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|November 13-19, 2008
Chicks and the city
Longmont debates allowing backyard hens as the interest in urban farming surges
by Pamela White
You could say that humanity is a victim of its own success when it comes to food. Not so long ago, our ancestors lived their lives tied to the seasons, toiling to grow and preserve enough food to feed their children through another winter. Droughts, insects and blights could lead to hunger, malnutrition, even starvation. Families were only as secure as their food supply, and so humanity searched for better ways to grow and store food.
Today, most of us fill our cupboards by driving to the grocery store, where we find a global harvest on the shelves regardless of the season — blueberries from Chile, tilapia from Honduras, lunchmeat and breakfast cereal from China. Hunger is no longer an issue of failed crops, but one of economics. But, even as Americans experience an abundance of foods never before seen in human history, we face new problems.
Few of us are malnourished, but many are misnourished, overweight from bingeing on processed food products that include hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and artificial flavors and colors. We’re forced to question not only the nutritive value of what we eat but also its purity, with multinational corporations manufacturing products that contain ingredients from countries where food-safety standards result in dead pets and babies with kidney stones.
The same food system that brings us heart attacks, high blood pressure and cancer, also consumes fossil fuels, contributing to global climate change, as forests are felled to graze cattle and harvests are flown to markets far from the soil that produced them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that what we eat is killing us.
But we pay another price for our corporatized system of manufactured food, one that’s far more difficult to measure: We’ve become disconnected from the land and the natural process by which food is grown, harvested and brought to the table.
In response, a greater number of Americans are trying to put the back 40 — that’s feet, not acres — to work growing a portion of the food they eat. From kitchen gardens to full-blown urban cooperative farms, people are getting their hands dirty in an effort to clean up their health and the environment and to regain local control over food. Some are even keeping chickens — hens, to be specific — in order to have a ready source of fresh eggs.
Although it’s legal to keep chickens in the city of Boulder and in many other communities along the Front Range and across the country, you’re likely to get a citation if you try it in Longmont. But this might soon change, as the city of Longmont is scrambling to review and perhaps change its codes in response to citizen demand.
Having a garden in one’s backyard is nothing new. A century ago and through the Great Depression, kitchen gardens helped families keep food on the table. During World War II, it became part of every citizen’s patriotic duty to grow food. Hippies of the 1970s found earthy satisfaction in planting and harvesting food, but by then backyard gardens had become little more than a hobby.
However, faced with the uncertainties of a globalized food-production system — a single processed food product might contain ingredients from 20 different countries — as well as concerns about pesticides, herbicides and the truthfulness of food labeling, people are turning in increasing numbers to farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and home gardening.
Kipp Nash left his corporate job in 2000 in search of a better way of living and found himself working on an organic farm.
“When I got to the farm, I realized this is what I wanted to do,” he says. “I felt very connected to that kind of living, where it’s just basic, simple living and growing food and sharing food with the community.”
By 2004, he’d made his way to Boulder, where the high price of land prevented him from buying his own farm. Still, he wanted to work the soil.
“I had to do something,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like I had a choice. The only resource that really seemed available to me was my backyard.”
So he grew veggies in his backyard, but it wasn’t enough. He decided to check with his neighbors to see if they’d let him use part of their backyard if he shared the harvest.
“It very quickly in my head spun into this really beautiful multiple-backyard project where we also have a community-supported agriculture piece to it,” he says. “So I got really excited right off the bat and went to work.”
He founded Community Roots Urban Gardens of Boulder, a program that combines the concept of the back- or front-yard garden with the CSA, in which people buy a share of the harvest in advance to support the farmer.
Nash quickly found several neighbors who were willing to see their lawns transformed into gardens in exchange for a share of the produce. Rather than wasting water on grass, the water went to kale and broccoli and beans. He also found local residents who were eager to purchase shares of whatever he grew, their investment helping to cover the cost of seeds, fertilizer, supplies and Nash’s labor.
This past year, Nash worked 12 gardens, 11 that were located in someone’s front or backyard and one at a church — equaling about 1/3 of an acre. From that small amount of land, he grew enough to provide 24 families with the bulk of 20 weekly distributions of fresh, organic produce.
“We did cooperate on the CSA program with a grower out on Baseline who has an acre,” Nash says. “He grew some of the crops that require more space, like corn, squash and pumpkins and melons.”
The benefits of Nash’s program, and urban farming in general, include not only reducing the environmental impact of growing food by eliminating both chemicals and food miles — Nash transports the harvest in his bike trailer — but also growing community.
“The idea around CSA is that it truly is a community,” he says. “It’s not just these people who show up, pick up vegetables and go home. It’s people who get to know the farmer, and people who experiment with eating seasonal foods. It’s a lot more participatory than going to the grocery store and picking something up off a pile. It brings everything so much closer. You’re eating food that you might even see when you’re taking a walk down the street. It’s bringing everything closer to home.”
Nash has watched as the interest in urban farming has expanded beyond fruits and vegetables to fresh eggs. He thinks the idea of owning hens is wonderful.
