Rhonda Piasecki and Sharon Rowland like chickens, a lot. They’re also master gardeners, good friends and co-founders of Just Us Hens, a new urban garden consulting and chicken-sitting business based out of their Portland homes.
Piasecki, a Boston native, says she got interested in chickens because it was the next step in organic gardening and growing her own food. “Chickens and gardening go hand in hand,” adds Rowland, a native of the Northwest. “They produce compost, scratch the soil, eat bugs and then there’s the pleasant noises they make.”
Just Us Hens is the first business venture for both women, who met while working at the Urban Farm Store. Piasecki says they immediately hit it off and then stayed in touch after she left the job for health reasons. When someone suggested that she consider being a chicken consultant, Piasecki mentioned it to Rowland who was throwing around a similar idea. “She wanted to do chicken sitting and even had a name for the business. I thought oh my god, it might actually happen,” says Piasecki.
The two brainstormed for months, read as much as possible, and wrote down their ideas and resources for gardening and chicken care before launching the business in May. Rowland developed the blog and web site, which went live at the beginning of July. Their business model is flexible at this point, a work in progress considering their pioneering venture.
When Your Hen Needs a Diaper, Who You Gonna Call?
Portland has a substantial urban chicken population but as many owners have discovered, raising and caring for backyard chickens isn’t as easy as one might think. Hens are particular about their nests, fight amongst themselves, become ill, are prey to raccoons and coyotes, and at some point, stop laying eggs.
That’s where Just Us Hens come in. Combined, Rowland and Piasecki are a wealth of chicken care knowledge. They’ve helped develop chicken coop ideas, nursed sick birds, and resolved complex social and roosting issues.
Just Us Hens offer answers and advice for urban chicken keepers.
Piasecki tells the story of one hen that ate her own feathers. The constant biting created a bald spot on the hen that was susceptible to infection and other chickens’ pecking. “I’d heard about people who put diapers on their chickens so they could go in the house,” she says. “So I went on line and found a woman in Alabama who makes these saddles that go over the chicken.” Piasecki ordered several monogrammed denim “saddles” and strapped one to her hen. “I had to stop that behavior somehow,” she says with a laugh.
It worked. Within a couple months the hen’s bald spot had healed and her behavior was permanently modified.
“When I first got chickens,” explains Piasecki, “I wish there were people I could have called for help. Now, we have the knowledge and have experienced enough weird things with backyard chickens that we can help others.”
Chickens and Goats and Bees, Oh My!
Although Rowland and Pieasecki have focused on egg-laying hens, they intend to add “meat birds” to their repertoire because more people are raising and/or learning to butcher their own chickens. “People need to think about the lifespan of their chickens. When they’re done laying eggs are they going to retire them or make them into soup stock? It’s just a reality,” says Rowland.
Piesecki's yard shares garden space with her neighbor, and shares the bounty.
“There is an awakening,” adds Piesecki. “People want to know where their food comes from. The bad economy has also forced people to change.”
Portland is an excellent example of a city that has readily adopted the local food movement but Rowland says she visits a lot of forums pertaining to gardening and urban farming and sees the movement taking shape all around the U.S. She points out the similarity between the local food movement and the World War I and II Victory Gardens that encouraged self-sufficiency. People were prompted to use their yards, porches and rooftops for growing food and raising chickens. A popular early 20th century propaganda poster stated “two hens in the yard for each person in the house can feed a family.”
Rowland and Piasecki would like to see that happen. In fact, they’d be thrilled to see goats and bees in backyards, as well. They believe the time is right for people who want to go all out to reconnect with their food sources. Both women are studying beekeeping and goat husbandry to meet whatever urban farming issues their clients may encounter in the yard.
Goats and bees are in the future for Just Us Hens.
Just Us Hens has received calls for chicken, ferret and rabbit sitting but for now, the women are keeping their services limited to chickens. They also prefer to reach their jobs by bike, which means staying within North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods. Of course, that would change if they start to get calls for chicken sitting outside the metro area.
This summer, the women will be tabling at local farmers markets and summer festivals. On September 12, they’ll give a talk on basic chicken care at Tryon Creek State Park. They’d like to do more of that. “That was one of the things we wanted our business to do, because we love chickens so much, and we love talking about chickens and gardening. We’d like to share that information with people.”
That shouldn’t be too difficult for these innovative entrepreneurs! To learn more about Just Us Hens and chicken keeping services visit www.justushens.com. North Portland residents call 503.887.2098 Northeast Portland residents call 503.470.0433