Now that the City of Vancouver is moving ahead with allowing chickens in backyards, I thought it would be fun to revisit the chapter on chickens from my last book. My book was published in 2003. It’s amazing to see how much has changed and how far we’ve come! And not just with chickens, but bees, UBC Farm, community gardens, sharing gardens, organic certification and more. Several of the people mentioned in this piece have moved on. Including me. Apologies to Canadians for the American spellings; my publisher was primarily marketing this book in the U.S.
No one was paying attention to our news release. We [City Farmer] had just commissioned a poll by IPSOS-Reid to find out how many people were growing food in Vancouver and Toronto. The results were astonishing. In Vancouver, 44% of the households are growing food and in Toronto, 40%. That’s about two and a half million Canadians producing some of their own food, including vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts or herbs in their yard, balcony or community garden. But apparently growing food wasn’t newsworthy.
A few years ago we ran a Best Food Garden in Vancouver contest which got a lot of media attention. We told reporters we were looking for gardens teeming with fruit, vegetables, nuts, ethnic or exotic foods. We didn’t care if it was a front or back yard, on a rooftop, balcony or boulevard. And we welcomed unusual features like old bathtubs used for water collection or an old cadillac turned into a compost bin. In the end, it was mostly neighbors nominating neighbors; our gardeners were a modest lot and their stories made good copy. But clearly we needed a gimmick this time. Worms were usually a good media hook, but we’d done worms to death. It was time for something fresh.
“A chicken in every garage,” my boss Mike said. “What?” I said. He’d been clucking about the lack of media response and his great outlay of cash for the poll. “If I’d said something about having a chicken in every garage in the release, there would have been a feeding frenzy,” he said.
“That’s it!” I said. “Huh?” Mike said. “For our 25th Anniversary. We’ll launch a campaign to put a chicken in every garage,” I said. “Then we’ll slide in the stuff about how many people are also growing vegetables.” “But you’re a vegetarian,” Mike said. “Laying hens, we’ll only push laying hens,” I said. “But it’s illegal to keep chickens in the city,” said Mike. “All media attention is good media attention,” I countered, my years in advertising swelling to the surface.
Mike was as much of a media hound as I was. City Farmer started out as a newspaper. In the very first issue in August of 1978, he ran a cover story called Chickens in Soup. The article is now reprinted on the City Farmer web site. It recounts the trials of Mrs. Centenary, a woman on welfare who was in court to try to keep her chickens. The problem? It is unlawful for city dwellers to keep chickens, among other animal nuisances. She battled it out with the city for six months before being given a suspended sentence and put on six months probation.
In its broader definition, urban agriculture is not only about growing food, but also about raising poultry, fish and bees. I checked into the whole issue of “restrictive covenants on animals in urban agriculture” and found out some interesting facts. In simpler times, people kept animals for food and extra income. But as urban areas encroached more and more on rural zones, city officials became more concerned about health issues and smelly, noisy nuisances. So what about those gas spewing leaf blowers and lawn mowers, huh? I’d rather be woken up by a rooster, frankly.
There’s neither rhyme nor reason for some of the animal restrictions. In one urban Australian community, residents may keep up to five chickens, with no distinction between hens and roosters. In St. Louis, you may not keep horses or cows but there is no ordinance against keeping chickens, pigs or goats! In Annapolis, Maryland, there was a neighborhood ruckus over a burro that was being kept in a shed in a back yard. But the owner got off on a technicality. It seems “burro” wasn’t on the list of farm animals that violated city code, and so it was deemed a pet, even though it brayed like a rooster every morning, filled the yard with donkey doo and made the neighborhood smell like a farmyard. Certain uncommon species have also skirted the law and been given pet status, like pot-bellied pigs, kangaroos, goats and reptiles.
“People are still trying to figure out how to beat City Hall’s bylaws,” Mike wrote on his web site introduction to the chicken story. “If a neighbor complains, health officials are forced to investigate, but most of the time chicken owners are left undisturbed for years.” He warns people to check their city bylaws, keep their yards tidy and offer their neighbors fresh eggs now and then.
