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Credit: Hubert Kang

Are backyard chickens sustainable, or just stylish?

It must have been sometime in 1975 when my sister called from our grandmother’s place to say that the egg she had been working on in biology class at McGill had hatched. Whatever the bylaws governing backyard poultry on the West Island of Montreal at the time, we gleefully accepted the bird – Benjamin, as we called him – into the family. We kept him for several weeks, and a fascinating thing it was to watch him grow into a bantam-league pet. I still remember the blue plywood frame covered with fine wire mesh, the scent of sawdust, newspaper and chicken shit, and being curious about the fellow who adopted him after Benjamin became too large for us to keep in the house.

Shift forward to today, and the whole notion of having a chicken in the family, whether a layer or a broiler – as I suspect Benjamin was – has become a politically charged topic.

The promise of “a chicken in every pot” has long been shorthand for prosperity, but advocates of food security are calling for amendments to local bylaws that would permit a hen – or a flock of them – in every yard to enhance access to homegrown food and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, even advocates of sourcing food locally acknowledge that gathering your own eggs is merely a step up from growing your own vegetables. It may not save the world, but it’s a nice hobby to have.


More on backyard chickens

Backyard chickens in Vancouver – Read Granville Online's comprehensive coverage of the debate. 

FAQs on backyard chicks – Check the City of Vancouver's backyard chickens page

Or will be, once Vancouver city staff finish drafting policies aimed at establishing a baseline for the keeping of poultry in the city and mitigating community concerns. City council passed a motion approving backyard flocks in principle in early March, and now staff are preparing guidelines aimed at protecting the health and welfare of citizens, ensuring the humane treatment of backyard hens (roosters will remain prohibited) and advising councillors on the steps needed to repeal the existing legislation prohibiting backyard hens. The recommendations could come back to council later this year, legalizing the small-scale but potentially widespread production of eggs in the city.

The legalization of flocks (a handful of which already exist in the city, some making themselves at home in designer hutches known as eglus) will put Vancouver on a par with Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, all of which allow backyard flocks. Smaller cities have also taken action; Castlegar is even expanding its legislation to allow miniature goats, too.

The shift in Vancouver began almost a year ago, as a steady stream of letters began arriving at city hall urging the city to change its bylaws to allow citizen to keep poultry. While more exotic birds are allowed as pets, municipal bylaw 9433 forbids livestock (horses, donkeys, cattle, swine, sheep, goats) as well as poultry and fowl from being kept within city limits.

That didn’t sit right with food security advocates, for whom enhancing local access to local food – the closer to home, the better – is a priority. Since its first meeting in September 2004, the Vancouver Food Policy Council has lent its support to the expansion of community gardens and supported the amendment of municipal bylaws four years ago to allow backyard apiaries.

Changing the law to give homeowners the option of gathering homegrown eggs from their own hens will be more challenging, says Samara Brock, a social planner working on the recommendations regarding backyard hens, but it’s a natural extension of what has been done to date.

“People want to keep chickens because they want to keep chickens and they want to have a connection to where their food comes from,” Brock says, likening it to the penchant prompting many people to plant vegetable gardens. “It could be more efficient for them to buy a tomato, but they’re growing a tomato because they want to grow a tomato because they want to have that connection.”

Having a henhouse in the backyard may breed an appreciation for where food comes from, but Brock acknowledges that home-based egg production is just one small step toward more sustainable food systems for city dwellers.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done on a lot of different levels in terms of creating sustainable food systems, so this isn’t the answer,” she says, noting that the quota system governing commercial egg production is one area that could bear scrutiny. “Obviously there are larger policy questions that need to be asked, too.”

Straightforward food politics underpins the attitude of Jeff Neild, operations manager with the Vancouver advocacy group Farm Folk/City Folk. “We operate from the idea of food sovereignty,” Neild says, defining the concept as “one step beyond the idea of food security” to entail control of food’s origins. It means “being able to control where your food comes from,” he explains. “We believe if you have land in your backyard, that you can keep chickens. I would consider it a right.”

Neild goes so far as to suggest that someone with enough land should be able to raise a pig in the city, though the husbandry required might be more complex.

