Quantcast

From Cities to Suburbs, Raising Backyard Chickens is All the Rage

Jayne Severson

Boots crusted over with a layer of dried dirt, Matthew Wilson holds one of his Barred Rock hens as he walks through his garden. “Bitey developed more slowly than the others,” he says as he strokes her comb as if tending to his most fragile child. Bitey, so named because it often mistook his children’s toes for worms, has the characteristic black and white stripes of the breed, known for its high egg production, meaty body, and docile personality.

Matthew Wilson is standing in the middle of his large backyard in the suburban city of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he raises egg-laying hens. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wilson

His other Barred Rock hens are actively scavenging the remains of his garden, a growth of foot-high spindly Swiss chard and kale stems, the leaflessness a result of the voracious appetites of his hens. He feeds them food scraps such as old bread, tomatoes, grapes, and spent grains that he himself collects from a local brewery but they still overwhelm his garden vegetables. Yet, he shrugs off the loss of his garden: “We get it all back. It all shows up in the egg yolks. The yolks are a dark, rich, orange color.” Wilson points to a photograph that his friend snapped comparing a store-bought, yellow-yolked egg next to one of his dark orange-yolked eggs and the differences are obvious. He raves, “My egg shells are visibly different than store-bought eggs. Store-bought eggs are all very uniform, because the odd-shaped or odd-colored ones are thrown out. Mine are gloriously random.”

There's nothing like fresh eggs. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wilson

Wilson is passionate about raising egg-laying hens and he can talk at length about different breeds of chickens, how they work together to trap sparrows, and how he monitors their egg-laying throughout the season. But Wilson is no farmer. He is standing in the middle of his large backyard in the suburban city of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a suburb in the greater Cleveland metropolitan area of three million, and works full-time, but not in anything remotely related to farming. Remarkably, Wilson is a software engineer. Concern for their food supply is increasingly the reason that people in urban or suburban neighborhoods are now raising backyard or urban chickens.

In 2010, more than 500 million eggs were recalled when two large egg producers were linked to salmonella-related illnesses in 1,500 people. Wilson and his wife, Lindsey Wilson, were concerned about factory farming practices and routinely shop at their local farmer’s market even before they owned chickens. Wilson explains that his job as a software engineer parallels his passion for gardening and chicken-keeping. “A lot of us [engineers] are interested in understanding food stuff. I think it comes from the fact that being a computer programmer, in order to build anything, you really have to understand what we call the “whole stack.” A lot of us are interested in the fact that our food supply is so awful that if we really want to be healthy, we really have to start thinking downward.” Another chicken raiser, Melissa Bencivengo of North Olmsted, also cites her family’s health as the primary reason to raise chickens. A mom to two young daughters and also an engineer, Bencivengo watched her friend’s daughter start puberty at age 9 and decided that she wanted more control of her food supply. “My grandparents had a farm and they had cows, horses, chickens, and turkeys. So, I said you know what, chicken farming is something that I know that I can do.”

From suburban towns to urban centers, chicken coops are appearing everywhere in residential backyards. Cleveland has allowed chickens in residential backyards with some restrictions since 2009. Toledo requires a health inspection for backyard chickens but allowed them for several years. Wilson repeatedly wrote to the Cleveland Heights City Council asking them to approve backyard chickens and was elated when the City Council finally passed a series of green zoning ordinances in May 2012.  Despite this lag in approving urban chickens, the Cleveland Heights green zoning ordinances in 2012 was so comprehensive that it allowed conditional use permits for everything from renewable energy generators, rain water barrels, front-yard gardens, and backyard chicken coops in residential districts. To get a conditional use permit for chickens, a Cleveland Heights resident must submit an application that includes detailed descriptions and scale drawings of the project and appear before the planning commission. Once approved, a conditional permit allows up to four egg-laying hens for the resident’s own use.

From suburban towns to urban centers, chicken coops are appearing everywhere in residential backyards. Photo courtesy of Kara O’Donnell, City of Cleveland Heights

Cleveland Heights City Planner Kara O’Donnell says the trend in her city is that “younger families, with younger children, or younger singles” apply for the chicken permits and the Wilsons are a prime example. Wilson thinks it is worth the effort to teach his kids the relationship between raising chickens and their food supply. Only a couple hours of work per week are required to feed and water the hens, which lay an average of 12-18 eggs per week, and clean the coop. Wilson tasked his oldest son, Charlie, age 7, to guard the chickens from hawks and collect eggs daily, which Charlie describes as “actually very fun.” Lindsey Wilson shares why she raises chickens: “I wanted [my kids] to know how to take care of the animals. That they require us to take care of them.” Bencivengo is also teaching her kids something similar: “I want my kids to understand that food comes from somewhere other than the grocery store, in a package.”

The chicken ordinance has been the most popular of all the Cleveland Heights sustainable ordinances. From June to November 2012, one to three people per month applied to raise chickens on their property and Cleveland Heights approved each of these applications. The popularity of the chicken ordinance has been reflected in the range of property types to which the permits are applied. Cleveland Heights has approved permits for small, efficiently-used backyards and even large properties in the prestigious Chestnut Hills neighborhood.

