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Chickens — the unsung heroes of sustainability in Nashville


Spring is in the air — and so is the potent smell of chicken poop.

It pervades past plentiful pollen from the newly blossoming flowers scattered throughout a large, fenced-in backyard in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seemingly unbothered, Tanisha Hall happily sits back in her Adirondack lawn chair downwind from the source of the stench, a run and coop, home to six squawking chickens.

The birds extend their feathered heads forward and their spindly legs follow, carrying them wherever the prospect of food takes them – that is, except for Hall’s garden, which she had desperately barricaded with a wired fence to protect her saplings and soon-to-be harvests from the feisty birds.

Even though the garden is usually off limits to the chickens, they still play a large role in its success.

“The girls,” she calls them, “help to make this possible,” said Hall.

Backyard chickens are the workhorses for Hall’s closed-loop approach to sustainable living in her suburban backyard. Their poop serves as a nutrient-rich fertilizer for her garden. And there are many other benefits to owning chickens: abundant fruit, vegetable and herb harvests; flowers; eggs galore and constant amusement.

From their eggs and the garden harvests, 30 to 40% of her four-person family’s diet is sourced from her backyard in the summer and fall, she said.

To get these results, the 50-year-old chicken owner doesn’t waste anything in the process.

“A lot of chicken owners throw away chicken byproduct and I’m like ‘Oh, my gosh what are you doing? Do you know that you’re throwing away black gold?’” she said, her eyes open wide in disbelief behind a pair of thick sunglasses.

“Black gold” – known to most as compost – is a mixture of chicken poop and leaves that break down in the run and are used as fertilizer in her raised garden beds.

She hasn’t used store-bought fertilizer in four or five years ever since she got her first batch of chickens, she said, thanks to Hall’s longtime friend, Kobie Pretorious.

“I went over to Kobie’s house and Kobie had these chickens just roaming everywhere and she had these beautiful eggs and the yolk was just bright orange and I was like ‘I’ve gotta do this.’”

Pretorious, a 52-year-old Davidson County resident, got her chickens on a whim in 2009, thinking it might teach her city children about animals. But what she didn’t know when she got them was that at the time, they were illegal.

So she became part of a local movement to convince Nashville’s Metro Council to legalize backyard chickens, which it did in 2012.

Since then, she has been a happy owner of legal chickens, and like Hall, they have led her to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

“The whole chickens thing really had a ripple effect in our backyard because obviously when you get chickens, you don't want to use chemicals or pesticides, so my whole backyard had to go completely organic,” said Pretorious.

Both chicken owners put the health of their chickens first instead of trying to increase egg production. Hall feeds her chickens natural foods to promote her chickens’ health as well as that of their eggs.

One of the only things that Hall buys from the store to use in her backyard is organic chicken feed. She supplements it with kitchen scraps and grubs that the birds peck around the yard for.

“Oooh that’s a big one. Oooh you got the holy grail,” said Hall, after one of her girls gobbled down a large grub.

Hall’s 71-year-old neighbor, Richard Mckinney, is a recipient of Hall’s well-fed chickens’ eggs.

“I think she feeds them well and it’s reflected in the eggs that they produce,” he said.

“They’re the best eggs in the world,” said Mckinney. “The yolk is incredibly yellow, much more than a store-bought egg. It’s noticeable when you’re cooking it. You’re like, ‘woah,’” he said, enthusiastically nodding his head.

Hall also prioritizes natural processes over trying to increase egg production by avoiding commercial techniques.

“Chickens usually require a certain amount of light to get their ovulation juices flowing,” she said, pointing to her stomach.

Commercially owned chickens and some backyard chickens are forced to lay eggs in the winter by putting lights in the coop, but Hall chooses not to.

“If I had to squeeze something out of my body like that every day,” she takes a long pause and scoffs. “Take your break, girl!”

Hall strolls over to her garden, her dark green Hunter boots packing down a wood chip path, which she sourced from her neighbors and from arborists who needed a place to dump their wood chips.

Her chickens eagerly follow, only to be met with disappointment when she seals the fence before they could find a way in.

She walks through the mostly-empty garden beds.

With the help of her chickens, the garden will resemble a jungle in a couple months, she said, describing harvests of strawberries, blueberries, figs, mint, arugula, rosemary, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, ginger, green beans, kale, 4-foot-long zucchini rampicante and sunflowers crawling up a trellis arch.

Hall leans over a large pile of black gold and sifts through the particles.

“This is the good stuff right here,” she said, cupping the dark brown matter in her hand.

But beyond what her chickens do for her garden and the eggs they produce, chickens are also a source of joy.

Pretorious considers her chickens pets that bring her amusement and comfort.

“Nothing is more fun than looking out my window and I see these fluffy butts,” said Pretorious gleefully.

She even snuggles with her chickens.

Hall, on the other hand, sees her chickens much differently.

Upon learning that Pretorious snuggles with her chickens, Hall lets out a loud “hah!” “I’m definitely not snuggling.”

Even though Hall doesn’t consider her chickens pets, she still shares affectionate moments with them.

“I’ll pick them up every once in a while and they like to fly,” she said, making quotes with her fingers at the word fly.

Hall excitedly walks up to the first chicken she sees, and in one swift motion, picks it up and holds it against her chest.

She throws the hen in the air and it desperately flaps its wings before landing on the ground after about one second, where it is greeted by Hall’s small, black Maltipoo dog Myles with a harmless, playful pounce.

The chicken frantically runs back to its coop. Hall smiles.

“I think the world would be a better place if more people had chickens.”

As she approaches her fence to leave her backyard, the smell of chicken poop gets fainter, but the sound of a chicken cackling suddenly grows.

“That’s the egg laying cackle.”

Bock bock bock bock bock buckahh!


PHOTO: Tanisha Hall in her backyard. Maddie Buchman/Belmont Vision

This article was written by Maddie Buchman.

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