Violet was in a bad mood. The normally-lustrous lavender orpington chicken was molting, which is an unglamorous and uncomfortable time for a chicken. Since she made her debut on Good Morning Maine two years ago, Violet has usually been the star of Lisa Steele’s flock. But with her feathers itching and falling off, Violet sulked in the corner of the coop.
Luckily, Charlotte was ready for her moment in the spotlight. The charming brown chicken quietly cooed and preened as Steele held her up to the camera. Steele has been grooming Charlotte — along with two other lavender orpingtons she affectionately calls Baby Violet 1 and 2 — to be spokes-chickens for her frequent conference, television and social media appearances.
“She was in a Facebook Live the other day,” Steele said of Charlotte. “People are often surprised how much personality the chickens have.”
With her checkered shirt, muddy boots and unflappable sense of calm around her boisterous birds, Steele looked every bit a hardworking backyard chicken farmer. It’s in her blood: Steele grew up in rural Massachusetts, where her grandparents raised flocks of chickens all her young life.
But the coop where her chickens and ducks live — even after days of Maine rain had muddied the ground — was also effortlessly Instagrammable. Miniature wreaths and bunches of herbs hung on the walls. Nesting boxes were outfitted with farm-chic checkered curtains. Vintage signs reading “welcome” and “gather” brought a sense of bonhomie that only seems possible in the farms of children’s books.
The intersection of beauty and functionality is where Steele thrives. She obsesses over the health of her chickens, keenly observing which herbs her chickens gravitate toward to ease their ailments so she can be better prepared to treat them (Steele can’t believe how many backyard farmers still use antibiotics when there are so many natural remedies). She formulates feed recipes with a special consideration for the vitamins and amino acids chickens need to thrive. But she also derives much of her inspiration for the creative coop content posted on her website, Fresh Eggs Daily, from DIY blogs.
“That’s what I really like doing, the DIY crafty stuff,” Steele said. “A lot of the information about raising chickens out there is written by poultry scientists and chicken vets. They’re out of touch with what people actually do in their chicken coops”
It has proven lucrative: since Steele started her backyard fowl farming venture in 2009, she has written five books, traveled the country giving talks and presentations to aspiring chicken farmers, and amassed a loyal online following with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Ironically, it was her husband Mark’s idea to get the chickens in the first place. Steele left a career on Wall Street she married the itinerant Navy man in the mid-1990s. “Navy bases not normally in areas with lots of jobs unless you’re a nurse or a teacher, so that was really the end of my career.” Over the next two decades or so, the pair moved frequently as they raised their family. When the empty nesters wound up on a farm in Virginia in 2009, Mark thought it would be fun to add chickens to their daily routine.
Steele initially wrinkled her nose at the idea. Even though she had grown up with chickens, she and her brother felt they had outgrown them around high school. When they were little, they loved holding the chicks in their hands, but the responsibility of mucking coops and other day-to-day chicken care didn’t interest the teenagers. (For that reason, Steele has a theory that town council members who oppose permitting chickens in zoning ordinances have had bad experiences with chickens growing up.)
But her husband insisted, and soon, Steele’s instincts came rushing back to her. Family plays a considerable role in Steele’s story, from her skills around the coop to her knack for thrifty DIY. Her mother was a third-grade teacher and always had craft boxes around the house; when Steele started farming chickens, her chicken-farming grandmother was still alive to help out. “Most people don’t have that family history,” she admitted. “It makes you seem more credible.”
Besides her backstory, Steele ascribes much of her rise to fame to being “in the right place at the right time.” She speculates that as the economy took a downturn in 2009, some people lost their jobs while others were realizing that it was less lucrative to have two people working with the expense of having two cars, the cost of child care, and the like. With more people staying home during the day and looking for things to do, backyard chicken farming — and blogging — took off. “There were a bazillion other chicken blogs around 2009,” Steele said, but she thinks her focus on herbs and natural remedies gave her an edge. “When people are raising chickens, they are probably doing it to be healthier.”
The final key to her success has been her fans, who range from empty nesters like her, new parents looking to introduce their children to nature, and “young guys who are just really into their chickens.”
Engaging with her followers is important to her. Steele just returned from a book tour — 18 events in six states over the past two months — for her most recent books: “101 Chicken Keeping Hacks” and “Let’s Hatch Chicks!,” her first children’s book (Violet, of course, is the star). She was exhausted, but it was worth it for the fans. Even though she attributes much of her popularity to people sharing her online content with their friends, she recognizes the value of these personal interactions.
“Social media is so disconnected,” she said. “People you meet will be fans for life.”
Still, she is happy to return home to Dixmont. Steele has only lived in Maine a short while — she and her husband moved up from Virginia in 2013 — but she finds it suits her and her animals. The cold is better for the chickens; in the humid Virginia summers, she was constantly trying to keep her birds cool (Steele emphatically reminds her followers that chickens don’t need nearly as much heat as they might think; too many coops have been lost to heat lamp fires in the winter). And despite being warned “not to call yourself a Mainer unless your family has been here for, like, ten generations,” Steele found her new neighbors very welcoming. She had only been living here a month when curious local news stations started reaching out to her for interviews. People were interested in her expertise. “Here in Maine, you can’t drive down the road without seeing chickens in someone’s yard,” she laughed.
But Steele has a confession: despite the fact that she can credit her success to her chickens, she prefers her ducks. “They are nicer, they don’t have as many medical problems,” she said. “And duck eggs are bigger, tastier, and richer.” Steele has written one book on ducks, “Duck Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Ducks … Naturally,” but has not followed up with any sequels because “ducks are so easy, there’s not much else to say.” Every so often, she will give a talk at conferences entitled “10 Reasons Ducks are Better than Chickens.”
The audience for duck farming DIY is not there yet, though. Steele used to run a separate Facebook page for duck farming tips, but it only amassed a paltry 35,000 followers compared to the nearly 700,000 on her main page, so she eventually merged the two. She thinks that maybe people are still wary of the wet mess made by waterfowl, and duck eggs have yet to wiggle their way into American cuisine. But as soon as that market opens, you can be that Steele will be there, armed with the skills, the savvy and an unmatched aesthetic eye.