Commentary

The Benefits of Urban Chicken and Bee Pilot Projects at Community Gardens

Hosting pilot projects at community gardens is a nice way to gradually and responsibly ease citizens (both for and against) into the practice of these progressive initiatives.

By Joseph Sneep
Published May 18, 2013

Hamilton's community gardens are uniquely positioned within their neighbourhoods to facilitate the education, training, and proper implementation of domestic food production initiatives within the city, such as urban bee and chicken keeping.

Many of the objections raised against these initiatives arise due to conflicts between neighbors who want bees or chickens and those who don't. However, the gardens are neutral sites, situated at a remove from residences, thereby avoiding the condition of conflict.

In this way, they are ideal locations where citizens who are interested in implementing these initiatives can be trained and educated properly, and where those citizens with concerns can see how these initiatives can be carried out in a way that respects everyone's liberty.

The demand for such initiatives is not going to diminish, because the local food movement is only getting stronger in the city (e.g. The Mustard Seed Co-op is about to take off, and OPIRG McMaster has recently launched the Hamilton urban beekeeping (HUB) working group).

Besides, these initiatives have already been successfully implemented in many other cities (e.g. Guelph, Kingston, Niagara Falls permit coops; Toronto has many urban beekeepers), so why not Hamilton next? Hosting pilot projects at community gardens is a nice way to gradually and responsibly ease citizens (both for and against) into the practice of these progressive initiatives.

Urban Chickens

There are many arguments against the keeping of chickens in the city. Some rest on aesthetic grounds (e.g. unmaintained coops can be unsightly and smelly). Others have to do with health concerns such as the spread of disease, or the attraction of pests and rodents.

Councillor Terry Whitehead even made the suggestion that if one were to allow chickens, then it's only a matter of time before we have bigger livestock like cows in backyards as well.

According to the City's information report [PDF], so long as chickens are properly cared for, aesthetic and health concerns are nothing to worry about. If chickens are not being properly cared for, fines or other penalties may be implemented, but less than a handful of complaints have been made in each city that has permitted coops.

Before food production became industrialized, many Hamilton families kept chickens, pigeons, and even rabbits in their backyards; those skills and know-how have since been mostly lost, but, if regained, there would be no more trouble with keeping those animals now than there was then.

Keeping chickens involves no greater health concern than owning a cat or dog would, and any risks involved could be sufficiently mitigated by the right ordinances. Also, hens lay eggs without roosters, so no one needs to worry about crack-of-dawn cock-a-doodle-doos.

As for the slippery slope argument, chickens require so much less in the way of resources and space than big livestock that the comparison is unfair. Indeed, their low maintenance requirements are precisely what make chickens so appropriate for an urban setting.

All of this would be evident after a successful pilot project at one of Hamilton's community gardens.

Beekeeping

The concerns associated with urban beekeeping revolve around two main issues: 1) bees occasionally sting people; and, 2) swarming.

At a community garden, the distance between the hive and neighbourhood residences is great enough, and there is enough food available for them on-site, that one can enjoy a ginger ale outside without having to worry about attracting too much attention from the bees - it is rather wasps that one needs to more often worry about.

Wasps have a much more testy temperament than bees, which are generally docile by comparison, though the two are easily confused from their appearance.

The issue of swarming brings us to another set of objections to urban domestic food production involving animals. This set is based not on dangers posed to humans, but rather to the animals involved in these initiatives.

Swarming occurs when a hive has reached a higher population density than what the resources available to the hive in the surrounding area can sustain. This causes the old queen to leave the hive with a bunch of workers in tow in order to start a new one somewhere else. They settle on a new spot, swarm it, and, if ideal, begin construction.

In this circumstance, the bees are intent on their work and will not sting anyone so long as they are not bothered. If a hive is swarming in an inconvenient spot, local beekeepers can be called in to remove it safely and quickly.

However, swarming may occur more frequently within an urban environment because there are less nectar resources available than in the countryside; and, if everyone had a hive in their backyard, the bees would be forced to compete with each other, honey yields would be lower, and urban hives may become even more stressed.

This suggests that it may be best for the bees if urban hives were kept at distances sufficiently far apart to promote hive health and discourage swarming (e.g. at least the distance between two community gardens).

Humane Living Conditions

Those concerned for chickens in urban environments will likely object on grounds that animals should not be used merely as a means to an end. So, the slaughtering of chickens or using them just for their eggs would be considered morally wrong on this view. Presumably, using bees just for their honey would be wrong as well.

However, city ordinances can be designed such that the animals involved enjoy a high quality of life. For instance, an ordinance might stipulate that only so many chickens may be kept in one coop, and the coop must be sufficiently large that the animals are happy.

Likewise for the bees: only so many hives per neighbourhood may be permitted. Neglect would be punishable, and the punishments enforced in the same way the city deals with neglect of more conventional pets. Permits could be issued at a small fee to account for any additional enforcement costs.

City ethical standards should be higher than those of factory farming; and, animals and humans alike would benefit from the resulting emotionally rewarding relationships.

