In one of the first Portlandia skits, titled “Farm,” Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen are sitting in a nice Portland restaurant contemplating ordering chicken. They ask many absurd and detailed questions before deciding to drive thirty miles to go see the farm where the chicken was raised in order to make sure they can eat the chicken without upsetting their moral compasses. Today, in our interview with Chris Chulos, a chicken farmer based out of Oregon City, we bring the farm to you, so you don’t have to drive all the way out there. Chris Chulos brings beautiful eggs to Portland Homestead Supply every Friday and sells pullets, young hens, during “Pullet Days” that occur frequently at the shop. The interview below is stocked with useful information about raising your own chickens in your backyard, as well as with Chris’s own practices and ideologies as a chicken farmer.
When did you start raising chickens and how did you become interested in this profession?
It was in 1955. I was with my great-grandmother and she raised chickens out of the Woodburn area. I’d go over there every chance I got to help her feed her chickens. She grew up on a homestead in California. She always had chickens and of all the great grandkids, I was the one that took an interest, and I still have the love for them. My dad’s dad was from Greece, and he was a farmer. I got the love of growing plants from him. I used to work at a paper mill for thirty plus years and then that shut down. So I went back to school. I got my Horticulture degree and just graduated from that!
Did you always raise chickens on the side?
Yes. I worked at the paper mill for thirty-nine and a half years. I started when I was nineteen. I always kept birds on the side. I want to see where my eggs come from. A lot of them that you buy in the store are up to two weeks old. They’re in cold storage. The way they are treated and washed with chemicals, I don’t want to eat that. They feed them a very inadequate diet. That’s why I’ve raised a lot of my own stuff.
Did you learn gardening and animal-raising skills from your family?
A lot of them. I also worked for a landscaper florist from seventh grade on in Oregon City, in his yard and his shop. He had birds too. He had a duck that I wanted and I asked him if I could buy it. He said no, but if you want to work for it, go right ahead! I worked for him for twelve years.
And you got that duck!
I did, I did. And many other things.
As consumers, we go to the store and are overwhelmed by choices differentiated by certifications and phrases. Are you certified organic or free range? What do these certifications mean for you as a farmer?
No, I am not because to me that’s all false. I know people that say they are certified and then as soon as the person who certifies them leaves, they are back to their old ways, treating the animals with antibiotics and everything. I do vaccinate my chickens because there are certain diseases that are impossible to get rid of if they get into your property. If you vaccinate, they don’t get those diseases. Other than that, my chickens are raised on mostly organic, natural feeds. They have two acres to run loose on; they aren’t cage-raised. A lot of them were raised under their own mothers. The ones that aren’t raised by their own mothers, I buy from hatcheries.
Is there a benefit to them being raised by their own mothers?
Yeah, it costs less because there are fewer light bulbs to worry about going out and their mother takes care of them. One disadvantage is that you can only raise so many chicks under a hen, where if you have a light, you can raise however many you want.
How many chickens do you have on your farm?
There were over 400 hundred birds there as of last week. One place bought over 200 of them. I have chicks hatching all the time. The same with ducks because I raise ducks also. I have two acres that are fenced, and they have free run of all that.
Is raising chickens and ducks together in the backyard good practice?
Yes! I’ve been doing it for years. I have ducks, geese, chickens, and pheasants, finches, parakeets. Everything is good together. The only thing I don’t let down below is my little dog. She likes chicken.
Do you sell duck eggs as well?
Yes, yes. But right now I’m trying to hatch most of them so I don’t have as many to sell. I’m raising for next year’s crop.
Which eggs do you choose to hatch and which do you choose to sell?
The only chicken eggs I hatch are very specific breeds that I have that you can’t buy. I have three different kinds, two in particular, you’re not going to find anywhere else.
What are those breeds?
