"Eating is always at least two activities: consuming food and obeying a code of manners. And in the manners is concealed a program of taboos as rigid as Deuteronomy." -Guy Davenport
It been just over four years now since I first hatched the idea of raising backyard birds in my small town neighborhood. I liked the idea for all of its reasons- raising chickens for the fertilizer, the farmliness, the bug control, the cuteness, and of course the eggs. I liked the idea of having my own source of eggs and knowing what went into them- and what didn't- as I scrambled some for breakfast for my daughter. It made me feel more secure and sounded fun; as if I would be a little more responsible for feeding my family and able to enjoy raising some of my own food. There was just one problem with my plan. Where I live raising chickens is illegal.
As a land planner I know all about city ordnances and zoning laws and how they’ve come to shape communities all across America. The process isn’t centered on community gatherings where by city planners and concerned citizens write up elaborate rules to govern the look, feel and touch of their town. No, what happens more often is that municipal officials copy existing zoning rules from other municipalities, make a few changes, offer a public input session or two and largely adopt the documents wholesale without enough consideration of the details. This sort of generic governance doesn’t sit well with me but nonetheless, I read the rules, found that they did indeed exclude chickens from my backyard and decided to inquire about what sort of variance it would take for me to bring birds home legally.
As a long time citizen of my small town I know enough about the politics of my area to understand that if I tried a frontal attack on the establishment I was likely to run up against knee-jerk resistance. Four years ago when I was exploring the idea of backyard chickens, the media, tired of reporting on the 30,000 people who die of regular influenza in America each year, was focusing diligently on the incredibly small number of avian flu cases around the world and offering pandemic predictions about the wildfire of disease that backyard birders in Asia and elsewhere might ignite. Never mind the evidence that it is in fact the commercial poultry industry who is more to blame. The only avian flu outbreak on record in America happened at a commercial poultry operation in Virginia. All surrounding backyard birds tested negative. It’s likely that if backyard birds and small scale chicken raising operations were the way most people got their meat and their eggs, bird flu wouldn’t be nearly as big of a problem. But terror is more contagious than bird flu and I was afraid that fear would outweigh fact in any variance hearing I might attend and that my chances of ever having my own chickens might be gone for good if I approached it in that way.
Still curious, I poked around the periphery of local governance to see what my chances were. I requested an acquaintance of mine to ask all the right people, hypothetically, what the chances were of allowing someone like me to legally raise chickens in the city. The results of my informal investigation were disappointing. I seemed likely to lose any appeal, said my trusty informant, reporting that prominent councilmen and commissioners sounded ready to up hold the letter of the law, which said rather straightforwardly,
“No livestock [which includes chickens by definition] shall be kept, maintained or stabled within any Residential Zoning District,” with the caveat that, “The provisions of this section shall not apply to dogs, cats, or other similar household pets.”
My plan was already taking shape. If caught, my neighbor’s cockatoo would serve as my main defense.
While I do believe laws like these that summarily dismiss my ability to safely raise certain foods for my family in my very own yard are foolish and out of date, I do understand one of the reasons they have been in enacted. These days they serve as a stand in for neighborly communication. A rule against chickens in a neighborhood takes the place of a good old fashioned democratic meeting where those in favor of chickens debate those opposed. An agreement is reach where by the basic rights of the minority are hopefully protected but the majority vote takes the day. These days though we mostly have mandated rules, heavily influenced by insiders. (You can decide for yourself whether I'm talking here about my city, my state or my country) But I did understand that if I was going to ignore the rules that meant replacing their authority with consent from my neighbors. I talked to each of them and was given permission, emphatically as I remember, with one caveat- no roosters, to which I agreed. My wife wouldn’t allow one anyway.
So having gained permission- in fact whole hearted support- from those who lived around me, I got ready to raise a flock. I did what most new backyard birders do. I looked over the Internet for information on how to raise chickens and downloaded images of clever chicken tractors. I read a few books and talked to a few people. I built a coop, bought a little gear and brought home a few chicks from the local feed store around Easter. I settled in with my outlawed birds.
Now that I've done my best to convince you that I had no choice, that it was way too risky to try and confront the mechanically adopted rules against raising chickens inside my city's limits I should come clean and let you in on another fact. I like being an outlaw chickener. I should not tell a lie. It's fun to be part of an underground movement raising healthy, responsible food and I enjoy all the other trappings that come with keeping city chickens. Something about breaking the rules feels especially invigorating.
