By Serena Galleshaw and Noah R. Bombard
With proper registration, you can own a pit bull in the city of Worcester. You cannot, however, own a chicken. That may soon change.
Current city ordinances prohibit raising fowl within city limits, but a small group of chicken enthusiasts are working on a proposal that would allow residents to own and raise chickens within the city – with a few restrictions.
Due in large part to best-selling authors like Michael Pollan and award winning films like Food Inc., health-conscious consumers are increasingly turning to locally-grown food or growing their own. Even if you don’t have your own land to grow a garden there are more than 25 community gardens in the city of Worcester residents can join in. If you want to raise chickens for fresh eggs at home, however, you’re out of luck. But a group looking to change that has been working closely with District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller to craft a proposed ordinance that would allow city residents to raise up to five hens per building – in a multi-family unit it would be a first come first served situation. You still couldn’t own a rooster (they start crowing long before sunrise) and you wouldn’t be able to sell the eggs. You also wouldn’t be able to butcher the chickens. But if owning a few chickens is your thing and you like fresh eggs for yourself and to give away to family and friends, you’d be able to do so legally. That’s not to say there aren’t chickens in the city now, but poultry raisers have been largely flying under the radar and doing so illegally.
Work on changing the rules to allow chicken-raising in the city has been slowly gaining steam over the past couple of years. According to Haller, it really began when a resident contacted her about changing the law in the city. Haller, a chicken enthusiast herself, jumped at the idea.
“I’ve always wanted chickens. I used to raise chickens so I have it in my blood,” Haller says.
Working with the Worcester Department of Public Health and researching similar ordinances in other cities, the group has been crafting a proposed ordinance they hope to submit to City Council sometime this year. The measure would likely be referred to the city manager’s office, then sent to a committee before coming before the City Council for a vote.
If the Worcester City Council approves this ordinance, Worcester will join the likes of Providence, New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and dozens of other cities across the country that are standing up for local food and allowing chickens back in the backyard.
Why chickens? Proponents point to the fact that chickens are inexpensive and a prolific producer of a staple protein: eggs. Farms sometimes give away chicks for free and they’re available on websites like Craigslist, and backyardchickens.com for less than $5 for classic domestic breeds. When they grow into hens, they can provide 250-350 eggs a year. Chicken feed is available for $10 for a few months’ worth. Worcester’s ordinance would require a chicken coop registration fee similar to a dog registration – around $15.
Housing the birds wouldn’t be very expensive either. There are websites dedicated to backyard chickens with do-it-yourself instructions for building coops. Adding to the financial benefits of keeping chickens, they also produce top notch fertilizer and devour backyard undesirables like ticks. And it turns out, these pest-annihilating, fertilizing, protein-producing hens can also provide a new hobby.
Jason Przypek, a teacher in Hardwick, has lived with chickens for most of his life. He says caring for them is an easy task.
“It’s almost instinctive … they’re perfectly happy co-existing with you,” Przypek says.
Robert McMinn, producer of Bucky Buckaw’s Backyard Chicken Broadcast and urban chickener in New York City actually lives with his birds in his apartment. He brought a few of his birds to a community gardening event in Main South sponsored by the Regional Environmental Council last month.
Pryzpek did admit, however, that his chickens, despite peacefully co-existing with him do try to escape occasionally, as they enjoy roosting in trees. But like training kids with a time out, he plucks the docile creatures from their perch and sets them back in the coop until they get it right.
Escapees and noise complaints are the first reasons that opponents of chickening legislations in other cities are concerned with.
In Providence, the pushback mostly came from people feeling the city was trying to go back in time, Haller says. In reality, however, Haller says most of the people interested in raising chickens tend to be “foodies” or people who are into organic and locally-grown foods.
Local food activist and proponent of the chicken legislation Joe Scully says the ordinance is “an important lesson in local food. More people are beginning to care about where their food comes from. They want to be a part of the process.”
Some see it as a blow – even if a small one – to the mechanized, impersonal and distant system that sends our food in plastic wrapped packages.
“It’s a step toward reducing our reliability on conventional food sources, which are inherently creating food injustice,” says Amanda Barker, a graduate student in Environmental Science and Policy at Clark University.
As a country with agrarian origins, why did we ever stop raising chickens? Robert McMinn made the story clear: “After the depression (and the beginning of the industrial revolution)… consumers were persuaded that having someone else, far away, grow and prepare all your food improved the quality of life and was one of the greatest benefits of prosperity.”
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