One of them is called the Penedesenca. It is a Spanish chicken that they thought was extinct and they found some in a little village in the mountains of Spain. I happened to run into a gal that was in the club that brought them in to the United States, and she didn’t like them. They are very high-strung, but they’re good layers. I got them out of Reno. Then, I have some that I breed myself. One lays dark, dark green eggs, the color of holly. This green is just an Ameraucana mix, in which I used several breeds to cultivate the dark green. It took me years of crossing to get there. Another cross that I did resulted in a robin blue egg, which I named Applelousa. I like to try to figure out genetics. I can do those, and it’s short-term work. If you’re working with cattle or something like that, it might be twenty years down the road. The dark green egg only took me five years to develop. Nobody else has these two breeds. I haven’t named the dark green eggs yet, but I should.
You put on Pullet Day at the Portland Homestead Supply. What does a pullet mean?
It’s a young hen that hasn’t started laying yet.
Why should homesteaders want young hens?
If you get a young hen, you’re going to get approximately three years of egg laying. If you buy one that’s already laid, you don’t know how old that hen is. It might be a year; it might be several years or several months. You just don’t know. So you want to buy a hen that hasn’t started laying yet.
When people leave Pullet Day with a hen, what is your best advice to them about raising that hen?
Make sure the pen they are going into is secure because of predators. Give them good, different kinds of feed. They like variety, like us. Some people only feed them pellets. No, give them a variety! If you have scraps for the house, give it to them. A lot of people say, “Don’t.” In reality, there’s only one food you don’t give them, which is avocado. It’s poisonous to all birds.
What do you think are the biggest challenges of raising chickens for people in their backyards?
Predators. Raccoons, neighborhood dogs. Once in a while cats. I’ve only had cats get in to a kill a chicken a few times in all the years I’ve had them. But dogs, coyotes, raccoons. Raccoons are the worst because they can just reach in, pull the head out, eat the head and leave the rest.
Do you have any advice for raccoon problems?
Just make sure your pen is very secure at night. Instead of using chicken wire, use hardware cloth or small-gauged wire because they can’t reach through it.
I’ve heard you teach classes. What sort of classes do you teach?
I teach poultry-keeping, grafting classes for fruit trees, and gardening classes because I love to grow stuff. There’s a place that wants me to help them with their creamery. I work wherever helping others out. I’m old, and I’ve raised almost every type of critter there is…
Except for raccoons.
Oh, I had a couple baby raccoons once too. I shot the Mom because she was in the hen house. I came home the next day, and there were two babies. We put them in a cage. You’d walk by and they’d stick their little hands out at you. We started giving them fruit. They would climb right up on you and purr. A friend took them and named them Pepsi and Coke. They had them for years. They lived down here in Milwaukie.
Were the raccoons friendly because they were raised by humans?
They’d come up and sit on your lap and take food out of your hands and snuggle with you. They were awesome.
Where do you sell your products other than here?
All over Portland metro area. I send birds to Minnesota just a couple weeks ago and to Texas. I’ve sent birds to just about every state.
How do you see your work fitting into the larger homesteading movement?
I feel like I’m helping a lot of people get into something they’ve always thought about but haven’t done. I give advice all the time. I get sometimes a dozen calls a day. People with different problems with their birds or looking to get birds, and I give them free advice. That’s how I learned, and I took it for granted because I grew up around it. If I can help people get into things, I do it. I also help out at an orchard at the college in Oregon City (Chris is talking about the Home Orchard Society, which we profiled last month – see here for the interview). I do the harvesting there. Just yesterday, I picked apples, blueberries, currants and pears.
Do you plan on continuing to raise birds in the future?
I’ll continue doing this because I love it, and it’s helping a lot of other people that don’t have the facilities or the know-how on how to raise chicks from the beginning. I have the facilities and I love it. My grandkids help me; they live just down the road. All three of them are into it because they raise their own rabbits, chickens, and guinea pigs. It runs in the family.
Do you have any other pro-tips for people raising chickens in their backyards?
Look for birds that are vaccinated, that are healthy and bright-eyed with a good color to their face. Those are the main things because if they are sick, you can see it in their eyes. It’s all the little things.