Friends of Fowl
Keeping backyard chickens is part of a growing trend in urban agriculture, in which city dwellers whose desire for healthy, local, affordable food leads them to produce it themselves.
This “quiet revolution,” as the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls it, has been gaining momentum over the last two decades. While many think of the community gardens of the 1970s as urban agriculture’s starting point, its history goes much farther back – as far back as cities themselves. During both World Wars and the Great Depression, Uncle Sam encouraged all Americans to grow “victory gardens” and keep a small flock of chickens.
It wasn’t until after World War II – and the advent of refrigeration, sprawling suburbs and food-industry consolidations – that backyard farming and chicken keeping became passé. Many cities passed zoning laws and animal ordinances banning chickens and other livestock.
However, for the last decade or so, the tide has been turning back in favor of the humble gallus domesticus, or domesticated chicken, an animal that has been providing people with eggs and meat for the last 7,000 to 10,000 years. Raising chickens has been described as being slightly harder than owning a cat but easier than owning a dog.
And for not much more than the cost of table scraps and the occasional bag of feed, a flock of chickens can offer many benefits, the first being a steady supply of fresh, nutritious eggs. A study done by Mother Earth News found that, compared to commercial eggs, eggs from free-range chickens may contain less cholesterol and fat but more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, they’re fresher than eggs that may have been shipped halfway across the country. Free-range chickens also eat flies, ticks, Japanese beetles, mosquitoes, slugs, and numerous other pests. They dig and scratch in the soil, aerating it, and their droppings are high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, making it a great fertilizer. Backyard eggs also reduce the environmental footprint beyond the obvious fossil-fuel shipping savings. Eggs gathered from backyard flocks also don’t require Styrofoam or plastic packaging waste.
Perhaps most importantly, raising backyard chickens for eggs enhances food security and lowers food bills. According to North Carolina State University’s Poultry Extension Service, eggs from backyard chickens only cost about 81 cents a dozen, considering the cost of the bird and daily feed. Obviously, chickens fed table scraps and bugs would consume less commercial feed. And by having chickens right in the back yard, poorer and non-driving people could have much greater access to fresh eggs.
For these reasons and more, nearly all the cities in Northwest Arkansas have passed ordinances allowing up to four chickens per home (see end of story for details). All, that is, but one.
Backyard Chickens Amidst ‘Big Poultry’
Last April, Gov. Mike Beebe declared Springdale home of poultry titans Tyson Foods and George’s Inc., the “Poultry Capital of the World.” Yet Springdale residents who don’t reside in agriculturally zoned areas cannot own a single chicken.
Brian Klimek, a.k.a. “The Chicken Man,” is out to change that. He says it all started about three months ago, when, despite being employed, he was “broke.”
“I eat pretty healthy, and that adds up quickly,” he says. “With that in mind, I decided that I need to do what my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents did: grow my own food.” Inspired by Fayetteville’s recent progress with urban agriculture, he says he did his research and came to the decision to raise backyard chickens. Yet when he looked into Springdale’s ordinances, he says, “I was shocked when I discovered that Springdale, of all places, didn’t allow chickens at home.”
“That is when I decided to do something about the situation, and I approached city council to begin the process.”
He says he started by hitting the streets, shaking hands, and talking about the issue of keeping backyard chickens in the city. “Everyone I met was in favor of having a few chickens,” he says.
Next, he started a petition on Change.org and publicized it on his Facebook page, Chickens in the Dale. He also maintains a blog by the same name. So far, his petition has garnered 250 signatures.
However, he has run into some stiff resistance. Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse says he understands people’s desire for fresh eggs, but he has several concerns that would need to be addressed before he could support such a measure. His first concern, he explains, is how the city would enforce such a code, citing the “unique challenges” of the city’s “very diverse population.”
“Our animal control officers are already fighting an uphill battle dealing with those issues,” Sprouse says. “Chickens have been restricted to [agriculturally zoned] property for years. To open that up now to include all residential areas will add much to an already full plate for those charged with enforcement of our codes and ordinances.”
That enforcement would be a challenge is no surprise to Anita Davis, a Springdale resident who keeps chickens. “The city doesn’t enforce its existing codes,” she says.
“There are chickens in Springdale,” she says, “and they’re not causing any problems.” Her land, 20 acres within the city limits, is zoned as agricultural, so she isn’t violating the city’s current code. She says her father, former Springdale mayor Charles Davis, has had chickens on this land off and on for years.