“I’ve been able to watch as the buzz has been created and people have jumped on board,” he says. “It just makes a whole lot of sense. Chickens aren’t dirty animals. They aren’t obnoxious and loud, unless you have a rooster. Probably like gardening, it’s not an economic choice, because buying the chicken food may cost as much or even more than buying eggs, but you’re also able to recycle some of your household waste by throwing it to the chickens, and you get fresh eggs. And you get a really special education experience and a connection experience.”
It may be this need for connection that is driving both urban farming and the interest in backyard chickens.
“It’s giving people a lot of hope about maybe feeling more in control of our lives,” Nash says.
What the cluck?
Mary Marsden lives with her teenage daughter in a single-family home in Boulder. This past April, she bought nine female chicks from a Longmont feed store. Then she built a coop and set about raising chickens.
“We’d been thinking about getting chickens for about eight years,” Marsden says. “Learning about the horrors of factory farming, chickens included — that influenced us. The whole relocalization movement has really influenced us a lot. And we’ve just always wanted to have chickens. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s really satisfying to have them.”
Despite her concern that her backyard might not be the ideal place for a flock of hens, it has worked very well, she says. Marden and her daughter let the hens out at dawn and make sure they’re locked in their coop at dusk to protect them from predators. They provide food and clean water and keep the coop clean. When they can, they give the hens free run of their yard.
“We have a chicken run that’s fenced top and sides and about one foot down under ground around the perimeter just in case some foxes might take a shine to the chickens,” Marsden says. “But we generally just open that up as well, because they’re much happier if they’re out and able to flap their wings and run around and scratch and everything. They are so busy.”
In return for a relatively small amount of work, Marsden gets fresh eggs daily. How many eggs she gets depends on the season and the amount of daylight.
“The past few weeks we have been getting four or five eggs each day,” Marsden says. “Yesterday we got seven. Five seems to be the average as it’s gotten colder and the days are shorter.”
The eggs never see the inside of a refrigerator. They go from nest box to kitchen counter to tummy within a few days.
“You should see these eggs,” Marsden says. “They have the most golden yokes. When we fry them in a pan, they actually have form. They’re pert. They don’t just spread out really flat in the pan.”
In addition to eggs, there are other intangible benefits — like being more in tune with the sunrise and sunset and the changing seasons. Plus, they feel the same affection for their chickens that many Boulder residents feel for beloved pets.
“I have to say, our chickens are really beautiful,” Marsden says. “I laugh out loud daily just watching them — the way they run with their arms out. It’s really ridiculous.”
But does keeping chickens save them money? Marsden isn’t sure.
“I haven’t kept really good records about how much we spent getting the project set up,” she says.
But that’s not really the point for Marsden and her daughter.
“For us, it’s about so much more than that,” she says.
Meanwhile, across town, Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor is suffering from chicken envy.
“I want chickens,” he says. “I’ve been arguing with my family about it. There are all these men in our neighborhood who are in their 40s who want chickens. None of our families will let us have chickens in our backyards.”
Toor’s interest in raising chickens stems from his college years.
“When I was in college, I lived in a co-op house,” he says. “My house job was that I was a chicken manager. I just think it would be really neat to have chickens producing eggs. That whole notion of having more of our food production right at home… ”
Though his wife chalks his chicken fixation up to midlife crisis, it’s his kids who are popping his poultry bubble. They want to keep the backyard for themselves.
But, although he may be unable to satisfy his yen for hens at home, as county commissioner he’s working to find out what it would take to produce more of the county’s food locally and to see to it that more of the food grown in Boulder County is sold in local markets as opposed to the national commodity markets. The Boulder County Board of Commissioners, which includes Toor, Ben Pearlman and Cindy Domenico, created the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council, an advisory board authorized to look into that very question.
It’s an issue of long-term food security, Toor says, as well as a need to reduce the “food miles” — the amount of miles food is transported from field to table — associated with feeding county residents.
From his point of view, raising hens in one’s backyard addresses both of those concerns. He also thinks chickens rock.
“What’s not to like about chickens?” he asks.
A growing number of city slickers agree with him, both in Boulder County and across the nation. Books on backyard chickens are hot sellers on Amazon. Blogs and websites on raising urban chickens abound. Several cities, including Madison, Wis., and Fort Collins, have revisited their ordinances to make backyard chickens legal.
But Longmont residents are, for the moment, out of luck when it comes to keeping hens.
Ben Ortiz, a planner with the city of Longmont, says the issue of backyard chickens surfaced this year after a Longmont couple approached City Council members and asked them to review city codes to see if they could be amended to allow the owning and keeping of chickens in residential zoning districts. The couple had recently lost a flock of hens after city officials learned that the couple was keeping them in their North Longmont yard.
Ortiz was charged with researching the issue and found that a significant number of communities allow residents to keep hens in their yards. He learned that both New York City and San Francisco — far denser urban areas than Longmont — permit city residents to keep hens.
In communities where hens are allowed, cities tend to ban roosters, which can be loud and aggressive, and regulate the number of hens allowed in a yard, as well as the conditions in which they are kept.
