Home chicken farms are a growing trend for many reasons – food security, environmental sustainability and the joys of collecting fresh eggs every morning. For two Mistissini residents, the catalyst was travel restrictions introduced during the pandemic.
“It was a project we had planned a couple of years ago and with Covid came the right time to start it,” said Minnie Coonishish, noting that store-bought food used to be a rarity. “It’s easy to maintain them. My children love it too. Anybody can do it and I hope to see other people doing it.”
After Goose Break, her family purchased four chickens and associated supplies from a small farm outside Chibougamau. Around the same time, fellow Mistissini resident Bethanie Blacksmith also purchased seven chickens.
“This past year it’s a trending idea everywhere to have backyard chickens,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “We’ve just been loving it and surprisingly my husband and kids are loving it too. I feel there’s a nice change happening within the Cree Nation where we’re leaning more towards agriculture, horticulture and self-sustainability.”
Larry Linton was reportedly the first to bring farm animals to Mistissini in the late 1970s. Blacksmith fondly recalls visiting her best friends there. While she always loved the farm life and dreamed of one day owning a horse, chickens are a better fit for her backyard.
“We were going to build this fancy coop we found on Pinterest, but then realized it’s going to be a time-saver to turn the small shed into a chicken coop,” explained Blacksmith. “We cleared everything out of there and painted everything white with two nesting boxes and an outdoor run for the chickens.”
Coonishish’s husband built a coop in their front yard just outside their bedroom window. They plan to add a second fence after a dog took off with one of their chickens a few weeks ago. Although stray dogs are a concern, most of her feathered friends’ visitors have been more than welcome.
“A lot of neighbourhood kids come around and it’s like a zoo for them,” said Coonishish. “For some, it’s the first time they’ve seen a chicken, so they come over and peek in. The first time they laid eggs, my 11-year-old said I’m going to make scrambled eggs. Whenever they see eggs, they pick them up.”
Blacksmith’s chickens are also a popular attraction for neighbourhood children. More recently, she began supporting the next generation by incubating eggs obtained from a hatchery near Gatineau.
“We bought 22 and incubated them,” explained Blacksmith. “We have eight Rhode Island Whites and two Easter Eggers that hatched last week. They are the cutest, fluffiest things. My children’s friends come over to look at them and hold them. They’re full of questions and it’s really fun.”
Most people raise chickens for a steady supply of eggs. Coonishish expects each chicken will produce an egg a day for the next three years, although the change of season normally decreases output. Blacksmith stopped giving away eggs in the week before leaving for their moose camp and had nine cartons amassed already.
Relatively little time and money is required after the initial investment – Coonishish said it cost under $200 for her chickens, wood shavings, food and water dispensers, and heated lamps. Although chickens generate significant body heat, both owners are still planning for winter arrangements.
Chickens are versatile eaters, consuming kitchen scraps and whatever insects they can find besides their specialized feed. While it’s been a constant learning experience, both women are so pleased with how it’s going that they’re already planning to expand operations.
“We’ve been wanting to build a camp close enough to the community but far enough away not to bother anybody,” shared Blacksmith. “Definitely expand on the coop and maybe have up to 40 chickens. I want to try getting some goats and making some goat milk. You can make tons of stuff out of goat milk – soap, milk, cheese. That would be fun.”