GRAYSLAKE – Fifteen-year-old Natalie Sturm doesn’t mind being known as Grayslake’s “chicken girl” if it helps bring awareness to the importance of sustainable agriculture, an environmentally-conscious method of farming she intends to make her life’s work.
“I think it’s a way to feed people and heal the land.”
When she hears adults argue for preserving the planet’s resources for their kids and their kids’ kids, “We’re the kids they’re talking about!” said Sturm, who isn’t waiting until she’s all grown up to take action. She hopes her efforts educate and inspire others.
The impassioned teen, who has petitioned the village to allow backyard chickens, is eager to build a coop with her dad once the board approves the ordinance. A vote is expected at the July 1 meeting.
So how does your average teen become a proponent for raising chickens?
Sturm, who owns a dog and a turtle, has always been an animal lover, but it was 4-H that introduced her to agriculture.
“I always liked to go to the Lake County Fair and see the different 4-H projects and animals,” said Sturm, who joined the Millburn Clovers 4-H Club four years ago.
This summer marks Sturm’s third year entering goats and chickens and agricultural art projects in the fair. She has earned many accolades, including a best of show and grand champion award for a citizenship project about the history of Grayslake, which was featured in an exhibit at the Grayslake Heritage Center in 2012.
Sturm has a special liking for chickens, though.
“They’re fun and lovable. If you spend a lot of time with them, they’ll respond to you.”
Three days a week, Sturm visits a farm in Antioch, where she helps to raise goats and chickens for 4-H. The idea of bringing chickens home is an exciting one.
“The neighbors are cool with it. My friends are excited.”
“Chickens are kind of a thing now,” said Sturm, noting that backyard chickens are even permitted in Chicago.
One person who needed some initial convincing, however, was Sturm’s mom, Sue.
“I thought no, we’re not having chickens in the backyard!”
Once she learned more about the process, Sue Sturm warmed to the idea, telling her daughter if she could persuade the village to allow it, she would too.
Last summer, the ambitious teen and her mom made a PowerPoint presentation to Grayslake’s zoning board about how backyard chickens are raised, to dispel any misconceptions they may have had, such as chickens being especially noisy, dirty or a safety hazard in terms of predators.
Sturm spoke again at the village board's June 3 meeting in favor of the ordinance, which has the support of Mayor Rhett Taylor, who said he was first approached by a boy about backyard chickens during a coffee with the mayor event in 2012.
Two village advisory panels have recommended the ordinance with restrictions such as limiting chickens to single-family homeowners, who can only own up to six hens, no roosters. Coops would not be allowed to exceed eight feet in height. On-site sale and slaughter would be prohibited.
Though peak egg-laying time is spring, Sturm still plans to secure her six hens this summer and expects they will each lay an egg every couple days. She’s already thinking about special recipes she can make using the eggs.
And while Sturm does eat chicken, she won’t be eating the ones she brings home, though she does believe more people should take the time to learn where their meat comes from and the process in which some animals are raised and slaughtered, which isn’t always humane.
“If people knew how our food system worked, they’d be horrified,” said Sturm, who plans to let her chickens roam periodically via a portable enclosure, which will be permitted under the ordinance.
In addition to raising goats and chickens for her 4-H projects, Sturm, who is home-schooled and will be entering her junior year in high school, is the youth leader of the Lake County 4-H Goat Club, a member of the Grayslake Pride traveling softball team and an avid gardener.
In fact, she tends to her home garden and a larger garden in a vacant lot next to her home. She plans to donate extra produce, ranging from lettuce to tomatoes, to the Avon Township food pantry.