Anyone who looks at the food industry up close in this country will undoubtedly come away angry. Sure we've given up our control over what we eat. That is, we were on watch over the years as multinational corporations came to dictate what we eat. But take a spin through the US Farm bill and I can't imagine you won't come away completely pissed off. It's corporate welfare straight from the mouths of a government that seems not to concern itself with the fact that more than 35 million American live food insecure in this country. 72% of the billions of dollars Doled out in the farm bill go to the 10% largest companies growing 5 crops: corn, wheat, soybean, rice and cotton- in virtual lockstep with the processed food industry. And if that's not enough to get you riled up, stand back and take a look at the grocery store, held up as a model of choice. Take a look at the supposed bounty of food we've received in the deal. Here I'm going to borrow from Helena Norberg-Hodge et al because this passage from _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ explains it so well.
"It's easy for Northern consumers to believe that industrial agriculture and global trade have actually led to an increase in food diversity. A well-stocked supermarket can overwhelm with its apparent food choices: fifty different kinds of breakfast cereal: eighty feet of shelving devoted to fruit juices, soft drinks, and other beverages: six different brands of cottage cheese; ten varieties of potato chips...Much of this apparent diversity is illusion, however, since 80 percent of the supermarket that consists of processed foods offers little choice. A close look at several different packages of crackers of canned soup will reveal virtually identical lists of ingredients. In many cases... the only diversity is each one's distinct packaging. ...dozens of apple varieties once may have grown within a few miles of a supermarket that today sells just three or four- those favored by large growers."
Then start to look at all the health problems with the way we eat: the chemicals, the hormones, the antibiotics, the genetically modified organisms not to mention the lobbying by specific sectors of the food industry. Read up on the politics of the food pyramid and you'll realize what a corporate controlled joke that campaign really is!
Whew! Look what I've gone and done- gotten all worked up just writing a little post about being an outlaw chickener and I guess that's my point. Our relationship with food in this country is all kinds of screwed up. At the heart of the problem is people making boatloads of money off of this sick system. And, I might add, sticking it to the farmers who grow food as well. It's enough to make a person want to do something radical, to throw caution to the wind, to purposefully break a law that seems to support this broken system of eating. I promise it is a good feeling to knowingly participate in a counterculture revolution by being someone who knows raising eggs in the backyard is illegal and does it anyway. There is a sense of sanity, a sense of retribution, a sense that I can do it anyway even if the entire system seems stacked against me and my ability to be in charge of my families nutrition. And it feels good. It's also infectious as others talk about my underground operation as if I'm a resistance fighter, and in a way, I am. Plenty of others want to join, even if that only means using some of my eggs. In my town, those eggs are starting to grow a following.
The process of becoming a successful chicken outlaw has been great. Eating great tasting eggs and showing off my hens to delighted small children has been great. I have learned about roosting, about dust bathes, about getting the hen house up off of the ground. I’ve met other people with a passion for raising chickens, I've chased off hawks and I’ve had a few close calls with law. The people in my neighborhood enjoy eggs and I give them away to others in my community too; especially those whose silence is best bought with the makings of an excellent omelet. There’s nothing like good food to keep people quiet.
My yard is certainly too small for a cow and even goats would require an enormous act of marital compromise even Jimmy Carter couldn’t help my negotiate. It is true that there are both proper and improper places to keep animals in our neighborhoods. But those decisions should be made on the basis of meeting the needs of our neighbors and the resources available in any given yard. They should not be based on an aging notion that houses are dormitories where we sleep between shift but rather that our homes can help us become more than consumers. They can help us regain our status as producers and sharers- whole citizens capable of talking and acting in ways that foster self sufficiency and interdependency in our respective communities. I’m looking forward to the day when more people in my town and in others raise more of their own food including their own animals, and can do so without violating superficial laws. Until then I will keep my underground flock in my backyard. I will share eggs with my neighbors who are happy to have chickens near by and I hope to inspire others to do the same- to be prepared and ready to help many more of us raise backyard birds in the future.
Because I think this is really important and because it feels so good, I will remain...
the outlaw chickener.you can reach the outlaw chickener at: outlaweggs 'at' gmail . 'com'