Next week, Manatee County Commissioners will consider amending an ordinance which prevents residents whose homes are not on parcels zoned agricultural from having chickens on their property. The backyard chicken movement is one of the easiest ways that communities can promote sustainable food practices. There are plenty of skeptics, but as folks from the community group CLUCK demonstrated to commissioners at a workshop this week, apprehension is usually rooted in a lack of understanding. When approached from any sort of logical perspective, keeping people from having chickens in their yard while allowing them to keep dogs and other pets, simply doesn't pass the common sense test.
First, it's important to understand what urban chicken enthusiasts are asking for. There will be no roosters in the proposed amendment, just hens. That means no cock-a-doodle-do, just a very low-decibel cluck, which registers lower than a person's voice or most bird chirps, and is certainly much quieter than a barking dog. Plus, they sleep when it's dark out, just like most of us. Data from noise enforcement and animal services complaints in the many communities that allow urban chickens shows that calls related to hens are so low that they're almost non-existent.
A lot of the fears surrounding urban chickens center on cultural biases. Because sustainability is a must in less-developed countries that don't have access to the network of retailers that exist in factory farm cultures like our own, we tend to associate free-range chickens with third-world countries – and all of the blight that comes along with the poverty and lack of development they tend to suffer. In reality, chickens are healthy animals that produce much less waste than even a small dog, waste that is often cleaner because of their diet, which is why hen matter is a prized organic fertilizer, while dog droppings ... not so much.
Chickens and eggs that we see in grocery stores may seem like they are the result of a much more sterile and well-managed food supply-chain, but if you ever visit a factory farm like the ones most producers contract with, you'll quickly see that such is hardly the case. Chickens are plumped up with antibiotics and hormones, kept too tightly-packed into overcrowded barns to move (let alone for the facility be kept clean) and meats are later bathed in bleach and other chemicals before they're packaged.
Some shoppers can afford to pay a premium for free-range products that are trucked in from far-off farms, or eat at the sort of trendy restaurants that serve organic, farm fresh eggs. But healthy food that nourishes should not be an exclusive commodity. Urban chickens are just one easy way that anyone can achieve regular access to a clean, affordable protein source.
There is also the matter of the enormous impact such practices can have on reducing the carbon footprint of our food supply. By reducing the fuels used in transporting eggs and eliminating the need to deal with the complex (and often environmentally unsound) packaging challenges such fragile items present, we're not only getting healthier food, we're creating a greener community.
Then there is the important matter of preserving the vital societal skill of dietary self-reliance. As generations pass and food sources become concentrated in fewer and larger supply chains, which are increasingly distanced from the consumer, important institutional knowledge is lost. Losing the ability to participate in securing food sources beyond swiping your debit card at the grocery store is not something that should be taken lightly. But with each passing generation, people have come to know less about things like planting and preserving foods, or securing it first-hand from animals.
Best of all, urban chicken movements have had a tendency to get people thinking about food on a more personal level, leading to increased awareness on important issues like buying local, eating organic and making sustainable food choices. Where your food comes from is as important as what you eat, and anytime we can increase the amount of food sources that come from our own backyard, that's a win for our community.
None of the concerns raised at Tuesday's work session stand up to their well-documented rebuttals. Allowing someone to have chickens in their yard does not ask as much of their neighbor as having a dog, which if not properly cared for can leave more waste, noise and intrusion in their wake. In both cases, there are remedies to address irresponsible owners and as I've noted, the evidence suggests that's been less of an issue with chickens than almost any other animal. And if the county wants to continue permitting higher-density development in communities that have historically been pastoral, then there should be tradeoffs in the other direction as well. Commissioner comments on Tuesday were promising, so let's hope the board gets this one right.
Click here to visit an informative FAQ page on keeping urban chickens.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.