Sprouse, whose son Phillip is a senior financial analyst for Tyson Foods, says he has other concerns as well. He says he has heard from some in the poultry industry about “potential biosecurity issues” (meaning, the spread of diseases) that allowing chickens in the city limits might pose to the large poultry producers.
As mayor, however, Sprouse actually has no ability to vote on the issue unless it is needed to break a tie. Therefore, he admits, it could pass with or without his support.
Worth Sparkman, public relations manager for Tyson Foods, states that “this is an issue between the city and its residents, and therefore we feel it would be inappropriate for us to comment.” George’s Inc. did not return requests for comments.
The other obstacle, Klimek says, is lack of community support. “It’s not that people don’t want this to happen,” he says. “They just don’t know that the discussion is happening.”
Klimek says that his group is still gathering information and hasn’t put a proposal before the city council yet. He says they want to “ensure that we cover all the bases before we officially ask for a change.”
He says their next steps are to do a food insecurity survey, solicit support from brick-and-mortar businesses and host community caucuses. “We have a lot of educating to do,” he says, “but we are committed to seeing it through.”
Fayetteville’s Move Forward
Just a short drive south of Springdale, residents of Fayetteville have had the option since 2009 to keep up to four hens, with some restrictions. But the city recently passed a proposal expanding on this trend. Under the new rules, for lots larger than 5,000 square feet, one additional fowl would be permitted for each 1,250 square feet of lot area, up to a maximum of 20 fowl.
The new ordinance also allows residents to have bees and pygmy goats, making it quite possibly the most comprehensive urban agriculture ordinance in the state, according to Peter Nierengarten, Fayetteville’s director of Sustainability and Strategic Planning. He says the rules were compiled using models from Bentonville and Little Rock, as well as several other cities outside Arkansas.
When asked about potential biosecurity concerns of allowing backyard flocks in Fayetteville, Nierengarten says the research indicates that “avian flu in U.S. poultry is most likely to flourish in an environment where birds are in crowded conditions and close constant contact, such as an industrial poultry farm.” Citing the World Animal Health Organization, he says there has only been one highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in the country since 1997, and that occurred in a flock of 7,000 chickens in Texas.
Cinda Haraway Hammons, of the Fayetteville League of Chicken Keepers, or FLOCK, says she thinks the new rules will enable more households to be “more self-sufficiently fed.” Hammons, who describes herself as “all about wanting to know where my food comes from,” has never raised chickens but is ready to start. She ordered chicks, set up a brooder in her master bathtub, and is building a coop. “This is something I have wanted to do for quite a while,” she says.
Hammons describes her support for the proposed measures: “My mind-set is that everyone should grow as much of their own food as possible. Why wouldn’t you want to know where your food comes from and what is in it?”
Ozarkansas Poultry Regulations:
Bentonville: No permit necessary
• Up to four hens
• Area must be kept clean and free of dust, noise and odors
• Feed containers must be rodent-proof.
Eureka Springs: $10 permit required
• For lots up to 1,600 square feet: up to four hens or 20 pigeons or quail
• For each additional 1,000 square feet of land: two additional hens, pigeons or quail, up to a maximum of 10 hens or 25 pigeons/quail
• Must be kept clean, in a covered, predator-proof, adequately ventilated enclosure
Fayetteville: No permit necessary
• For single-family dwellings: up to four fowl
• For lots larger than 5,000 square feet, one additional fowl is permitted for each 1,250 square feet of lot area up to a maximum of 20.
• Each fowl must have 20 square feet of enclosed outdoor space.
• Coops must be in side or back yards, no closer than 25 feet from neighboring residences.
• Enclosure must be kept clean and sanitary.
Fort Smith: No permit necessary
• No limit on number
• Must have 1/2 acre or 21,780 square feet to own fowl, except for school children actively enrolled in a 4-H, FFA or school-related projects involving the raising of fowl
• Cannot run free; must be in an enclosure
Rogers: $5 annual fee
• Up to four hens
• Must live in a single-family dwelling
Siloam Springs: No permit necessary
• Up to four chickens, guineas or turkeys
• Must be confined in an enclosure with a minimum of four square feet per bird
• Enclosure must not be within 100 feet of another business or residence.
• Enclosure must be kept clean and sanitary.
• No fowl are allowed except in agriculturally zoned (A-1) areas, or in platted subdivisions even within A-1 areas.