Story last updated at 5/2/2012 - 1:02 pm
What is it about discussing chickens that invites bad puns?
"We want to open a can of worms, and then start pecking at those worms," said Darren Snyder, talking about his latest brainchild, "Clucko de Mayo," Juneau's first ever Chicken Summit on May 5.
"By which I mean starting an open public dialogue about raising chickens at home. And answering questions on a 'free range' of topics."
First question: Do chickens really eat worms? Follow-up: Do we even have worms in Southeast Alaska?
"Yes, chickens really eat worms and sure, we've got worms in Southeast Alaska," said Snyder, who, as a University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension agent and assistant professor runs a variety of agriculture programs. "I've got some worms right here in my office. 'Chicks' dig 'em."
Sponsored by the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Snyder bills "Clucko de Mayo" as a "great day for chicken enthusiasts": seven and 1/2 hours of chicken-related lectures, discussions, workshops and tours - not to mention two barbecues.
"Clucko de Mayo" - playfully named in honor of the Mexican holiday - kicks off at University of Alaska Southeast's Egan Lecture Hall with opening remarks and an undoubtedly groaner-laden "Chickens 101" tutorial by Snyder, who regularly lectures on such agricultural topics as gardening and vermiculture (composting with worms).
Snyder then turns the program over to keynote speaker Alaska state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach. Through oversight of various agricultural industries across the state - from milk to poultry to reindeer sausage - Gerlach's office is responsible for controlling animal disease, including livestock and pets.
"Getting the state vet to come definitely steps it up a notch," said Snyder, explaining what makes this event a "summit."
In his presentation, Gerlach will touch upon various areas of his expertise including disease and parasite detection, flock management, bio-security, predator control and egg marketing.
Following Gerlach comes what Snyder hopes will be a lengthy, lively panel discussion featuring veteran Juneau chicken owners. The panel will cover nuts-and-bolts issues such as how to battle the Southeast Alaska climate, selecting chick varieties, tips for feed blends - even composting chicken manure, which, if done correctly, yields uncommonly high-nitrogen garden fertilizer.
After a barbecue chicken lunch, chicken summiteers will embark on Juneau's first ever "Tour de Coop." Modeled on local garden tours, participants will visit several home chicken coops in Juneau and Douglas before finishing at Swampy Acres, where, in addition to a final coop tour, staff will give a demonstration on chicken butchering.
"For those interested in seeing that aspect," Snyder clarified. "People from urban and suburban backgrounds tend to react with more shock. But if you're going to eat meat, you really should recognize our relationship to these animals. And that not only means killing and butchering, but raising and caring for them, too."
If you've still got your appetite, at 4:30 p.m. begins a barbecue chicken fundraiser for the local 4-H, for whom Snyder also coordinates youth programming and development. This includes a new youth chicken club slated to start sometime later this year.
The seed of "Clucko de Mayo" came from several well-attended UAF Cooperative Extension Service chicken and egg workshops held as part of the Juneau Farmers Market and Local Food Festival at the Juneau Arts and Cultural Center.
"I knew there was an interest in people growing their own food," Snyder said, noting a steady up-tick in local home chicken farming. "Juneauans are really 'flocking' to the idea of chickens, so to speak."
At its basis, "Clucko de Mayo" provides a forum for local chicken owners to meet each other and share knowledge. Eventually, Snyder hopes to help increase local egg production to be able to supply restaurants and markets - "but in a healthy way."
To that end, he and the UAF Cooperative Extension Service are working with CBJ to provide "the straight dope" on city regulations, which, operating under what Snyder characterizes as a "good neighbor policy," allow residents in 11 different zoning districts to keep up to six hens.
"We want folks to see how doable raising chickens is," said Snyder, listing among the potential rewards fresh eggs, meat and a learning experience for kids. "But there's a lot more to it than slapping together some wood and wire and bringing in chicks."
Principal challenge: predators. In Southeast Alaska, weasels, dogs, bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles, ravens and even some small rodents tend to view domestic chicken coops as their own private Boston Market.
"The main thing about 'Clucko de Mayo' is it's going to be great fun, for people who have chickens to those who might just be thinking about it," he said.
Putting his own money where his beak is, Snyder himself plans to start raising chickens in his family's yard.
"This year, we're going for it," he said. "And yes, we will probably be eating some of them. You can't tell the sex of a chicken until it gets bigger. If one turns out to be male, you have to get rid of it - what better way than eating it?"
Event tickets are $20. Participants are encouraged to pre-register online at www.uaf.edu/ces/districts/juneau or by calling 796-6221.