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May 15, 2014

It's time to Tour D'Coop

Two-wheel motion is fun for seeing a softer side of Raleigh

The time is right for bringing a bit of country life into the city ’round these parts.

The farmers market has returned to downtown. There’s still a little time to get plants into the ground — even if that ground is a bit of earth in a bucket on your back porch. And with the return of the Tour D’Coop comes a chance to see how urban farming is done.

The 10th annual Tour is Saturday in Raleigh and Cary. This year’s event has a special bike-based feature that promotes additional thought about sustainable living in urban environments. For $10, riders can pick up a map at Oak City Cycling Project and criss-cross Midtown neighborhoods as they visit chicken coops kept in local backyards on a 20-mile choose-your-own route.

I visited a few of the sites when Todd and Elaine Spain took me on a tour through several local ’hoods. Our hourlong ride began just on the edge of Mordecai and rolled through the hills of Oakwood, through downtown, around Chavis Park and back to a lot bordering the Raleigh City Farm.

“It’s a great opportunity to see how you can live a sustainable life in an urban setting,” Todd said of the ride and the Tour. “You can build chicken coops, you can commute on your bike and live a very happy lifestyle like that,” Todd Spain said.

More than a hobby

Our first stop was Laura Wright’s home, where 10 chickens, including a mischievous girl named Sweet Thing, live out of sight, behind a fence that borders Wright’s exquisitely (and personally) landscaped yard.

“I started with three, and I love it ... they’re great pets,” she said. “Once you get set up, there’s really very little work to it. Maybe 10 minutes a day.”

In those few minutes, she freshens up her chickens’ living quarters, gives them fresh water, collects eggs, checks the perimeter for safety concerns and gives them a bit of quality time.

Wright uses the litter method with her brood, mixing manure and bedding for their dwelling in a backyard enclosure. And the girls, whom she’ll keep even after they stop regularly laying eggs (a time span of about two years), enjoy a quiet life. Most of the time.

Sweet Thing is the most adventurous of the brood. She survived an encounter with Wright’s black Lab, who later rescued the chicken when a raccoon — one of the urban chicken’s common urban predators — attacked.

“She qualifies as a house chicken,” Wright said. “She must be part cat. She’s on her third life. Or maybe her fourth.”

Although chickens as part of a country-in-the-city lifestyle are waning in popularity among the hipster set, as evidenced by the growing number of chickens being turned in to animal shelters nationwide, there’s a contingent of folks who are committed to making yard birds part of their long-term plans for a urban agriculture lifestyle.

Two of the guys at Oak City Bike Project have them. David Zell and his family had a small flock several years ago until they were wiped out by foxes.

“My wife and I were on the Tour three years ago,” he said. “The good thing about the Tour is that the coops that they choose to showcase have all been embedded. They’ve got the wire down in the foundation, they’re made with hardware cloth, they have some type of latch system so a critter can’t flip it open and get the chickens,” he explained.

Riding through Midtown as the thoughts for this column came together, I thought of what a trifecta of thoughtful urban living looks like in our community — fellowship fostered by alternative transportation and a personal willingness to connect; a commitment to local food evidenced by shopping at a farmers market, or buying from a CSA; and personal projects ranging from container gardening to keeping backyard chickens.

These small practices reinforce weak social ties, the ones that used to bind us before our quotidian car trips through the neighborhood became more like urban safaris from the vantage point of sealed car windows.

Shake up your routine

Riding in the tour this weekend provides “just an opportunity to connect with people,” Elaine Spain said. “Everybody’s on their phones, on their iPads, you don’t even talk to people anymore.

“But being in an urban setting, you get to see your neighbors and exchange stories with other people,” she said.

Raleigh is known for its blend of just enough country flavor in the just-small-enough city. Take advantage of the best of both worlds this weekend, and see a bit of that blend on two wheels.


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