Guest Column: Allowing chickens in Winnebago County is a ‘win-win’ for everyone

An example of a backyard chicken coop.
An example of a backyard chicken coop.

By Susan Rockwell

I’m writing this letter to address the issue of urban/suburban trends toward sustainability, specifically, raising chickens in city-sized back yards.

An “underground” urban chicken movement has swept across the United States in recent years. Cities such as Boston and Madison, Wis., are known to have had chickens residing illegally behind city fences.

But grassroots campaigns, often inspired by the expanding movement to buy locally produced food, are leading municipalities to allow limited numbers of hens within city limits.

Cities such as Ann Arbor, Mich., Fort Collins, Colo., and South Portland, Maine, have all voted in the past few years to allow residents to raise backyard poultry. Madison reversed its ban in 2004. Beloit, Wis., just recently changed its ordinance. Milwaukee in Wisconsin and Evanston, Oak Park, St. Charles and Naperville in Illinois also allow backyard chickens.

The trend has expanded to cities where raising hens was already legal, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

Raising backyard chickens is an extension of an urban farming movement that has gained popularity nationwide. Home-raised livestock and agriculture avoids the energy usage and carbon emissions typically associated with transporting food. Fresh is not what you buy at the grocery store. Fresh is what you gather in your backyard, take it inside and prepare it, safe in the knowledge that it is free of hormones, antibiotics, GMOs and cancer-causing insecticides.

Buying local also provides an alternative to factory farms that pollute local ecosystems with significant amounts of animal waste — which can, at times, exceed the waste from a small U.S. city, a government report revealed. In the United States alone, industrial livestock production generates 500 million tons of manure every year.

Meanwhile, advocates insist that birds raised on a small scale are less likely to carry diseases than factory-farmed poultry.

Many of our older family members have shared stories about how chickens saved the family during the Great Depression. Given our recent economic situation, keeping a few backyard hens has never been more practical.

Food prices continue to rise. The unemployment rates have been at record highs, and the Rockford area has been among the highest. Homes have been foreclosed, and shelters and food banks have been struggling to meet demands. In some cities, surplus eggs have been donated to local food banks, and some food banks have started planting gardens and raising backyard chickens.

A readily available source of eggs saves money, energy and time. The initial cost of a small coop and pen will quickly pay for itself.

After the initial coop investment, three to six hens cost very little to maintain, especially if you supplement their diet with weeds, kitchen scraps, grass clippings and bugs (including mosquitoes — think West Nile virus). In return, the hens will provide more than 65 dozen eggs per year for a cost of about $2 per dozen. For the equivalent in fresh, locally-produced eggs that came from happy, healthy chickens (as opposed to factory farms), you would pay $4 to $6 a dozen at the farmers’ market or health food store. Chickens will save additional money on fertilizers, pesticides, and gasoline.

Backyard chickens also create interesting business opportunities. Other areas have seen the development of highly successful urban farm stores that cater to the needs of backyard homesteaders.

Additionally, unemployed construction workers are grateful for the work they’ve been finding building backyard chicken coops. Urban farm schools are popping up all over the country, turning a profit by teaching city dwellers how to grow gardens, can food and raise chickens.

Other cities that have successfully passed ordinances to allow backyard chickens have found the minority of people who oppose it, do so for one of the following three reasons:

1. They are completely unfamiliar with chickens. They think it’s a bad idea because of the “roosters.” They don’t realize that roosters are not needed to produce eggs. Some oppose it because they think chickens will attract pests like cockroaches. They don’t understand that chickens eat the bugs (including mosquitoes and ticks), rather than attract them. If they are unfamiliar with these basic facts, what else are they uninformed about?

2. Their only experience with chickens is large-scale, raised-for-profit, commercial operations or farms. They oppose it because they “know how smelly and filthy” chicken coops can be because they lived near a poultry facility. This is what we are working to avoid.

3. Unfortunately, some people associate raising chickens with poverty. Sharon Astyk sums up this bias nicely when she writes: “among the basic subsistence activities legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:

1. Clotheslines, instead of dryers. Reason: It looks poor. Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer. Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own. This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health-based, a few even broadly grounded in fact; real reason is that pets, which have no purpose other than companionship and cost money, are broadly a sign of affluence, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefit.

3. No front yard gardens. Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence — you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce. It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguous, but basically sterile and safe seeming “public” green space that is actually privatized and not very green. Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford to buy it.”

Education is the key to making this a success.

In this era of concerns about food safety and the financial squeeze on families, allowing chickens IS a win-win situation for everyone.

I’m confident that more cities can draft reasonable policies to ensure urban chicken keeping is allowable, while minimizing impacts on neighbors. I absolutely encourage you to adopt the proposed amendment and allow Winnebago County residents to keep backyard chickens.

From the June 4-10, 2014, issue

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