Thursday, June 19, 2008

Accokeek chickens living it up

Scout project benefits environmental center

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Susan Whitney⁄The Star
Josh Queen of Accokeek stands by a chicken tractor on Monday that he built for use at Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek. Queen coordinated the acquisition of donated materials and construction of the tractor for his Eagle Scout project. His Eagle Scout application is under review.
About 30 chickens at the Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek have the best of both worlds — they enjoy the comfort and security of a coop without sacrificing the fresh air, bugs and clover of a grassy field.

The birds live in a chicken tractor — a spacious, portable cage that is left out in a field and periodically moved to new pecking ground.

‘‘With a chicken tractor, you can have free-range chickens in a controlled environment,” said 17-year-old Joshua Queen, who oversaw the construction of the device.

Queen, of Accokeek, and members of his Boy Scout troop built the chickens’ 143-square-foot living quarters in April as Queen’s Eagle Scout project. Boy Scouts must complete an extensive service project and satisfy other requirements before becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the program.

‘‘This is something we had really been wanting,” farm manager Eileen Watts said.

The Hard Bargain Farm, part of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, used a similar chicken tractor last year that it had borrowed from the nearby Accokeek Foundation, but this is the first it has owned, Watts said.

The tractor serves as a farm tool, an educational device and a money generator for the environmental center because chickens raised in the tractor will be sold at a higher price as healthy, free-range meat, Watts said.

‘‘People are willing to pay more for happy chickens,” Watts said. Having the chicken tractor ‘‘is an investment, I think.”

The word ‘‘tractor” is misleading, because the device is simply a fenced enclosure that is dragged or pulled to new locations, Queen said.

‘‘The name ‘chicken tractor’ actually eludes me a little bit,” said Queen, who had never heard of a chicken tractor before working with the Hard Bargain Farm to build this one.

Watts suggested Queen build the tractor after he approached her a few months ago to inquire if he could contribute anything to the farm for his Eagle Scout project.

‘‘I think it’s a good idea,” said Queen, who has been a Boy Scout for six years and lives down the road from the farm. ‘‘It’s smart to keep chickens in an enclosed area, but also nice to have them in a large enough area where they can get exercise.”

Queen, other members of Boy Scout Troop 1572, and parents spent four days assembling the chicken tractor. All the money and supplies that went into building it were donated by the Accokeek-Bryans Road Lions Club, the Masons, the Alice Ferguson Foundation and local businesses, said Queen, whose Eagle Scout application is under review.

The tractor’s frame is made of PVC pipe and includes a hinged door. The frame is wrapped with wire fencing and has a tarp secured over half the top to provide the birds shelter from the sun and rain.

Watts said it takes at least two people to move the device, and that she sometimes drags it with a tractor. It should be moved every day or two, which is enough time for the chickens to thoroughly peck, scratch and fertilize the ground.

The tractor is educational because it makes it easy for farm employees to show chickens to visiting school groups.

‘‘This is an environmental education center, with lots of school groups, and I think this is a great addition to show kids where their food comes from,” Watts said.

Watts said the enclosure is necessary for raising free-range chickens because left unprotected in a field, they would be easy picking for snakes, raccoons, foxes, hawks and other predators, especially when they are asleep.

‘‘Chickens collapse at night,” Watts said. ‘‘They’re just sitting ducks.”

E-mail Andy Zieminski