Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch sustainable meats, and Nicolette Hahn Niman want the Obamas to add some chickens to the White House gardening venture:
"Fueled by a desire to reconnect with the source of one's food, as well as to regain control over its safety and healthfulness, there is already a small but growing movement to re-establish backyard poultry flocks in many parts of the United States. Like vegetable gardening, tending a chicken flock can produce the freshest, tastiest food available, and gets you outdoors and in motion even more reliably than dog walking." - The Atlantic
From New Orleans to Portland to Atlanta, backyard chickens are popping up everywhere. Chickens are basically live composters, feeding on food waste and providing eggs and fertilizer in return for the homesteaders who keep them. But what's driving these urban dwellers to the trend in the first place?
- Locavores want to eliminate farm-to-table time for fresh, non-industrial eggs.
- Gardeners love the immediate supply of fertilizer.
- Families sometimes raise them as pets and for the steady supply of local, pesticide-free eggs.
- Environmentalists want to reduce the carbon footprint associated with the transportation of the food they buy.
Of course, some urban chicken owners fall into none of these categories, or all of them.
No matter what their reasons, city poultry enthusiasts have a strong Internet presence through websites like Backyard Chickens, which has offered tips, support, and even chicken coop blueprints since 1999.
Plus, some chicken websites provide information on the legalities of raising backyard hens, since not all U.S. metro areas allow the practice. And as interest in the movement increases, some residents have successfully worked towards overturning urban chicken bans in their cities.
I got the opportunity to talk to one of these website owners online. Thomas Kriese is a California chicken owner who runs Urban Chickens, a popular blog of poultry news, personal anecdotes, and hen-raising advice. You can also find Urban Chickens on Twitter or on its 1400+ member Facebook page.
Back in April 2007, Kriese started blogging about the two new baby chicks his family started raising in their urban backyard. In the two years since, his blog has evolved into much more than a journal of his personal poultry journey. Many posts concentrate on the legality of residential poultry and track the movements in city chicken ordinances across the country. In other words, Kriese represented the perfect person to get a good read of the urban chicken movement and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions:
About how many eggs do your chickens provide you with each week? Have they eliminated your need to buy eggs from the store altogether?
Our girls provide us with roughly a dozen eggs a week. For the first year, we still bought eggs at the store to use in mixes and batters or anything else where the egg taste would be overwhelmed by other ingredients. We reserved our yard-fresh eggs for omelets, scrambled eggs or over-medium eggs where the yummy taste could shine through. Now that we're in our second year, we're using our yard-fresh eggs whenever we need eggs. We've only had to supplement what our own chickens produce when our chickens were molting this past winter and cut their production in half.
I learned on your blog that here in Denver, advocates are trying to make the chicken permitting process easier. Which cities/metro areas are urban chicken-friendly?
I'd say that the cities that are most urban chicken-friendly are those that have restrictions on how many and where you can keep chickens, but don't require a permit, fee, etc. So, hands-down, Portland, Oregon is the most friendly with Seattle close behind. San Francisco and New York City both allow for urban chickens without a permit, as do Chicago, Atlanta and Miami. When you get to the next tier of cities (population in the 100,000s and smaller), that's when you start seeing more permits required and/or fees. This seems counter-intuitive - that the big cities would take the most laissez-faire approach, but when it gets to the smaller towns, there seems to be a desire to be more controlling of their citizens' behaviors, or at least a desire to try and codify ordinances covering all possible transgressions as a chicken owner (penning the birds in a coop of X size, storing the feces in a water-tight container of no bigger than Y volume, etc).
Since people keep chickens as both a local, sustainable food source and a sustainable fertilizer source, among other reasons, do chicken owners tend to be gardeners first?
I was into gardening first, and, anecdotally, I haven't yet encountered urban chicken fans that weren't already into gardening. When I first read about urban chickens, my mind went immediately to the fact my garden grew so much bigger when I mixed in a couple bags of chicken manure before planting, so why not manufacture my own chicken manure compost? While chickens are good at eating bugs and weeds in the yard, you do have to mind they don't go after your young plants in the spring. And if you have mulch around your planting beds like we do, you'll discover just how much mulch a pair of chickens can move in an hour... these girls are busy!
Your blog tracks trends, developments, and news--do you see any new backyard chicken trends on the horizon? Nonprofits, for example? Teaching projects like Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard seem like a natural outgrowth of the movement.
Community-Supported Egg Production - just like Community Supported Agriculture programs. I can see groups of citizens getting together to subscribe to a flock of hens that one entrepreneur tends and delivers the eggs to the citizens weekly and manure-rich compost seasonally... maybe even meat for those who want it? This may be the path to farm-fresh eggs and fresh poultry for those who live in towns where they're just not willing to change the laws to allow for urban chickens.
Finally, I asked Kriese about the neighbor factor. After all, there's a reason why urban chicken bans still exist in some cities, as residents worry about the smell, noise, and danger of animal-borne diseases they associate with chickens. Kriese points out that not only are chickens quieter than the ubiquitous pet dog, but also that local governments don't permit roosters at all and limit urban chicken flocks to anywhere from three to six hens, numbers that are much too small to pose an olfactory threat. As for fears of those backyard chickens spreading diseases, I'll end with a quote from the Worldwatch Institute:
"Sustainable farming advocates insist that backyard chickens are less of a concern than factory-farmed poultry, which the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production has said poses serious risks of transmitting animal-borne diseases to human populations, especially due to the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance.
"When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem," the international sustainable agriculture organization GRAIN concluded in a 2006 report." - Worldwatch Institute