There was no doubt that it was morning on Bynum-Leatherwood Road.
Dozens of roosters crowed constantly as 62 hobby farmers had already set up hundreds of cages — each one containing a chicken or duck raised to be a prize winner — Saturday morning in the Calhoun County Agri-Center. Sonja Oden waited by the door, greeting new competitors, though crowing was so loud, new acquaintances sometimes had to introduce themselves twice.
“We have competitors here as young as five and up into their 80s,” said Oden, a Rainbow City resident and organizer of the Heart of Dixie Chicken Show, which drew hobby farmers from as far away as South Carolina. Rhode Island Reds, massive Orpingtons and Silver Sebrights competed for best in breed and finally for the title of Grand Champion Bird.
“Whenever I tell people I’m headed to a chicken show, they start laughing,” said Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess. “But it’s a passion, for the people who do it. They’re keeping up a tradition.”
Hess was one of the few non-birders in the audience at the show. Most of the rest were devout poultry hobbyists. Old men who can’t remember a time when they didn’t have at least a few backyard birds. Kids who ordered a dozen chicks or more on a whim, from their school’s 4H Club. And suburbanites who wanted to know more about where their food comes from.
Fernando Del Aguila, a nurse from Athens, Ga., started raising birds as part of an effort to eat better. His wife has lupus, he said, and the couple thought home-raised birds would give them healthier eggs.
Del Aguila was at the contest showing off a few Marans, large chickens that lay eggs in a dark color that some describe as “black copper.”
“It’s neat, because it’s something you can’t find at the grocery store,” Del Aguila said. “It’s like a walnut or a chocolate color.”
Small-time poultry farming had its mainstream moment years ago. Major hardware stores stock glossy manuals on urban chicken-keeping. Foodies blog about it. But hobbyists often raise “production” birds – regular chickens raised for eggs and meat. Raising “show” chickens, as the Heart of Dixie competitors do, is more specialized, and the competitors seem keenly aware of the need to recruit young people into the hobby.
Chicken-show judge Larry Deason said he can tell the difference between a production bird and a show bird in a second.
“In a production bird, the tail carriage is always the same, like this,” he said, holding his hand straight up like a Braves fan preparing to do the chop.
That’s a summary. Deason in fact spent two years in training, judging competitions under other judges, to qualify as a judge himself. He drove from Missouri to don a lab coat and walk the rows, judging birds. Fellow judge Dwight Madsen also came from Missouri.
“Next week I’ll be in Florida and by the end of the month I’ll be in California,” Madsen said.
Also walking the rows, in white overalls and blue plastic booties, were Josh Bean and Dana Bennett, inspectors for the Alabama Department of Agriculture. They swabbed the mouths of five birds brought by every competitor. If lab results later show avian influenza in one of the birds, it’s the end for that chicken and all its brothers and sisters.
“In that case, we have to depopulate the flock,” Bean said.
The point, they say is to protect Alabama from virulent bird-flu strains that could cross over into the human population. They do the same tests at flea markets such as Collinsville Trade Day and Mountain Top in Attalla.
Death is something chicken farmers learn to cope with early on. Snakes can find their way into coops even when foxes can’t. Some at the show say they’ve seen raccoons open latched doors. Harry Douglas of Guntersville said he keeps his chickens in coops with half-inch mesh wire, and surrounds the coops with a privacy fence, all to keep predators out.
“Even a snake’s not going to get through that,” said Douglas, who won national championships in 1981 and 1988.
Hobby farmers inside city limits face another challenge.
“The City of Gadsden won’t let you raise chickens, and neither will Attalla,” said show organizer Oden.
Oden said her daughter Sarah, now 18, started a hatchery she calls Bockingham Palace after ordering chicks from a 4H Club, part of a state effort to get school kids interested in agriculture. Not long afterward, Rainbow City began considering an ordinance against chickens farms within city. Sarah convinced them not to, Oden said.
“She went down there and talked to them,” Oden said. “Later they actually sponsored her for competitions.”
Traveling to competitions means spending money, a fact that Hess, the county commissioner is quick to point out. The Agri-Center, built with old chickenhouse rafters, cost the county about $50,000 to build, he said. It attracts visitors, he said, who may well spend the night in a local hotel.
“I always tell them, eat at a restaurant and get a tank of gas before you go,” he said.