Mike also lists some helpful hints from a woman who has kept a chicken in her apartment since 1996. First, never admit your birds are chickens. Pass them off as Prize Winning Australian Malley Fowl, rare show birds worth thousands of dollars. Second, change that cage every day to prevent the swarm of flies that can arouse neighbors suspicion and ire. And third, walk your chicken in a park or woods where no one goes(!?). Bring her favorite food so you can retrieve her right away.
In Vancouver, it is unlawful for any person to keep horses, cattle, swine, goats, ducks, geese, bees, turkeys, pigeons or chickens. Nevertheless, we spotted a few chickens hiding out in some of the Best Food Gardens in the city on judging day. And we even saw a few prize show pigeons. At least we think they were show pigeons.
Ok, but I digress. Back to the meat of the story. The vegetables. Why are people growing so much food? Well, in a survey we did a couple years ago, gardeners told us they did it as a hobby, or because the tomatoes tasted better. Some folks grew herbs and vegetables from their homeland, produce they couldn’t readily find here. And there’s those who garden for stress relief, or because their mother did and their grandfather before her. But personally, I think it’s because they’re chicken. People are freaked about what’s going into their food, from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives to hormones and antibiotics. And they’re worried about nutritional content and the safety of genetically modified foods. Am I still a vegetarian if I eat a tomato infused with fish genes?
Those health and nutrition concerns are fueling the burgeoning organic movement, an industry that has been growing by 20 percent annually over the past decade according to IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Many of the leaders of this so-called organic food revolution have their root in British Columbia, with Vancouver leading the country with the fastest growing organic market. In the U.S., the organic food industry is worth a cool $4 billion now. And the Department of Agriculture is taking the business seriously; they have just introduced a new seal that tells consumers a product has passed strict organic certification tests. BC has been certifying organic foods since 1994, but a national certification program is not yet in place. Many food activists feel that choosing to buy organic is the single most significant environmental action an individual can take today.
Only three generations ago, the majority of people lived and worked on farms and in small rural communities. At present, nearly all people live in cities and their urbanized surroundings with only two per cent of the population in North America growing food for everyone. Urban farms and backyard gardens may seem like small potatoes when it comes to food production for the masses, but their impact on urban ecology and civic health is significant. Like Gandhi’s spinning wheel, that all-important symbol of self-rule, growing our own food allows us to take at least some of the responsibility for feeding ourselves back into our own hands. As gardens grow and neighborhoods become greener, we are more nourished on many levels. Let’s face it, putting your hands in the dirt is good for the soul.
“Planners must set aside more of our green space for growing food if they are serious about creating truly sustainable, urban centers,” Mike continues. “Three possible models include, community gardens which have small plots, European-style allotment gardens with larger plots and small cabins for overnight stays, and thirdly mini-market gardens for city dwellers who want to try their hand at commercial growing.” And we mustn’t forget roofs; we’ve got a lot of growing space atop those high rises. A greenhouse on every rooftop, sounds like another campaign to me.
City Farmer has been promoting urban agriculture for 25 years now; but we’re not the only group spreading the good word about organic food gardening, composting, water conservation, air quality. Since our compost demonstration garden opened, nine more have sprung up in Greater Vancouver. Dozens of community gardens have popped up around the city too; there are three right alongside our demonstration garden. City residents are encouraged to adopt a traffic circle or plant up a street bulge. NeighbourGardens in Vancouver matches people who want to garden with people who are willing to loan them their backyard. And the Fruit Tree Project collects fallen fruit from neglected trees around the city and gives it to food banks.
Chefs are promoting organic and locally grown food too. Some even grow their own; the Waterfront Hotel has a rooftop herb garden that caters to its fine restaurant. There are many organic grocery stores as well as year round organic delivery services and seasonal farmers’ markets. Out at UBC Farm, caretaker Derek Masselink, is trying to get the first urban market garden in the city off the ground. Our city has become a model for urban agriculture. And this is good news!
But perhaps the group that inspired me the most in my 12 years at City Farmer, was our collection of 26 Best Food Gardeners. Those people who brazenly grow food in the front yards as well as the back. Who rig up elaborate drip irrigation systems and grow squashes out of garbage bags on their carport roof. The gardeners who grow enough tomatoes to keep their families in tomato sauce for the entire year and still have some to spare for the neighbors. And especially, the city farmers who say, “Bylaws be damned, I’m keeping a chicken in my garage.”