Backyard chicken initiative gaining ground

Small-scale chicken farming would increase food security for many

Lately, I have been feeling like a chicken secret agent.

When I’m in public situations and people recognize me, I get confessions from underground city chicken-owners.

In hushed tones, looking over their shoulder, they say, “I have three Speckled Hamburgs,” or, “I have four Rhode Island Reds, two Orpingtons and a partridge in a pear tree!”

It’s a code and I know what it means - rare breeds of poultry.

As a breeder, I’m very excited about rare breeds. Currently, it is breeders like myself all around the world who are keeping these specialty breeds from extinction.

With the growing urban poultry movement giving breeders like myself a market, many of these breeds will have a chance at surviving the industrialization of domesticated animals.

But first, the basics.

Here’s a quick summary of the pro-backyard chicken argument in Winnipeg.

We have a significant group of citizens who feel strongly that they have the right to keep backyard chickens. There are over 85 cities in North America that have changed their bylaws in favour of this right.

The scientific data on epidemic transmissions proves that any threat is negligible.

Other cities have tracked minimal increases in workload to city animal services staff.

In other words, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to delay the changing of this bylaw.

And yet, the other side still holds onto their reactionary stance.

Some councillors have been quoted as reducing the debate to a single concept: chickens don’t belong in a city.

The great psychological fear of germs creates an unwillingness to look at or believe scientific reports.

Instead, chicken detractors would rather believe that backyard chickens will surely start avian flu epidemic and kill people with salmonella.

My personal pet peeve is the excuse that chickens are smelly and messy, which is of course about the humans’ management and nothing to do with chickens’ inherent nature.

And the property devaluation argument? Don’t get me started on class warfare.

The only concern that I could empathize with initially in the anti-chicken argument was that it would make workload on Animal Services even greater.

As an animal lover, I’m always looking to improve the conditions for animals in my own care and in general society. However, even that argument vanished as chicken activists pursued discussions with Animals Services in other cities that have established backyard chicken bylaws.

They all say the same thing - complaints are negligible. Having a registration for the location of chickens in the city is, of course, very important.

As a livestock manager with herds of dairy goats, alpacas, horses and hens, people have asked me why I bother with this fight. After all, I legally can have hens and dairy goats because I live on a farm within the city limits but zoned for agriculture.

I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian - meaning I eat dairy products and eggs - for 30 years. I raised my daughter entirely on this diet. She is now 21 years old (and a University of Winnipeg student) and she’s been strong, active and for the most part, illness-free.

For the past eight years we have been extremely fortunate to have our own source of raw goat milk and fresh eggs from animals and birds who I call my friends.

I’ve never felt healthier and in a happier connection to my food.

The bigger picture of food security and food justice is the most important aspect for me from a human-centric perspective.

I feel intuitively that there is an equation of balance to create a permanent and sustainable food system where meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans can all live together in respect of each others’ lifestyle choices.

A balance where self-sufficiency fanatics like myself, small family farmers, and large agri-business can all make responsible choices to collectively provide for all, so that no one need feel the threat of hunger for themselves and especially not for their children.

That is the future that I want to be a part of building.

Meanwhile, like all true WinnipEGGers, I already eagerly await spring - even as winter is just appearing.

For me, spring is hatching time, with an incubator, sometimes two, on the go in my greenhouse.

A few times now I have had the opportunity to move an incubator full of near-hatching eggs into a classroom. I’ll never forget, as I entered her classroom with my incubator, a Grade 1 student’s sweet little voice saying, “This is the best day of my life.”

This spring, if the bylaw is changed, I hope to be investing in a dozen incubators, to be building a community chicken coop in a North End schoolyard, to be ordering hundreds of heritage chicks and to start breeding in earnest my two favourite breeds, Buff Orpingtons and Chanteclers.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the inherent righteousness of the Chicken Team to score the winning goal guided by a great collective chicken spirit.

Go Chicken Team go!

Louise May is owner/operator of Aurora Farm in St. Norbert, MB. She has participated in community art and activism through the St. Norbert Arts Centre for 25 years and has been a member of the Council of Canadians Winnipeg Chapter for the past two years.

Published in Volume 67, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 14, 2012)

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