build in his back yard. Right there, Murtoff started to explain what he needed to do and where he needed to put things. You know, he told her, a lot of people want to do this, too.
On a lark, Murtoff mocked up some business cards on Vistaprint for a business called Home to Roost, and ordered just 250 of them for $16. Now she can’t recall how many refills she’s gone through, and has 230 regular chicken devotees in the area on her email list.
Unlike some cities, there are no regulations in Chicago expressly forbidding backyard chicken coops, although residents aren’t allowed to raise animals for slaughter on their property, and roosters can run afoul of excessive noise ordinances. The people who are now doing this are in it for a lot of reasons: for the eggs, for the poop, which makes great fertilizer, for the companionship and for the certainty of knowing where at least some of their food comes from.
“And I think it’s the economy,” Murtoff says. “Seriously, with people losing jobs, it’s nice to have a bird in your backyard that can give you breakfast. I think that’s part of it. And we’re starting to wake up to what’s going on with our food system.”
This isn't just happening in Chicago. People are constantly sending Murtoff links to articles about chickens in Dallas, chickens in San Francisco, chickens in New York City. People contact her for help changing local regulations in towns that aren’t chicken-friendly. She may have to add this to her menu of services: chicken character witness. Murtoff has never, though, come across anyone else who does what she does, and she is certainly the only game in Chicago.
The whole enterprise actually isn’t that difficult to translate to the city (you should not, however, translate it into your apartment). But there are a lot of things city people just don’t know about chickens, like how to hold them without communicating to them that you’re nervous. Also: chickens don’t show signs of illness until they’re literally about to die; chicken psychology is different from cat and dog psychology; and chickens are flock creatures, which means they exhibit distinct personality and adhere to a pecking order.
“A lot of the people I talk to don’t have that cultural knowledge, the farming knowledge has been lost,” Murtoff says. “We’re dealing with a generation that for the most part hasn’t had chickens. I do have some clients who say, ‘I remember my grandpa had chickens… .’ Most of them, this is a new thing. It’s knowledge that has to be passed along again because we’re missing one of the links in the chain.”
Put that way, Murtoff has a pretty serious responsibility. She is the lone link between a whole community of people who would like to become urban farmers, and the farming knowledge that has disappeared alongside America’s farming population.
She is, herself, not an urban chicken farmer these days. She lives in an apartment just outside the city, in Oak Park, where she has the luxury of keeping only a parakeet. She’d like to have a house, though, alongside that full-time chicken consultancy.
For now, she says, “I live vicariously through other peoples’ chickens.”