4-H roots lead to Big Apple ag venture
By Sally McClaskey and Sherrie Whaley
Two boys in two countries, an ocean apart, learned to appreciate animals through their involvement in 4-H. Thanks to fate, years later they connected in New York City and discovered their common bond—chickens.
Eric Tiu grew up in Waverly, a small rural town in southeast Ohio, in the heart of Appalachia. He and his brother, Adam, stayed busy with Ohio 4-H chicken and rabbit projects, their main source of income as young boys.
Ohio 4-H is the youth development program of Ohio State University Extension, the statewide outreach program of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Jameel Watson was about 1,500 miles away on a farm in Jamaica, raising goats, pigs, and chickens. His 4-H experience mainly came in school, where students learned the importance of agriculture. For Jameel, raising animals meant food on the table. When he was 11, he moved with his family to New York for educational opportunities.
Fast forward to 2020. Tiu, 27, is now a videographer with his own production company in New York City. He and his roommates were looking for another person for their Brooklyn apartment when a mutual friend introduced him to Watson, who works for a tech company. They connected and Watson, 29, ended up moving in.
“We were sitting at the kitchen table, just talking and getting to know one another,” Tiu recalled. “We discovered we were both in 4-H and we both had raised chickens. It was great to share the memories and so fascinating. We grew up in two different worlds, but we were doing the same things.”
That common 4-H experience led to an idea. “We thought, let’s do it again and raise chickens!” said Tiu, an Ohio University graduate. They searched online for plans, came up with an A-frame coop, and started construction.
Luckily, their roommates were fascinated by the idea and were also on board with their plan.
Building a coop in the second largest borough of New York was a bit of a novelty, but the two had a private backyard in their apartment building that was perfect for their chickens. “We also did some research and learned that hens were 100% legal in New York City,” Tiu said. “And no permit is required.”
“Having grown up in Appalachia, it reminds me that there are many of the same problems with urban and rural poverty.”Eric Tiu
The two former 4-H members also knew it was important for their neighborhood. “There is definitely a need in our neighborhood,” explained Tiu. “We don’t have a nearby grocery to buy good, healthy food. Having grown up in Appalachia, it reminds me that there are many of the same problems with urban and rural poverty.”
They first ordered six chicks, then received a seventh from the hatchery as a bonus. In exchange, they had to promise to donate some of their future eggs, something they had already planned to do.
Tiu and Watson have had to be patient since, on average, most young female chickens start laying eggs around 6 months of age. “The hens are getting big and they’re on track to give us our first eggs late October to early November,” Watson said.
The duo knew that in New York City, there are plenty of community fridges where food is placed to be given out for free. As part of their community outreach, Tiu and Watson will contribute some of their eggs to the fridges. They also plan to sell some eggs and are working out the details on how to best do that.
“People need to do more conscious eating, and this will help,” said Watson, an alumnus of State University of New York at Oswego. “It’s important to know where your food comes from and how it was cared for. The result is better tasting and more nutritious food.”
With no traditional feed stores nearby, they have been able to conveniently order everything needed to raise chickens on the internet and have it delivered right to their Brooklyn front door—including the chickens themselves.
An extra storage closet was used for the brooding phase. “It was occupied for a while by our two-week-old broiler chickens,” Tiu laughed. Although not confident in their abilities to treat a serious poultry medical condition, they do have friends who work in the veterinary field, and there are plenty of veterinarians in the city if the need arises.
When the chickens become too big or too old for the egg venture, the partners are prepared to process them. “We raised four meat chickens for that specific purpose, because we all like chicken. We processed the fryer chickens last week," Tiu said.
Luckily for everyone, Watson is quite the accomplished cook. "We put together a small feast, fully utilizing a beak-to-butt approach of sustainable cooking," he explained. "The feathers were composted and Eric researched an ancient Native American method of preservation with corn meal to preserve the chicken heads, which we will later use to decorate our apartment. We collected the chicken blood from processing and I combined it with some ground chicken breast to make a blood sausage for the four-course chicken dinner. It was then fried and made into blood sausage baos. The chicken quarters were broken down and made into Korean fried chicken and served with coconut rice and Nappa cabbage cole slaw (the entree).The skin scraps from the chicken neck, back, thighs, and butt I baked into a spicy, crispy chicken chicharron which I used to top some lemon basil ice cream using basil from our backyard garden. And the removed chicken spine and all other fatty scraps I used to make a consommé."
“The meat chickens were a great experience, and the meal was everything Jameel described," Tiu said. "We had so much fun, and learned many lessons along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do meat chickens again in the near future."
Besides some home-grown meat and eggs, what has been one of the best things to come out of their urban agriculture project? “Seeing people’s reactions when we tell them about our chickens is the best. And it’s even better when we show them,” said Watson. “It’s such a novel thing to a lot of people, especially in New York City.”
Also satisfying for these two 4-H alumni from different parts of the world is how the youth organization continues to impact them. Watson said, “4-H in Jamaica laid the foundation about the importance of agriculture and using our hands to create food and to help others with your contributions. Those lessons stayed with me and spilled over into other aspects of my life.”
Tiu agreed. “I realize the importance of the values and knowledge I learned through Ohio 4-H,” he said. “It’s a part of me, and I want to pass that knowledge and those skills on to other people.”
And a number of citizens in the largest city in the United States will soon benefit from their venture and the 4-H lessons they learned years ago in rural Jamaica and rural Pike County, Ohio.
The novelty and potential impact of their agriculture partnership is not lost on either Tiu or Watson. “We need to pass on agricultural knowledge and the ability to create food from generation to generation. My grandparents passed that to me, and now we can share it with others,” Watson said. “Few people our age have the experience we had raising chickens. Sharing what we know and love is very rewarding.”
View some of the special girls behind the Big Apple ag venture below. All story photos courtesy of Eric Tiu.