When 15-year-old Luca Citroen and his 9-year-old sister Logan returned from Camp Newman this summer, among the things they told their mom were stories about the camp’s chickens and how they lived.
They have more expertise in this area than most kids; as part of “The Chicken Family,” the siblings help their mom, Leslie Citroen, with the family business: Mill Valley Chickens.
Leslie Citroen, who lives in Mill Valley and is a member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, will have a booth at the Sukkot Harvest Festival at the Osher Marin JCC on Sunday, Sept. 22. She will bring chicks for people to hold, and at 1 p.m. will give a presentation on raising backyard chickens.
Citroen grew up in Fremont and was active in 4-H as a child. She doesn’t remember whether her first exposure to live chickens came in 4-H or as a camper at Camp Swig’s kibbutz session.
In any case, she majored in agribusiness at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then became a general contractor. It was only when her kids began asking for a pet that chickens re-emerged into her life.
“What they really wanted was a dog, but I didn’t think we were ready for the responsibility,” she said. “So we started with a fish, and then a turtle, and then moved up to chickens.”
While the chickens were intended as pets, it was an ordering mistake that turned the hobby into a business. Citroen had read that the attrition rate when buying baby chicks is about 25 percent. Not realizing that the figure applies more to farmers who buy in large quantities, she got too many chicks to start. When she asked around to see if anyone wanted the extra chicks, she discovered there was a high demand.
This came at a time when Citroen’s business was slow due to the economy, so four years ago, she started Mill Valley Chickens, and now spends at least 25 hours a week selling a variety of hand-raised heritage chicks and pullets, teaching classes and offering her expertise to chicken owners.
So far this year, she has sold 2,000 baby chicks, with customers coming from as far away as Eureka and Los Angeles. Because she carries some rare breeds, “I’ve had people from Saudi Arabia find us on Internet, wanting to order some.”
Citroen pays for no advertising; her business is entirely through her website and word of mouth.
In addition to offering supplies and knowledge, she also uses her contractor savvy to design and build chicken coops. While she doesn’t do the installation, she does make onsite visits.
And two years ago, she started another business, Judy Chicken (named after a beloved former pet chicken), through which she sells chicken-themed knickknacks. She found that once people have backyard chickens, their desire for chicken-themed tchotchkes is practically a given.
While chickens aren’t high on most people’s list of potential pets, Citroen said they actually make great pets. They don’t require as much feeding as dogs, and cleanup is minimal, she said. And, of course, there’s this positive: “You get an egg a day per chicken.”
That dovetails nicely with the Jewish food movement and the increased awareness of where food comes from. In most commercial chicken operations, the birds “don’t have space to span their wings; they are living in a space the size of an 8-by-11 piece of paper. They also de-beak them, because they start pecking at themselves in such close quarters,” Citroen said. And “buying organic eggs is meaningless, because they’re still living in deplorable conditions but eating organic feed.”
Getting your eggs from backyard chickens helps to avoid that situation, she said, and even better, having chickens as pets brings a lot of joy. “Chickens are delightful. They have way more personality than a cat,” she said. “Some breeds can weigh up to 9 pounds, which is larger than some dogs … They’re inquisitive and follow you around, and find ways to sneak into the house if you leave the door open. They’re also very funny. People fall in love with their chickens.”