By Carlos Morales
At 6 a.m., Lisa Kettyle received the call she’d been waiting months for. Soon she headed for the Marfa post office.
“Hello, I’m here to pick up chickens!” Kettyle chirped excitedly.
From behind the front desk of the post office, you can hear the high-pitched sounds of about three dozen hatchlings. They’re snuggly packed in a cardboard box with air holes punctured all around. Normally, chicks are easily found at supply stores. But around the country, hatcheries were experiencing a surge in chick demand — and Kettyle was caught in the fever.
In March and April, chick hatcheries across the country had a sudden surge in orders from first-time buyers. Some vendors said it would take up to eight weeks to get in new orders of chicks, others reported sales spikes up to 50%, and a few couldn’t keep up with the demand for chick supplies, like heaters and food. The orders were coming from a range of customers: people worried they might not be able to get eggs in the future, but also regulars, like ranchers, looking to re-up their stock.
For Kettyle though, she’s been wanting backyard chicks ever since she moved to Marfa two years ago. She raised some growing up in Pennsylvania and has been wanting her own coop in the rural West Texas desert.
Before she made the big jump, Kettyle reached out to other residents who were looking for some feathered companions and ended up organizing a bulk buy with her neighbors. But in the Big Bend region, large chick suppliers said they were completely sold out and would be for weeks. Eventually, Kettyle was able to source some chicks from a hatchery in New Mexico — $166 for 37 chicks.
“They said that the demand for chickens across the country was so high that it was gonna be another round of hatched chicks before we could get (our) shipment,” Kettyle says.
Like other Big Bend suppliers, 83-year-old Herb Suber has also had a hard time keeping chicks in stock. Suber runs Suberade, a supply and feed store in Marfa. He says he’ll likely get more soon. The one-time rancher says, every year he sells hundreds of chicks, but he noticed in March an uptick in people interested in starting a backyard chicken flock. In small-town Texas, where residents generally know each other, Suber says he was fielding calls from names he didn’t recognize wanting to purchase chickens. Other callers were asking for advice.
“They call me all the time,” says Suber with a chuckle. “Some will come back in here later and say, ‘Can you give me advice on how to raise these chickens?’”
Some are in a bit over their head, Suber says, who at one point had hundreds of chicks of his own at his Far West Texas ranch.
“They’re babies! You got to take care of them. Keep them warm, fed and watered.”
While Kettyle waited for her birds to arrive, she put together a brooder and bought feed and a heat lamp to keep the hatchlings warm.
“There’s a ton of stuff to do,” says Kettyle. “We would’ve built a chicken coop from scratch, but we had an old shed in our backyard, so we just remodeled the shed into the Fort Knox of chicken coops.”
Kettyle’s dubbed her chicken coop Convenience Nest, a reference to the local barbecue restaurant Convenience West. “Hopefully these chickens don’t go the way of barbecue,” jokes Kettyle.
Relative to new chick owners, Douglas Friedman seems like a bit of a professional at just three months. His chicken ranch, as he calls it, sits on a dusty hill just outside Marfa’s city limits.
“No one kind of prepares you for this. I didn’t really know what to do,” says Friedman. “A lot of it was instinctual.”
Friedman doesn’t currently have much work, and for a while, he was stuck at his home in Marfa because of shelter-in-place orders. So, he and his neighbors, Melinda Beeman and Allen McLain, decided to raise some chickens.
The 25 birds roost in a coop that Friedman’s dubbed “The Best Little Hen House in Texas”— a nod to the 80s musical comedy starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. Friedman eventually made an Instagram account for the coop, which then became wildly popular when Martha Stewart commented on a picture of the chickens — a moment captured on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”
“What was so helpful about that Instagram page was that people that knew about chickens and chicken coops, they were all so generous with their knowledge,” Friedman recalls. He said he learned a few things through ‘chicken Instagram,’ like how to prevent common health risks for chicks and how to take care of his coop.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of this type of responsibility like, you know, I want to make sure that nothing happens to these birds.”
Friedman says chicks have provided some routine and comfort in his day-to-day life. When he wakes up, he says, he knows he has to get moving quickly. He needs to check on his flock and feed them every morning, sometimes bringing them some sliced cucumbers or carrots to snack on.
“If you had asked me three months ago, if I saw myself raising chickens in Marfa, Texas, in the beginning of the summer, I would have said no way,” says Douglas. “But this has become very satisfying.”
He’s found the chicks have helped him structure his day — a necessity during a time that can feel uncertain for so many.
Editor’s note: Lisa Kettyle is a staff member at Marfa Public Radio.