Friday, April 13, 2012

Jody Noble Choder: Raising the Roost in Pittsburgh, PA

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We've all been taught about the greatest historical "movements": Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and even Beethoven's Fifth. But a chicken movement? Oh, yeah! It's the hottest, new trend and it's coming to a back yard near you. Consider the case of Jody Noble Choder, an urban chicken farmer in the Highland Park community of Pittsburgh, PA.

     Choder, has a normal job as a respected corporate attorney. She never really had it in her mind to raise chickens. However, with roots in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, she did consider herself a country bred girl with a dark secret.

     "To tell you the truth, when I hit my teenage years, I couldn't wait to get out to the city, " Choder admitted. "I wanted the bright lights, the wide sidewalks; all of that." And so, years later, after starting her legal career and getting married, she and her husband, Steve moved to Pittsburgh and into the Point Breeze community where after only a year into the renovation of their new home, Jody Noble Choder found a better house, a quiet place with a big yard, plenty of flora and fauna; up against the Highland Park damn. It would become the best of all possible worlds for her. 

     Said Choder, "You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl. Well, it didn't stop there. Next thing I knew, I was watching Martha Stewart's TV show, putting in vegetable and French potager garden; building raised bed and gravel paths."

     No one can deny that Martha Stewart makes country living look more than incredible. When the lifestyle diva ran a story on raising chickens, Choder was smitten. She ran the idea of getting some young peeps past her husband. He was no instant Martha fan. He would only agree with the plan, if they built their own chicken coop, to save the expense. It was only much later that the couple realized they didn't have the carpentry skills to do it right.

     "We bought a dog house from Lowes and tried to retro fit it. The problem is we forgot about the door." The first spring their young peeps where killed by weasels, who lived near the damn. Choder refused to accept failure, but vowed not to bring another peep into the house, until they had their act together. 

     The second year, the Choders went back to To Lambert's Tack and Feed in Butler, PA, determined to get more peeps, and raise a better roost. With only a few more setbacks--young ducklings they purchased "disappeared," possibly met with foul play--the Choders soon became worthy of the title: Urban chicken farmers. They purchased a heat lamp and kept it and the young peeps on their sun porch to warm the downy birds so they could safely "feather out." They learned they had to harden them off, much like plants before the peeps could be placed outdoors. They perused every chicken raising catalogue and magazine known to man. Sure, they could build a better dog house, but it still wasn't a chicken coop. Before long, they spied an amazing Amish built chicken domicile.

     "Our chickens went from humble Section 8 housing to a five-star mansion," Choder said. The new coop had automatic doors, heated roots to warm their feet, special in-door lighting, nesting boxes, and an easy-clean floor. "Our hens must have felt like they hit the chicken lottery!"  The Choders then dubbed their feather friends with names. Now in addition to their dog, two cats and pond fish, there was Gregory Peck, a rooster; Buffy the Worm Slayer, Attila the Hen, Hillary Rodham Chicken, Princess Lay-a, and finally (who could resist it?) Mother Clucker.

     By six degrees of separation, the Choders began find other urban chicken farmers. the network grew through friends and friends of friends. By 2010 the group wanted to host the city's first self-guided coop tour. The plans were somewhat hampered when they learned the City of Pittsburgh was looking to create a chicken ordinance that required a zoning variance. However, by the next year the dust settled and the tour could be planned. And so, with four east end coops and four on the Northside, the first Urban Chicken Coop Tour was launched.

     "We expected some success, but for a first year event, the interest was phenomenal! We had over 450 people attend coming from Uniontown, West Virginia and as far away as Ohio." The numbers included a diverse range of men, women and children. At a price of only $5 for adults and children for free, the tour had great family appeal. The event even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

     Choder added simply: "People want to know where their food is coming from. It's an opportunity for parents to teach their kids something, and everyone wants to eat healthier." Tour-goers also got to see a variety of yard set-ups, and exchange chicken farming tips." It seemed not a single person went away lacking information.

     One of the surprise hits of the tour were the tee-shirts designed by Jason Sauer, owner of Most Wanted Fine Art, a gallery and Yoga spot on Penn Avenue. The tees were emblazoned with the caption: Chicks In The Hood. They quickly sold out. Proceeds from the the tour were donated to the Urban Food Bank.

     "Chickens are lot like potato chips; you can't have just one," explained Jody Noble Choder. Still, she hasn't gone down the crazy chicken slope, like a friend of hers (who shall remain nameless). She only maintains five chickens."The treatment of the birds by most urban farmers is very humane. The birds aren't injected with chemicals, they are free range, and we give them organic feed." The Choders raise a kinder, gentler chicken. The eggs the hens produce are given away to friends and even neighborhood restaurants like Salt, which have offered trade in return.

     "Some people are surprised by what we do, but I don't know why," said Choder. "People use to raise chickens in the city all the time, before it fell out of favor. It's such a good and holistic practice. It's nice to have some control over what you eat."

Take your Dad to see some Chicks this Fathers’ Day!


2nd Annual Pittsburgh Urban Chicken Coop Tour

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