As for the slaughtering of chickens, so long as the skills are in place to make sure the bird suffers as little as possible, is it not better to use every last bit of the animal, precisely out of a deep respect for it and the precious resources it consumed? But no matter, keeping egg-laying hens is enough for a beginning, and the more controversial issue of slaughtering may be dealt with later.

The local food movement is about de-intensifying food production, regaining confidence-building skills and know-how, and about showing people where their food comes from in order to develop an appreciation of the real cost of food: there's nothing like the pride of eating what you grow.

The educational, psychological, and social benefits of having chickens and bees in one's neighbourhood far outweigh the minor difficulties associated with them. The challenges of keeping chickens and bees today are the same ones many Hamiltonians easily dealt with fifty years ago, and are not significantly different from keeping dogs or cats.

If one wants bees and chickens in one's neighbourhood, or if one wants higher ethical standards for industrially farmed animals, then one needs practical demonstrations of the preferable way to do things.

Community gardens would be an excellent venue for such educative workshops and demonstrations since they are politically neutral sites between neighbors. Products from the bees and chickens could be used by community gardens to help offset associated costs, by selling honey for example, or eggs, or even chicken-poop as fertilizer.

These workshops would also foster better understanding between rural and urban ways of life. Hosting these pilot projects at community gardens would gradually and responsibly prepare the public for a safe and useful progressive move that Hamilton really should make.

In the meantime, City Hall can figure out the details of what models of implementation would work best for the city across all its wards.

Joseph Sneep is currently finishing his Masters of Arts in Philosophy at McMaster University. He is the former gardener for the Dundas Butterfly Gardens, where he was equally inspired by two very different forces of nature: lepidoptera and Joanna Chapman.

12 Comments

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted May 19, 2013 at 11:49:49

Bee's and chicken ranching in high-density urban areas, on community garden properties? A dozen Canada grade "A" egg are about $2.25. You being a Philosopher, I can understand your reasoning, after all, a century or two ago things were completely different, like "Little House on the Prairie". Sure, children should know where their food comes from, most parents know how to explain where food comes from to their kids, and many local Farmers would show you around, if you asked them nicely. My Uncle was a Dairy Farmer. A Hamilton Councillor is a working Farmer, he advised that urban chicken farming should not take place. He is an expert. I learned where milk comes from, and what is done with the by-products, and where their food comes from, straw and silage. The manure was spread on fields, to nourish the next crop of hay. You get used to the smell pretty fast. You should write your dissertation on this dreamy urban angst that has surfaced in society, a generation nostalgic for the good old days, when chickens clucked and Roosters chimed, a natural alarm clock for a dusk-to-dawn work schedule. Thanks for an interesting read.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2013 at 23:00:10 in reply to Comment 88818

Yup, the city is no place for noisy animals that poop all over the place. I hope you'll join me in petitioning for a ban on urban dogs.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted May 19, 2013 at 14:10:58

but are those Grade A eggs raised ethically?

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By viennacafe (registered) | Posted May 20, 2013 at 09:05:44

I care about what I eat and I care about how the food I eat was produced. Most eggs, today, are produced in factory farms. Hens spend their lives in tiny cages, their beaks are snapped off, and male chicks are disposed, alive, into grinding machines. It is a cruel system of farming.

We are supposed to live in a free country. We are supposed to live in a free market. Yet every time someone says "I want to eat ethically," small 'c' conservatives who tout their individualism as a virtue want to tell me what I can do on my own property and what I can and can't eat.

Everyone is welcome to do their own research. I have done mine. There are no records of anyone getting sick from eating the eggs produced by backyard hens. There is no problem in raising backyard hens with water contamination or waste. Cruelty when raising backyard hens is unacceptable. Contrast that with industrial farming where recalls are routine and illness and even death is not unheard of and where waste and soil and water contamination represent serious risks to the shared environment and human health (http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/nspills.asp). And where cruelty is an accepted industrial practice.

Finally, industrial hens are fed a steady diet of genetically modified corn and who knows what else. Whereas backyard hens will eat grubs, grass, and kitchen scraps.

If I had kids and I cared about their health and well-being, I would want them to know how to raise their own reliably healthy food.

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By Bunce (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2013 at 12:42:26

Any truth to the rumour that raccoons and skunks are partial to beehives and henhouses?

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By Bzzzness 101 (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 06:17:01

Licensing boon. City needs cash, and here's another lever.

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By Bee House (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 08:47:05 in reply to Comment 88835

These initiatives may need paperwork and oversight, but it'd be a mistake to view them as a cash cow. I imagine that any associated fees would be nominal at best, and the uptake on this is bound to be reasonably low. If the city isn't prepared to license cats, which are more prevalent, I don't see why bees and chickens would be an easy target.

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By Rational Optimist (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 09:49:35 in reply to Comment 88837

I don't think any paperwork is needed. No particular oversight is required, either. I think that the author of the article is correct in saying that basic standards should be laid out, but there is no reason they be terribly specific, and certainly no reason for licensing. You're right: the City doesn't have the will to license cats (which probably is unnecessary), so definitely shouldn't be licensing chickens and bees.

