Arts & Culture Features

Sweet Olive Farm Spotlights Residential Chickens through Tour de Coop

Marilyn, a resident rooster of Sweet Olive Farm.

Sprawling across 22 idyllic acres in Winterville, Sweet Olive Farm Animal Rescue has become a much-needed sanctuary for elderly, neglected and abandoned farm and exotic animals. Sweet Olive’s humble start began in 2010 when owners Kat Howkins and Susan Pritchett, living in Atlanta at the time, received a special permit to house up to 10 dogs—and then added a pot-bellied pig named Mr. Thelma to the mix. Today, the farm is a wonderland of 70 pigs, 12 sheep, 18 goats, 17 alpacas, 12 dogs, 10 cows, nine cats, five guinea pigs, four horses—not to be confused with an additional four miniature horses—three rabbits, three donkeys, a mule, a llama and countless other animals. 

Sweet Olive’s mission is twofold: “not only to help animals, but to educate the community, especially the young, about the importance of responsible animal care, ethical eating and the sentience of all creatures.”

To promote the humane treatment of chickens, the farm launched its first-ever Tour de Coop this past weekend, a self-guided virtual event that visits a variety of residential chicken coops in the Athens area. These video tours profile eight different coops and provide valuable insight for curious novices hoping to build their first hen pen, as well as seasoned landlords interested in gathering advanced tips and tricks for enriching the lives of their brood. 

Though the pandemic prevented the farm from holding its traditional in-person spring event, event organizers were excited to tap into the rising trend of raising chickens that has noticeably grown in Athens over recent years. 

“Many people who had thought about getting chickens for a while had the time to make that happen this year,” says board member Julie Darnell. “We thought it would be a good way to showcase local coops, but also have the opportunity to talk about compassionate chicken care.”

Naturally, the farm has accumulated quite an impressive flock of feathered friends—approximately 50 roosters, 40 ducks, 30 hens, eight turkeys, eight guinea fowl, four geese, two cockatiels, one peacock and a number of pigeons. Though some of the chickens have certainly seen darker days in cockfighting rings or aboard death-bound poultry facility trucks, most are now peacefully living free-range under the protection of two Great Pyrenees named Nutmeg and Sassafras. 

Because it’s difficult to always accurately determine the sex of a baby chick, many people accidentally purchase roosters, which are prohibited by the Athens Clarke-County backyard chicken ordinance that was passed in 2015. While Sweet Olive Farm has been able to re-home some of these refugees—in addition to those arriving from animal control services of neighboring counties—Darnell advises that people should have a good plan in place before they get surprised by a rooster.

“Most everyone who gets chickens does so because they care about the animals and want to be sure they are treated well,” says Darnell. “Most people end up surprised at how much they enjoy their chickens and think of them as pets. Part of treating chickens well is making sure they have enough space and are protected… Anyone getting chickens needs to be prepared to make a coop and run that is predator-proof, provides enough ranging space and protects the chickens from the heat and cold.”

As part of its mission to educate the public, Sweet Olive hosts visits from various school groups throughout the year, as well as weekly youth summer camps. The farm also offers tours every Saturday from 12–1 p.m., with hands-on volunteer hours running earlier in the day from 9 a.m.–12 p.m. 

“The farm teaches kids about animals and animal care, but it also is an important place for kids to come and learn and feel compassion towards animals and towards each other,” says Darnell. “Many kids, especially the older ones, have become regular volunteers and have found the farm to be a place where they can have responsibilities and explore interests. One of the goals of the farm is to build a like-minded community of animal-loving children and adults.”

Beyond the Tour de Coop, there are a variety of ways to help sustain Sweet Olive, which received official 501c3 status in 2015 and currently operates on a $150,000 annual budget. In addition to straightforward donations, supporters can sponsor an animal, such as Jarred the baby wild boar, Pastis the mustang, TukTuk the emu, Baabs the sheep or Rose the donkey. A cozy cottage tucked in the woods and a historic farmhouse overlooking a horse pasture are both available for nightly vacation rentals, and the property’s 100-year-old barn doubles as a one-of-a-kind wedding venue. Knitters can even purchase yarn spun from the alpacas’ fleece. 

Proceeds raised through The Tour de Coop will go toward purchasing a tractor that can be used for pasture grading, animal feeding and hayrides during future events. Tickets are $15, and the tour is now available through the summer by visiting