When Noah Leff moved into his Crown Heights brownstone six years ago, he never imagined he would become Brooklyn’s resident chicken expert. Now, as the owner of Victory Chicken, Leff helps New Yorkers become part of the city’s growing urban agriculture movement.
When he first moved to Brooklyn, Leff, 40, became involved in his neighborhood’s community garden and started working with the chickens that live in the neighborhood’s coop. Through his work with the neighborhood birds, Leff had the idea to start his “quirky little business” which builds and installs coops in and around New York, provides hens for egg-laying and educates New Yorkers on how to raise chickens in their communities and homes.
“I quickly realized it was super easy to keep chickens in the city and kind of like a lot of fun for me,” he said.
While urban farming in New York has been on the rise for years, chicken raising has only recently started to boom as New Yorkers embrace the concept of slow food , and the movement’s idea that locally grown and sourced food is healthier and more environmentally sound.
For Leff, this increased desire meant that there needed to be an easier way for interested New Yorkers to get chicken coops started and have eggs and some meat sourced as locally as possible: from their own backyards and gardens.
“You can’t just go to the pet store and buy chickens or buy a chicken coop,” Leff said. “I just realized that people needed an easy way to do this. They needed an easy way to get chickens, to get coops because after we’ve helped them do that, it is super easy to maintain.”
For Leff, who currently uses the chickens for their eggs but plans to eat his family’s three hens once they reach around five-years-old and are past their egg-laying years, keeping chickens in the city is a “really reasonable way” for New Yorkers to take part in farming.
“From an urban agriculture standpoint it is very effective,” Leff said. “It is essentially the same cost as going to the supermarket so it seems very possible to me that a lot of people could just start doing this in their backyard and not have to buy factory-farmed eggs.”
While Leff says that chickens are essentially “gerbils that lay eggs” and that maintaining birds on his property is easy, keeping chickens in the city is not without its challenges.
Last spring, Lisa Heller, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, started raising chickens as what she believed would be a “fun project” for her and her 5-year-old son, Jackson. What she did not know then was that her project would become a long struggle with lead-contamination issues.
“I had my soil tested at Brooklyn College and, sure enough, my soil sample came back really high,” she said. “It had really high levels of lead and the eggs had really high levels of lead. I’m a mom, I can’t feed my kid lead.”
According to Leff, lead is a “real issue for urban farmers,” and all urban chicken-raisers need to remediate their land in order to keep their food supply safe. When Victory Chicken sets up a coop, Leff said he always makes sure that new hen owners—roosters are illegal in New York due to crowing and aggressive behavior— know about soil contamination issues.
“The thing is, if lead is going to be a problem in your chickens, if you are raising them in a high-lead environment, that environment is also not one where you can grow most vegetables or one in which you can even really hang out,” Leff said. “Chickens in a high-lead environment will get lead in their eggs as well as in their flesh.”
For Heller, this “lack of remediation” in her backyard meant getting rid of her original animals but, even so, she plans to continue farming her Brooklyn yard. Now, she is in the process of acquiring new birds and replacing soil in a section of her backyard so they will not come into contact with lead-contaminated soil.
“What I would say is that I love animals and I enjoyed having the chickens as pets,” she said. “If you are an urban farmer and you are doing this for the eggs only, the lead can be a lot of work for just some eggs.”
For Leff, the fact that his company is thriving despite lead issues demonstrates that urban agriculture is “working its way into the mainstream” of New York City society.
“A lot of people who keep chickens in the city were thought of as being people who want to live off the grid or are kind of hippyish” he said. “We’ve done rooftops, we’ve estates in Greenwich, we’ve gone to Long Island. This does not need to be an eccentric or fringe thing to do.”