I used to live in Kitchener, where so far as I can recall no debates like this happened. I'm not sure of the history- if chickens were forbidden by the municipality, who then later rescinded that policy, or what- and I can't even say 100% what laws are on the books. But several of my neighbours in a relatively dense downtown neighbourhood kept chickens. I can recall one adjacent neighbour commenting about some issue he perceived, and the one neighbour's chicken coop was moved to a different part of the yard as a result. It seemed to work.

I don't think I personally would be interested in keeping chickens. But if I'm allowed to have a dog, a much bigger and non-productive animal, definitely I think that the City is wrong to tell my neighbours they can't keep chickens.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 12:45:22 in reply to Comment 88838

http://www.therecord.com/news/local/article/512244--waterloo-rejects-city-chickens-again

http://www.wrfoodsystem.ca/forum/viewthread/10578

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2013 at 05:47:43 in reply to Comment 88843

April 2011

I love the idea of urban hens. There is nothing I would like better than to have a small flock of hens merrily existing in my back yard. It's just another brick in the wall of my plan to turn my back yard into a little urban farm! (This plan still exists mostly in my head, and is being implemented extremely slowly, over the course of years. But it is a plan nonetheless!)

But it seems the City of Waterloo has struck another blow against urban chickens. For the past two years, the City has been running a "pilot project" of sorts, where certain registered households are permitted to keep hens under close scrutiny. After the two years was up (and after lots of study, public consultation, report-writing and bylaw-drafting) at a recent Council meeting the matter was voted on, and came down to a tie. It means the grandfathered hens are still safe, but the motion was defeated What's going to happen going forward?? I am a resident of Kitchener (though we are oh-so-close to Waterloo, with the property line of our back yard falling right on the city boundary) and while we in K-Town are expressly prohibited from keeping hens by the letter of the law, I had hoped that if Waterloo went ahead with allowing urban chickens, Kitchener City Council would be inspired to follow suit.

http://waterloons.blogspot.ca/2011/04/chicken-about-urban-chickens.html

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By Rational Optimist (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 15:04:01 in reply to Comment 88843

Neat to know from the first link that they actually banned them as late as 2009, I wonder what was on record before. It's referring to the City of Waterloo, though.

Thanks for the second. Very interesting: I had never heard of this sort of thing happening. And I had never personally read the bylaw before.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2013 at 12:38:35

GUELPH — There are few cities in southern Ontario that allow residents to keep exotic pets, especially livestock, in their own backyards, but Guelph is an exception. City bylaws permit residents to keep chickens, goats, and other animals so long as they meet certain regulations.

Eight years ago, when Rachel Farahbakhsh and her husband first arrived in Guelph, they picked up a dozen chickens at a general store at the suggestion of the shopkeeper. Since then, she and her family have been slowly expanding their backyard farm to include veggies, fruit trees and goats. Her most recent project is building a greenhouse so they can grow crops all year around.

Currently, she has five hens that are kept in a wire pen and sleep in a small coop made of straw and mud. The coop’s walls are thick enough to keep the birds warm, even throughout the winter, and in return for their happy home, the chickens provide eggs for her family.

She also has fruit trees throughout the yard, surrounding a large garden.. Add her four goats to the mix and the residential backyard begins to resemble a small farmyard.

Farahbakhsh sees the goats as pets that also provide her family with milk. On average, she gets two litres a day from a goat when it’s producing. She said when the goat gave birth to its two kids, the spectacle became a neighbourhood celebration. Everyone wanted to stop by and see the baby animals.

“We’re really fortunate in Guelph, there’s no question,” she said, adding she knows many others who are building their own backyard farms within the city. “You would never know from the front what’s going on in the backyard.”

Paul Moore, the city’s manager of permits and zoning, is someone whose job requires him to know what goes on in residential backyards, to a certain degree. He said goats used for agricultural purposes are not allowed to be kept in the residential sections of Guelph, unless of course, they are pets.

Moore said it is uncommon for people to have goats as pets, but it does happen from time to time. Goats are in the same class as other agricultural livestock such as cattle, pigs and sheep.

The line dividing whether one can own this type of animal in a residential area is a little blurry. Ultimately, it depends on what the animal is used for. If it is used to harvest milk or other materials that will be sold at a market, the animal would need to be kept in an agricultural zone. If the animal if kept for companionship, it may be allowed in a residential zone. He said as far as the zoning bylaw goes, “it’s tough to determine” whether someone owns these animals for agricultural purposes.

“If somebody was to have a goat or so in the city as pets, I think we’d be hard pressed to go after them as being agricultural livestock based, according to our definition,” he said. If that goat makes too much noise, however, there are noise bylaws that will address this.

As for chickens, the City of Guelph bylaw number (1985)-11952 allows residents to keep pigeons, geese or poultry in their yard, so long as they are kept in pens with floors and are at least 15.3 metres away from neighbours’ houses.

http://www.guelphmercury.com/news/local/article/745468--urban-farms-take-root-in-guelph

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