But why should anyone care to raise their own livestock? Were food sovereignty a concern, wouldn’t it be sufficient to have, say, municipally owned egg farms?

“It’s a bit of a stretch,” Neild says. “When you have a food sovereignty, you have control over your own food; you also have the choice of how that food is produced, and most people who would be interested in food sovereignty wouldn’t necessarily think a commercial, industrial chicken operation is the way we would want to go.”

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Backyard chickens owners Heather Jarvey and Aaron Burt in Surrey

Backyard chickens owners Heather Jarvey
and Aaron Burt with Zilla and Cheeks
at their Surrey home.

For Neild the issue is more than just securing a homegrown food supply, but includes dissatisfaction with commercial operations, which he believes provide birds with a lower standard of living and greater exposure to disease, and limit biodiversity.

“That’s something that something like backyard chickens will help answer,” he says, enthusiastically. “People will have a variety of chickens, people will use heritage breeds. It’s part of the ethic of raising your own food.”

Calvin Bruekelman, a hatching-egg producer with 12,000 birds that run free through his barns in Abbotsford, talks about a different ethic, the one he believes everyone who cares for animals shares.

“As long as the fundamentals of animal husbandry are being met – good food, good water, good housing and good environment to be in, in terms of ventilation – I think it’s irrelevant whether they’re housed in a barn of thousands or a backyard of four or five,” he says. “Any person who takes care of animals always has a vested interest in their well-being.”

A spokesperson for the B.C. Poultry Association, an umbrella group that represents the industry on matters of common concern such as avian influenza, Bruekelman says any increase in backyard flocks ups the risk of disease among all flocks in the Lower Mainland. And, as owners of backyard flocks in the Fraser Valley found out when avian influenza reared its head in 2004, backyard flocks aren’t immune to the risks, controls and culls that commercial birds face.

The good news is that the spread of disease between commercial and backyard flocks hasn’t been a major concern to date and Bruekelman doesn’t expect it to be so in the future. The limited contact between backyard flocks and commercial operations, not to mention biosecurity at commercial farms, ensures this. Still, he feels it’s important that Vancouver and any other municipalities considering allowing homeowners to own hens ensure regulations are in place to limit the potential risks.

All things being equal, however, the real issue is whether or not backyard flocks are really more sustainable than farms that produce the eggs bought at the farm gate or grocery store. Sure, there’s the satisfaction that comes from raising your own food, but is it really more sustainable? Or is it simply an exercise that makes us feel we’re doing the right thing?

Travelling through the Baltic states a few years ago, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of poultry in the yard of homes in some of the areas I found myself walking. How impressed the local-food advocates back home would be, I thought. And yes, it was impressive, if just a tad quaint and, under the circumstances, necessary.

Here in North America we have the luxury of being able to buy most of what we need at the supermarket, or even the plethora of small farmers markets that have cropped up to meet the appetite for and interest in local foods. There’s a cachet to having something from your own backyard, whether you take that literally or adhere to a 100-mile diet.

Still, I can’t help but think of my brother, who recently added commercial egg production to his dairy farm. I always opt for the milk from his cows he puts in the fridge, and I look forward to enjoying the eggs from his hens on my next visit. The scale of his operation means that there’s more than a few of us who don’t have to get our hands dirty milking cows and gathering eggs. Being able to visit him gives me a connection with the basics of food production a dwindling number of us have, the connection Brock says many urban agriculturists crave.

Heather Jarvey, who brought two hens with her when she and her husband moved from hen-friendly Portland, Oregon, to Surrey last year, doesn’t begrudge me the freedom I enjoy from animal husbandry. “I hope you never lose the right to be able to do that,” she says, laughing.

Whatever the benefits hens provide in terms of providing eggs, shortening the food chain, taking are of kitchen scraps or fertilizing the yard, she admits that they’re a luxury. We have the opportunity to choose whether or not to gather our own eggs or buy them from any one of the several vendors our society affords.

Jarvey hints, however, that it might not always be so, and that having a few small-scale producers in the community keeps alive agricultural practices that might one day be important for the survival of neighbourhoods and communities.

“Yes, it is a luxury – right now,” she says. “But I’d rather be doing it while it’s a luxury than try to figure it out when it’s a necessity.”