Karen Zemble has never felt a greater connection to farming and the land than she has during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In these isolating pandemic times, I’ve never been so thankful for my chickens,” Zemble said. “The ability to supply my family with nutritious, fresh eggs that we create while also eliminating pretty much all of our food waste has affected me deeply.”
Zemble has kept chickens in the backyard of her Princeton home for two years, and had chickens at her former home in Virginia for a decade. “I’m now known as the eccentric chicken lady,” she said.
Chicken ownership has become increasingly popular in recent years as people seek a more direct connection to food production, and the coronavirus pandemic has heightened interest in raising young chickens for a reliable supply of eggs.
In Princeton, chicken ownership became sanctioned by the local government in March, just as the pandemic hit the region. The Princeton Council unanimously passed an ordinance with guidelines for chicken ownership, joining a growing number of New Jersey towns that permit residents to keep chickens in their backyards. Prior to the consolidation of the two Princetons, each municipality had its own rules about domesticated animals.
The chicken ordinance, which originated from a resolution by the Princeton Environmental Commission in 2018 in support of backyard chickens, was drafted by a working group including Zemble, Councilwoman Eve Niedergang and several others.
After the environmental commission passed a resolution in 2018, the commission spent two years workshopping the ordinance. Two educational events were held in Princeton, and advocates for the ordinance reached out to residents to address concerns and questions. The public was also asked to comment on the ordinance before it was approved by the Princeton Council, and no one commented negatively, Zemble said.
New regulations detailed in the ordinance include minimum lot sizes, chicken coop sizes, side-yard, and rear-yard setback regulations. Backyard lots must be at least 5,000 square feet for two chickens, 10,000 square feet for three, 15,000 for four, 30,000 for six, and 60,000 for eight. Owners must have an enclosed run in addition to their coop; the coop size cannot exceed 100 square feet.
Chickens must have access to grass or dirt areas. Residents may keep hens, but cannot sell their eggs, and there is an annual $20 license fee to keep chickens. The ordinance does not cover roosters.
Lawrence passed a similar chicken ordinance in 2016, and Hopewell Township passed an ordinance back in 2011. The ordinance stirred controversy in Hopewell at the time, mostly because of the issue of roosters, which are seen by residents as a noise nuisance. Under the Hopewell ordinances, any young male chicken that crows must be removed from a property within five days. If there are any crowing roosters on a property for more than 20 days in a calendar year, all roosters are prohibited from that property for at least a 24-month period.
Princeton residents have been raising backyard chickens for years, but the consolidated Princeton did not have any official regulations until this March. Having an ordinance define a uniform set of guidelines for owners was an important step to ensure chickens were being kept safely, Zemble said. Since March, the local board of health and the animal control officer have been working together to track the number and health of backyard chickens in Princeton.
Former Princeton Township ordinances addressed commercial farming, but did not define the practice of keeping backyard chickens. Former Princeton Borough’s ordinances addressed domesticated animals, but did not define the practice of keeping backyard poultry.
The ordinance protects chicken owners from complaints, said Jenny Ludmer, a Princeton resident and member of the ordinance working group. When she adopted hens eight years ago, the rules were unclear. Ludmer was concerned that “if a neighbor complained, that could be a problem.” Luckily, she said, her neighbors have always been accepting and curious.
For Zemble, the benefits of chicken ownership are numerous. Chickens eat ticks and other bugs, which has allowed Zemble to protect her family from lyme disease and control pest populations without chemicals or sprays. Zemble’s chickens are also pets. “They have personalities, you can play with them,” she said, adding that they have also given her children an education in farming and environmentalism.
Chickens also eat all sorts of food scraps, thereby reducing food waste. Ludmer noted that their manure is very strong in nitrogen, an important nutrient for gardening, and can be mixed into compost to create rich, organic soil.
For Ludmer, it’s all about the fresh eggs. Thanks to her four backyard hens, she rarely buys eggs at the store anymore. Homegrown eggs are fresher, taste better and have higher nutritional value, she said.
When she cracks an egg from her hens, it stands up higher and is brighter orange than its store-bought counterpart, she said.
“I often pull the eggs out while they’re still warm,” Ludmer said. “We’re getting our eggs the freshest they can possibly be.”