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Finding benefit in home farming in North Fayette

 Finding benefit in home farming in North Fayette

Pulling into Traci Cutri’s driveway, you’d never guess her North Fayette residence is home to 12 hens, four ducks and 50,000 honeybees in the backyard.

But rounding the corner of the house, you would find a coop, a pond and four hives, all neat and clean and brimming with life.

Just beyond a “Duck Crossing” sign posted on a tree, Ms. Cutri stood in her chicken coop on Oct. 26 and observed a hen cluck and caw her way through laying a brown-shelled egg that would reveal a deep orange yolk when cracked.

Several other chickens and ducks waddled up a ramp linking the indoor and outdoor enclosures and mingled, exchanging quacks and clucks.

Ms. Cutri said she is improving her land and food sources through the practice of animal husbandry — an activity more serious than a hobby but less elaborate than a commercial working farm.

It’s a spiritual relationship among humans, animals and land, she said.

“I love these animals,” Ms. Cutri said. “I take good care of them and in turn, they give me good quality eggs and fertilizer, which I in turn use for my garden and flowers.”

Ms. Cutri’s two-acre property is on Pattridge Road, a stretch without public water or sewer service that’s rural enough to hear raindrops in the trees and see flocks of cedar waxwings take flight, but urban enough to hear truck traffic on Route 22/30 in Imperial and race cars revving on the Pennsylvania Motor Speedway on Saturday nights.

North Fayette officials are looking to restrict fowl and other traditionally agricultural animals in residential areas, and this summer they proposed banning them on properties less than five acres.

But township staff went back to the drawing board after a dozen residents protested the idea in August and suggested a formula based on the number of permitted animals and property size.

Officials planned to research urban farm rules in other communities and seek advice from a university extension program to help draft regulations. a new plan has not been presented yet.

Even in the dense neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, many residents keep bees and chickens, with the number regulated by a square-footage calculation.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous if you can do something in the City of Pittsburgh but you can’t do it out here,” Ms. Cutri said.

Ms. Cutri grew up in Glen Gormley, a planned housing development in North Fayette. she said even in that setting, it would be viable to keep a beehive or a few chickens in a shed.

“The square footage thing is a fair way to approach it,” she said. “I think everybody should be able to enjoy this.”

A desire for high-quality food and for better soil to grow vegetables and flowers kicked off Ms. Cutri’s interest in keeping backyard creatures.

Soon after building her house 11 years ago, she acquired ducks and installed a large pond lined with recycled car tires. the pond has drawn visitors such as deer, hawks and blue heron, and it has attracted a permanent resident — a painted turtle that’s native to Pennsylvania.

Chickens followed about five years later, along with a homemade coop built of recycled materials.

Two years ago, Ms. Cutri learned beekeeping basics during a two-day, $80 course from the nonprofit Burgh Bees, whose mission is “to educate beekeepers and promote beekeeping as a vital part of sustainable agriculture in Pittsburgh and its suburbs.”

Ms. Cutri composts chicken manure along with food scraps to fertilize her garden. this summer she grew more than 60 tomato plants and canned much of the bounty.

Since beginning to keep honeybees, she’s noticed her plum, pear and apple trees producing more fruit — in fact, she said, the bees pollinate plants within a three-mile radius, helping neighbors’ gardens, too.

Ms. Cutri’s fowl collection contains no noisy rooster, only egg-laying hens: Buff Orpingtons, Jersey Blacks and Rhode Island Reds. the chickens stay healthy on a diet of pecked bugs and protein feed from the local Agway.

In warm weather, each hen lays one or two eggs a day, crouched in one of the boxes attached to the wall of the indoor coop. Unlike commercial poultry operations, Ms. Cutri lets the hens slow their egg production in the winter, their innate response to decreasing daylight.

“When you let them do it naturally, you get a better quality egg,” she said.

Chicken and duck eggs — the domesticated Rouen ducks often drop their eggs in the corner of the outdoor coop — help feed Ms. Cutri’s family, including her husband and three daughters, ages 16, 13 and 11.

The tall green rubber boots Mom wears in the coop aren’t cool to the teenagers, but the girls mustn’t mind her white bee suit. they planned to help their mother last weekend extract and jar honey from the four beehives, each resembling a wooden chest of drawers painted pastel yellow.

“It’s a good experience for children to learn the whole process,” Ms. Cutri said.

Three hives contain at least 10,000 bees each, and the oldest one hosts about 15,000, Ms. Cutri said.

Each hive generates about 80 pounds of honey, and Ms. Cutri harvests about a third of it, leaving the rest for the bees to consume during winter months.

Producing fresh eggs and honey from the backyard is a good reminder that food doesn’t come straight from the supermarket, Ms. Cutri said.

“We’re distracting ourselves from our food source,” she said. “We truck things in from thousands of miles away, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

She said landowners in North Fayette sell their property to housing developers and lease Marcellus Shale rights to drillers, and residents should be able to use their land to keep animals if they choose.

“You get taxed a lot of money on your property,” she said, “so why shouldn’t you use it to the fullest extent?”

For the past two years, Ms. Cutri has claimed an $80 tax credit though the Allegheny County Clean & Green program because she practices agricultural activities.

Ms. Cutri works as a county benefits manager and is a member of the Allegheny Green initiative’s Green Team, which promotes sustainable practices within county government and beyond.

Her animal family extends to more traditional pets, including two dogs, two cats, a rabbit, a guinea pig and a Russian land tortoise.

A chicken isn’t much different than a dog or a cat, Ms. Cutri said, but it provides more opportunities for food and nourishment.

“This is a deeper relationship than most people have with a dog or a cat because I’m taking care of them, and they’re taking care of me — literally.”

While the domestic pets have names, the only fowl to have earned a moniker was Omelet, “a glamorous white ducky” who was buried in the backyard earlier this fall after living out his approximately seven-year life, Ms. Cutri said.

“It was sad,” she said. “We miss him.”

With chickens, ducks, bees and house pets, would Ms. Cutri like to add any other animals to her menagerie?

“I would love to have a little goat,” she said, “but I’m not pushing it.”

First published on November 3, 2011 at 5:28 am

Finding benefit in home farming in North Fayette

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