It's hard to overstate how cute a box of fluffy chicks can be — and no one knows that better than Steve Brown.
Brown, an extension agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension office in Palmer picks up chicks at the post office every other year. He said nothing grabs people's attention like a little box of a dozen or so chirping chicks.
"Puppies don't have anything on baby chicks," Brown said.
Those post office pickups are a growing trend across the state. Poultry imports are on the rise in Alaska, according to state veterinarian Bob Gerlach.
His office keeps track of all farm animals imported into the state. In the 2016 fiscal year, almost 125,000 birds were imported into Alaska.
That's quadruple the number from the year before — 30,000 birds — and nine times more than in 2014, when 14,000 birds came into the state.
Other farm animals imports — including cattle, swine and horses — are also up over the same time period, but none have spiked as dramatically as poultry.
The number of people who applied for a permit to import chickens is also up dramatically — they went from 220 permits in 2014 to 1,645 permits in 2016.
Brown said classes for the extension's "chicken university" regularly fill up, regardless of where they're held, with about 500 people a year taking one of the dozen classes. Similar classes at Alaska Mill and Feed also fill up quickly, according to sales manager Kimberly McCourtney.
To some local chicken enthusiasts, news of the increase is not a surprise. Anyone can order chicks from Lower 48 hatcheries online and get them in the mail. While it's difficult to get data on what towns and regions the chickens are bound for once they reach Alaska, interviews with chicken coop owners, backyard hobbyists and state agencies seem indicate that most of the birds are going to backyard flocks.
There are no reports of large, commercial operations with thousands of birds. While some people might have flocks of up to 100 chickens or more, most are small, backyard broods of less than 20.
Brown has one of those small flocks. His eight buff orpingtons and one chantecler — a rooster named Picard, whose predecessor was a rooster named Khan — live at Brown's home near the base of Hatcher Pass.
Brown uses the chickens for some of his work at the Cooperative Extension and for a "farming for missionaries" class he teaches at a local Bible college. His flock produces about three eggs a day.
The chickens are mostly for fun, Brown said. Growing up in Kansas he always had chickens, and when he moved to Alaska 10 years ago he wanted to keep having them.
Brown said he's seeing more of them in his neighborhood lately.
"You walk around and you can hear more and more of them," he said.
Alex Davis of A.D. Farms in Palmer said chickens are an easy way to get into farming. Chicks only cost a couple dollars each — a relatively low-risk investment. For $300, including shipping, he was able to buy 50 birds and start a small flock at his farm.
"I do think the small backyard flocks can feed your family and feed some of your friends," he said. "That's where a lot of them are going."
For Richelle Plummer, the hobby grew into something bigger. After selling her chicken eggs on Craigslist, she banded together with a group of fellow backyard farmers together to start the Mat Su Farm Co-Op two years ago.
She and about 30 other farmers sell eggs at Natural Pantry and New Sagaya in Anchorage. It's legal to sell eggs as long as they are kept cool and labeled properly. The direct sale of chicken meat is also legal, as long as fewer than 20,000 birds are slaughtered from the producer each year. No farm in Alaska comes close to that level of production. The last commercial poultry farm, Triple D in Wasilla, closed in 2011.
She said most people who get involved with chickens do it either because they want them as pets or for food to feed their family. The farmers in the co-op all have flocks of 30 to 100 birds.
She said few, if any, are hoping to make it into a business.
"In my line of work, most were pets first," Plummer said. "People are selling eggs to recoup their feed bill. It's a net loss to them."
No missing toes
More Alaskans are getting chickens, and it appears they're getting better at taking care of them.
In 2011, Anchorage municipal code was rewritten to allow residents to keep backyard pets in enclosed areas on residential lots. (Roosters, however, are still prohibited in most parts of the city, along with other noise-making birds like geese and peacocks.) Over the next couple years there were more backyard coops and also more bears raiding them.
Lucy Peckham was part of the Coalition for Backyard Pets, a group that petitioned the Anchorage Assembly to update laws allowing for backyard hens in 2011.
"A lot of those people (getting chickens) did not do their research, didn't do their due diligence," she said.
She said the coalition partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to educate chicken owners on topics like keeping coops clean and installing bear fencing.
It seems to have worked. Dave Battle, Anchorage area wildlife biologist, said that in the last year there haven't been more calls about bears or other wildlife invading chicken coops.
Peckham also thinks people interested in chickens today are more serious about the endeavor.
"I think the people who did not do a good job of it have dropped off and the people who are doing it responsibly are still doing it," she said.
Brown, with Cooperative Extension, agrees. He said when he first started working for Cooperative Extension he saw a lot of chickens with missing toes, the result of frostbite. Taking cues from farmers in warmer climates, the chicken owners had installed round posts for their birds to sit on. When the chickens curled their talons over the post it led to a loss of circulation and frostbite. He encouraged people to create flat perches for chickens instead, and "I haven't seen a chicken with a missing toe in years," he said.
Brown said he gets several emails a week with people with chicken problems, but few veterinarians will care for the animals, leaving many to seek out alternative sources.
"People get really bad advice on the internet," he said.
But there are plenty of people taking good care of chickens. From elaborate hen houses in Anchorage to one chicken owner in Talkeetna, who cares for 10-year-old chickens by going out to stoke a fire that warms the coop, Brown said.
For them, it's just about the joy of having the animals around.
"Having chickens run around the yard, people love that," Brown said.