Ortiz presented his report to City Council on July 22, and City Council voted six to one to allow the project to move forward.
On Wed., Nov. 12, Ortiz met with the public to discuss people’s concerns, most of which center on the fear that the chickens will be noisy or stinky and the belief that chickens are farm animals that don’t belong in the city.
But Ortiz says his research indicates that most complaints regarding chickens stem from roosters, not hens.
“Chickens are capable of making short bursts of flight, and sometimes they’ll clear a privacy fence and people complain about that,” he says.
If chickens are allowed in Longmont, Ortiz said the regulations would ban roosters and limit the number of hens a family can have in their yard. Regulations would also likely include requirements for the care of chickens, predator-proof coops, the cleanliness of coops and where coops can be located on a person’s property.
Ortiz says he hopes to take a proposal to Longmont’s planning and zoning department on Nov. 19 and have a first reading on ordinance changes before Longmont City Council by Dec. 9.
But support for this idea is not universal. An online poll by the Longmont Times Call showed that a little more than half of the city’s residents support the idea of city chickens, while a little less than half oppose it. The accuracy of the poll is questionable because the wording is somewhat leading. The “No” option reads: “No. I don’t want roosters crowing my neighborhood awake.”
“It’s interesting to see the responses of the folks that are opposed,” Ortiz says. “A lot of them are really similar. A lot of them are rooted in a veiled racism.”
Or perhaps a not-so-veiled racism.
“If you want a chicken move to a farm, or go back to Mexico where they run free,” wrote one respondent.
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!!!” wrote another. “People don’t even take care of their lawns. Cars on the front lawn don’t bother them a bit. They have 12 people living in a two-bedroom house, and you think they’ll keep a hen house clean??? Dream on. Chicken coops require a certain amount of regular maintenance to keep them from smelling. Want chickens? Move to the country. Better yet... move south. Way south.”
Ortiz says he thinks a lot of the fears are irrational and based on preconceived notions about chickens.
“One of the things I keep hearing over and over again is that chickens belong on farms,” he says. “But New York City allows people to own and keep chicken. San Francisco allows people to own and keep chicken… So urban areas — very dense cities — allow people to own and keep chickens. I think it’s just a reflection of some preconceived ideas that aren’t rooted in reality. Chickens are not bad animals.”
Cynthia Torres, manager of the Longmont Farmers’ Market and a member of the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council, says she thinks urban farming and backyard chickens are a great idea.
“I think that backyard chickens and ordinances to promote at-home gardening are really a way to build community and a connection to the place where food comes from,” she says.
As someone who is familiar with chickens and their behavior, she sees no inherent reason why a small flock of hens can’t be kept in the average backyard. Not only are chickens easy to care for, but the benefits of having fresh eggs would no doubt help many Longmont families. Plus, she finds chickens entertaining.
“They make chicken buddies. They run around. They do their chicken things,” she says. “They’re really interesting animals to observe. They’re living animals. You start to question some of the conditions in which chickens are factory farmed. You start to get connected to what animals are like outside cats and dogs.”
Torres isn’t surprised to have the topic of racism surface in a discussion about chickens and healthful eating.
“Healthy food is definitely a class issue. It’s a race issue,” she says. “If you’re African American, you’re three times more likely to die of diabetes than a white person. If you’re Latino, Hispanic, Mexican, you’re twice as likely to die of diabetes.”
Torres cites an agriculture/economics report based on a study of the Denver-metro area done by the Crossroads Resource Center that included a look at human health.
“One of the most astounding statistics in that report was that in the Denver-metro area, which includes Boulder, from 1990 to 2006 deaths from diabetes have increased by 97 percent,” Torres says. “It’s because there are so many people who don’t have access to whole foods, to real foods that are nutrient dense.”
Poor families turn to food banks, where there are shelves filled with manufactured food and a dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables, she says.
She sees urban farming, including backyard chickens and the tilling of vacant urban plots, as a way to get good food to people who need it. City and county leaders can have a real impact by developing policies that facilitates growing more food locally.
“When we think about agriculture, we rarely think about health,” she says. “On a policy scale, we don’t think about how agriculture and food production — the processing, the manufacturing and the distribution — has on our health.”
Nor do we think about the social implications of our current food system, one in which people have no connection to the hands that grew their food and too many people eat things that do not benefit their health, she says. Taken altogether, our society could stand to gain greatly from some serious reconsideration of the issue.
“When you consider those three big components of sustainability — the economic, the social and the environment — you get a better sense of what it takes to move toward a sustainable system when you have an intimate connection to those three parts,” she says. “The social component is the one that’s overlooked a lot. You hear about global warming, and you hear about our economy going to pot, but the social part of it is often the one that gets overlooked. Growing food in your backyard and really getting your community connected to growing food, is the way to support that social one. You’re talking to your neighbors. You’re talking to your community about different recipes. You’re building that local culture around local food.”
For more information about Community Roots Urban Gardens of Boulder, go to www.communityrootsboulder.com/.
For information about classes on urban farming offered by the Colorado State University Extension Office, call Joel Reich at 303-678-6386.
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