Counting Your Chickens Before They Move in Across the Road

For the past six months, our farmer-neighbor has been plotting to build a new chicken barn across the street from our house. As we live in a rural town in New Hampshire and in an area considered low density/light agricultural, his vision was not that unusual. There are a number of horse barns, riding rings, and farms near where we live, and more than once have the same neighbor’s cows ended up in the woods by our house. But we do live on a residential road, with most houses on 5 or 6-acre plots, so it’s not Iowa.

If you go on Google Earth and actually view the section of his 90 acres that he already cleared for this chicken coop, it is very, very big. He was planning to build a 46’ x 588’ building, enough to house 20,000 egg-laying chickens.

And this was not just any farmer. This was a socially conscious farmer. Not only did he want to have 20,000 chickens, but he wanted to have 20,000 free range chickens. He was in talks with Pete & Gerry’s Eggs about a potential contract. (To think I used to like Pete & Gerry’s Eggs!)

My sister and brother-in-law have a dozen chickens, and they are constantly telling stories of what it takes them to manage a dozen birds. And that’s a dozen. This would be that, times 1666. And it’s bad enough for someone to have 20,000 chickens, but to let them run around in the yard across from our house? What would they do all day long? The smell! The groundwater pollution! The constant clucking! Imagine not just one rooster waking us up, but however many roosters he’d have to have with 20,000 chickens (do I even want to think about how many that would be?).

One of my friends, who is a CEO of a YMCA, was telling me when there used to be a chicken farm across from his Y building, every morning he’d have to sweep the steps because they’d be covered in chicken feathers.

About 100 neighbors who live near this looming chicken disaster have been up at arms, emailing each other PDF documentation of town meetings and calculating the loss to property values (which someone estimated at $3 million for 119 homes within a half mile of the barn). We hypothesized about what point the neighbor would run out of money, as each planning board meeting apparently was costing him $10,000 in legal fees. Some people even talked about buying him out. Not necessarily buying the land, but paying him off to let go of his chicken vision.

The town had a more official approach. They required documentation on economic impact, surveying, groundwater, screening and buffer strips, HVAC, waste management, road construction standards.  They were drowning him in requirements.

My boyfriend D. and I had better chicken abatement ideas. We thought each neighbor should install different signs on our lawns, saying, “Coming Soon! Free-Range Fox Farm!” Or “Opening June 2014: Free-Range Weasel Farm!” Our best idea was driving golf balls of our roof and seeing how many we could hit with one ball. Or installing telephone poles topped with sturdy platforms to encourage hawk and eagle nests, just like one might put up bat houses to combat mosquitoes.

In one of my weaker moments, I said to my son D., “Maybe we could instill some kind of virus to make them all go away!”

And D. said, “How about chicken pox?”

In the end, what became the noose around the chickens’ neck was that in order for them to be considered “free range,” his birds had to be outside from noon to dusk. The neighbor could manage what they would be doing and where when they were inside this gigantic barn, but once they went outside, all bets were off.

We could have told them that without six months of painful late-night town meetings.

Our neighbor still claims he could house thousands of chickens in his existing barn. We hope he won’t do that just to spite us all—it is attached to his house, so that might not be appealing to him anyway. He now plans to subdivide the 90 acres into multiple house lots and sell them off.

That’s fine with us. Any new neighbors, even if they are big partiers, could never be as loud as 20,000 chickens. Or nearly as smelly.