Any way you look at it, urban chicken bylaws are stupid. Oil is getting scarcer and harder to access, we're wasting it shipping food from New Zealand that we could grow at home and city councils have gone to the trouble of writing bylaws preventing good citizens from raising egg-laying hens. In 2008 food prices raised the roof thanks to skyrocketing oil prices. Yet for a few minutes of work and 25 cents a day, we could all be rolling in local organic omelettes with enough extra eggs to bribe cranky neighbours at Thanksgiving.
In west end Halifax, 2008 began with local chicken owner Louise Hanavan's neighbour getting his feathers in a knot over her birds. "No fowl," said the city, and Hanavan sent the birds to a good farm in Bridgewater. It sparked a short-lived debate in council that, like so many things in council, chased its tail to nowhere.
Now the feathers could fly again, in Halifax and in Moncton. It's a tale of two cities and two families fighting the power, one from within and one in outright defiance.
"I'm not worried about the city taking my hens," Fred Connors tells me. Connors is the owner of the FRED. cafe and salon on Agricola Street. "I'm always prepared to stand up for my beliefs." Connors is moving from his large rural property in Lunenburg to Bloomfield Street in the north end, and he plans to bring his chickens with him.
"They not only provide delicious food and an amazing ambience, they eat the bugs and turn our soil and do our weeding---they are part of a closed biological system involving no pesticides," Connors says. He uses the organic herbs from his garden in the cafe.
For Connors, urban chickens aren't just about food, they're part of a way of life. "I want to have a realistic relationship with my food," he says. "It's a responsibility I've taken on with great vigour. Most people make no connection between the meat in plastic containers in the supermarket and the chicken out in the world."
Connors is defiant of what he calls a "ridiculous" anti-agriculture bylaw, and an arbitrary one at that. "In this city you can raise cockatoos, you can raise doves, you can raise bunnies, and they all generate the same amount of waste. Three hens won't increase the vermin population in a neighbourhood."
Like HRM, Greater Moncton worries about vermin and has an anti-chicken bylaw for its urban zones. (Strangely, it allows 70-kilogram Vietnamese pigs.) But Michel Desjardins of Post Carbon Greater Moncton took a different approach to getting chickens downtown. "We found some prospective urban farmers and supported them in getting the appropriate approvals," Desjardins says. "We didn't want to be clandestine. We wanted as much attention as possible and talk about food and where it comes from."
Desjardins' group presented a detailed 15-page proposal, complete with statistics, case studies, diagrams, letters of support from neighbours and the SPCA to the Regional Planning Commission. With a 10 to seven vote in their favour, they obtained a permit for three hens for a one-year experimental basis. The group will then provide a full report including the best urban chicken practices in more than 100 North American cities allowing chickens, counts of kilograms of eggs harvested and food miles saved, and a survey of neighbours' responses conducted by an independent third party.
Essentially, Desjardins out-bureaucratted the bureaucrats, but the debate was still fierce. "The concerns expressed revolved around smell, rodents and the spreading of bird diseases like the avian flu," he says. "But these were all addressed in our brief."
Anne-Marie Laroche, the farmer Desjardins found to raise the three hens, boils the planning commission's reaction down to natural human resistance to change. Laroche grew up in the Quebec countryside where chickens were the norm and people were closer to their food.
"When I moved to Moncton I thought it would be great to have chickens here, for our own consumption of eggs," she says. "When Michel approached us I thought, 'Ah, what a great opportunity!' But here in the Maritimes urban chickens are something new."
But, as Connors says, "Urban chicken farming happens all over the world and has done so for centuries." Vancouver, Victoria, London, New York City, Los Angeles and Portland are among the North American cities that allow chickens. In Portland, a permit is required only if a chicken owner's backyard gets stinky or ratty, but it rarely comes up.
And the response from residents in those cities? Silence. No one notices. No one cares. Because they're just chickens!