Jessica Laehn, behind, and Mary Laehn prepare to feed their chickens behind the family home in Milton last week. The family has four chickens inside their coop, built mostly from recycled materials.

Raising backyard chickens and bees has been possible within the city of Milton only for a year now, but a handful of residents have obtained the necessary permits to produce their own eggs and honey.

It took a few years to convince the Milton Common Council to allow residential property owners to maintain chicken coops and beehives. The idea lost on a 5-1 vote in 2012 and again failed in 2014. It wasn’t until July 2020 that the city council approved a permit process, which has so far resulted in the issuance of permits for one small beekeeping operation and five chicken coops.

“It took Milton a long time to finally say we could” keep chickens within the city limits, said Stewart Ellefson. Now he is waiting for his four chickens to start laying eggs.

The chickens, who are around 18 weeks old now, will probably start laying in a couple of weeks, he said. But he and his daughter are already checking the coop for eggs every morning

In addition to obtaining city permits, residents with chickens and bees must register with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Chicken coops must be located in backyards and not within 25 feet of a habitable structure. The maximum number of chickens allowed is four; roosters are not allowed.

“Roosters are not allowed because they crow and that would be considered interfering with other residents,” city of Milton Clerk Jenny Salvo said.

“Once we receive the applications, all of the diagonal and abutting properties receive a notice,” she said. “They (other residents) have 14 days to object to the application. If there is an objection, then it goes to the city or city council and they’re able to discuss it. The council makes the final decision on if an application is approved or denied.”

Egg-laying pets

Members of the Laehn family were interested in having a chicken coop for many reasons and were happy to finally be able to obtain a permit last year.

“I have a degree in environmental science and I’ve always loved animals,” Jessica Laehn said. “We wanted to raise some chickens because we wanted eggs. And we enjoy them as pets, so it’s a mix of both a farm animal and pet.”

Laehn’s father, Larry, said he was interested in having a coop on the property, too.

“It is so much healthier for you,” Larry Laehn said. “The eggs are raised locally and are better than eggs raised in large hatcheries.”

The family made their chicken coop out of repurposed wood.

“It’s bigger than a regular chicken coop from Farm & Fleet,” Jessica Laehn said. “It’s built within the fenced area. Right now we’re now letting (the chickens) run around because we have a garden and they eat everything.”

In mid-July, the family’s four chickens—named Agatha, Pearl, Opal and Goldie—all started laying eggs consistently. The family will find three to four eggs in the coop each day.

“The eggs are different colors because we have different breeds. We even have green eggs, so the whole green eggs and ham thing is real,” Jessica said, with a laugh.

Each morning, Jessica and Larry check on all four chickens and feed them leftover fruits and vegetables as a treat.

Abuzz with bees

After helping put together a large garden near his house, Lucas Murphy thought having a beehive would be a great way to help support pollination in the area. First though, he needed some training.

To have a beehive, residents must obtain a one-time permit. The requirements are somewhat different from those to keep chickens.

One requirement is a hive must be within 200 feet from the center of the property where it is kept and cannot be within 25 feet of any dwellings, porches, gazebos, decks, swimming pools or other structures on adjoining parcels. The city allows only honeybees and a maximum of two hives per parcel.

“An interesting part of the permit is that you must be considered a certified beekeeper. They do need to take a certification course,” Salvo said.

Murphy said he enrolled in an inexpensive program that required him to watch a series of videos.

“They give you a worksheet to go with each video,” he said.

After his training, Murphy established two hives this past spring. He said he has around 3,000 bees per colony. If the bees produce enough wax and honey, Murphy will often take some for himself. But only when there’s enough for the bees themselves.

“In the first year, you never know if you’re going to be able to harvest any honey because you have to make sure the bees have enough to survive the winter,” he explained.

Murphy said he is more interested getting “the pollinators up” for him and his gardening neighbors.

That same concern over the pollinator population motivated a town of Milton couple and resulted in a honey-producing business.

In 2013, Grace and Gary Stockman watched the documentary “Vanishing of the Bees,” a 2009 film on Netflix about the then mysterious disappearance of honeybees around the world.

“After watching that, we were stunned and alarmed that the plight of the honeybee was being affected so much by herbicides and pesticides,” Grace Stockman said. “My husband turned and said to me, ‘I would like to raise bees.’ I thought, that’s crazy, we’ll be stung!”

Gary Stockman recalled as a child having a neighbor who had bees. The Stockmans eventually met a beekeeper, which only increased their fascination with beekeeping.

The couple now has 35 hives on their property out in the country and run Rustic Road Pure Honey as their business. And since the couple doesn’t live in the city of Milton, they didn’t need to obtain a permit.

“We are flourishing this summer,” Grace said. “We have tons of honey, whereas we have heard from other beekeepers (who are) struggling with their bees not bringing in any honey.”

The honey is sold out of their home, at Hawk’s Orchard and at the Milton Farmers Market.