O’Donnell says that Cleveland Heights has been successful at keeping neighbors of the chicken owners happy through the conditions set in the permitting process. Only one complaint has been lodged against any chicken keeper and this offense involved owners that had accidentally bought roosters, which are not allowed because they are noisy and potentially aggressive. The roosters were safely re-homed and the neighbors were satisfied. Lindsey Wilson initially worried about her neighbors’ reactions to their new chickens. She says, “We thought that we had to hide them from our neighbors but everybody just loves to watch them and [the neighbors] said really nice things for Matt at the Planning Commission meeting. They’re actually pretty quiet.”

The experience of Cleveland Heights mirrors the rising trend in chicken keeping across the country. Since 2009, Meyer Hatchery, an Ohio-based, nation-wide supplier of live poultry, has seen the doubling of the number of small chicken orders, which are usually between 3-14 live chicks and placed by urban or suburban residents. Jess Brushaber, Marketing and Advertising Director of Meyer Hatchery, says, “We have seen a significant increase in backyard chicken keeping which we attribute to folks wanting to live more sustainably. With cities making it legal to own a few backyard hens, jumping into the hobby is relatively inexpensive and easy.”

In fact, the Cleveland Heights chicken ordinance is clear and straightforward. A resident is required to keep the chickens in the backyard; the chicken coop and run has to be 10 feet from the house and property lines; and the chickens and the yard have to be kept clean and sanitary. Even with these regulations, Wilson would like to see Cleveland Heights focus more on animal welfare and training for new chicken keepers. He says that the number of allowable birds is important but so is the space per bird and an educated owner who knows how to maintain them.

Matthew Wilson thinks it is worth the effort to teach his kids the relationship between raising chickens and their food supply. Photo courtesy of Kara O’Donnell, City of Cleveland Heights

Wilson taught himself the skills to raise urban chickens through sources like Backyard Poultry Magazine, community websites such as backyardchickens.com and reddit.com/r/BackYardChickens, and by learning from friends with chicken experience. Wilson’s free-range chickens and chicken coop are largely odor-free and he invites people to take a whiff of his chicken coop to judge for themselves. He uses aerobic decomposition of his chicken manure by mixing it with straw and pine shavings to create rich compost for his garden. The compost smells vaguely vinegary but only from a distance of a couple feet. Lindsey Wilson says that she was initially against the idea when Matt mentioned raising chickens. “I initially thought they are dirty and they probably smell. I had had no past history with chickens. [But] I’ve really fallen in love with them. It’s kinda cute to watch them follow [Matt] around.”

Wilson shares a story about Lindsey Wilson’s grandparents when they lived on the West Side of Cleveland. Lindsey’s grandfather was attending an important meeting when her grandmother called. She asked that he come to the phone immediately because it was a family emergency. In truth, her grandmother had called her grandfather because she wanted to share some exciting news with him. She told him that one of their chickens had laid their first egg for them! Wilson smiles as he can relate to the wonder and excitement over each new egg. He says of his chickens, “So far it’s been nothing but good things. They’re wonderful. They’re an asset.”

Visit EcoWatch’s SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE page for more related news on this topic.

--------

Jayne C. Severson is a sustainability and technical writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She volunteers for 350.org and the Sierra Club and works toward fighting global warming.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

Sponsored
This illustration can convey a representation of "eco-anxiety" — "chronic fear of environmental doom." AD_Images / Pixabay

As the climate crisis takes on more urgency, psychologists around the world are seeing an increase in the number of children sitting in their offices suffering from 'eco-anxiety,' which the American Psychological Association described as a "chronic fear of environmental doom," as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less
Electric cars recharge at public charging stations. Sven Loeffler / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Ben Jervey

Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.

Read More Show Less
A plastic bag sticks to a wire fence in a remote location in the Mourne Mountains, co Down, Northern Ireland. Dave G Kelly / Moment / Getty Images

Ireland is ready to say goodbye to plastic cutlery, plastic balloon sticks and grocery items wrapped in plastic as a way to drastically reduce the amount of waste in Irish landfills, according to the Ireland's national broadcaster, RTE.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
This 1910, power plant, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, is owned by Congress and is the only coal-burning facility in a city that repeatedly violates Clean Air standards. Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty Images

By Oliver Milman

Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.

Read More Show Less
Organic carrots and radishes at a farmers' market. carterdayne / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Brian Barth

There's something of a civil war brewing in the organic movement.

Read More Show Less
Volunteers participate in 2018's International Coastal Cleanup in (clockwise from top left) the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Norway and Washington, DC. Ocean Conservancy / Gabriel Ortiz, David Kwaku Sakyi, Kristin Folsland Olsen, Emily Brauner

This coming Saturday, Sept. 21 is the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the annual Ocean Conservancy event that mobilizes volunteers in more than 100 countries to collect litter from beaches and waterways and record what they find.

Read More Show Less