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On Civic Agriculture: Why Backyard Chickens Matter

“She had no way of knowing it, but that plain country woman, whose name I have long forgotten, taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: food could be much more than mere sustenance.”  –Jacques Pépin[1]

I do not recall exactly what prompted me to ponder the resurgence of interest in small-scale poultry-keeping (or, backyard chickens), and the media-attention being paid to it.[2] Like so many trains of thoughts–at least, those that end up leading somewhere worthwhile, it was probably several things over a relatively short time-period that got me thinking about the meaning of raising and keeping chickens in the backyard, to ask myself whether and why backyard chickens matter. 

backyard-poultry.pngPerhaps the first such thing to get me thinking was learning, by way of a Facebook posting, that a University of Wisconsin law professor I know (and admire) raised chickens in her backyard.  I believe that this was followed by my reading a post on Marion Nestle’s marvelous blog, Food Politics, titled: “Backyard Chickens: an art, a science, a social movement.”[3] In the post, Nestle alerted readers to a “delightful exhibit on the history of backyard chickens in the lobby of Cornell’s Mann Library.”  The exhibit was called “Backyard Revival: American Heritage Poultry,” and Nestle noted that, among the things on display, were “early 20th century books on backyard poultry raising [that] look just like the ones being produced today.  In between, of course, came massive industrial chicken production, as the curator’s notes explained.”

From Nestle’s blog post I followed two links that she provided for context–one to the website for a new magazine, Backyard Poultry,[4] and the other to the “Chicken Revolution” website.[5] The folks behind Chicken Revolution are fighting, according to their mission statement, “to legalize backyard chicken-keeping in the city of Salem, Oregon, and help others do the same in cities around the country.” This group calls itself “Chickens in the Yard” (or “C.I.T.Y.”), and the logo for their efforts is amusingly, and appropriately, Che Chicken.
Thumbnail image for chi-chicken.pngAs explained on their Website, the Che Chicken logo:

is meant to make you smile. A chicken wearing the beret of a revolutionary? There is tremendous irony in our use of this symbol. What could be more conservative than having a few chickens in your yard? Yet we have to battle for the same rights our parents and grandparents had as Americans – the right to a have few hens. No, that’s not in the Constitution…but America was founded on the principals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…and chickens make us happy. Viva la Urban Chicken Revolution!

Sadly, for C.I.T.Y., the Chicken Revolution has not brought change to Salem, Oregon, since the city council voted to continue its ban on chickens roosting within city limits, retaining the classification of chickens as “livestock” that can only be kept outside the city limits.[6]
This banishment of agricultural production to beyond the city limits is something that I have thought much about over the last several years.  To me such banishment is part and parcel of the industrialization of food production that has, fortunately, come to be increasingly questioned, and criticized–especially since the publication of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.  In my own law practice, which is devoted to the representation of victims of foodborne illness outbreaks, I am particularly well-positioned to attest to the significant costs that society pays–both economic and non-economic–as a result of a system of food production that prioritizes quantity, price, and profit above all else. 

I have also been long interested in the different paths that other countries have taken in response to the rise of more industrialized food production.  For example, I have before written about the Label Rouge poultry that has captured not only public support in France, but profits and market share, based on the idea that it is better to raise poultry in a manner that is the antithesis of industrialized.[7]  Such an approach emphasizes openness, a smaller scale, and humane practices that produces a tastier, safer, and more ethically defensible chicken, instead of–in the words of an article published in Backyard Poultry— “concentration-camp chicken from the supermarket.”[8] Or, as one proponent of backyard chicken was quoted as saying (in a less inflammatory manner): “Small flocks are the wave of the future….Chickens were never meant to be raised in factory farms.”[9]

One significant benefit, then, of backyard chickens is how they reverse, even if only to a small or symbolic degree, the banishment of agriculture from our cities and suburbs. And in recognizing this, it becomes, I think, much less difficult to imagine a much more substantial and widespread reintegration of agriculture into our daily lives.  Whereas this reintegration is right now sporadic and ad hoc, depending on individual decisions and the efforts of small groups, like Chicken Revolution, the process can be made as much a part of urban planning as any other goal or priority might be.  For example, we currently require real estate developers to build sidewalks and install streetlamps as a condition of approving their construction of a subdivision.  Such things are not considered a dispensable amenity, but as something necessary for a community to work as something more than a collection of isolated fortresses, bereft of meaningful interaction.  Without streetlamps and sidewalks, and space for parks and school buildings, no one would expect a subdivision what was nothing more than a widespread collection of houses to develop into something that we would call (or recognize as) a neighborhood, village, or community.

Take for example, Columbia, Maryland, one of the first planned communities that, according to its developers, The Rouse Company, was designed and built “in terms of human values, not just in terms of economics and engineering.”[10] According to the Wikipedia entry that discusses it, Columbia’s design was:

aimed to provide Columbia a small-town feel….Each village comprises several neighborhoods. The village center may contain middle and high schools. All villages have a shopping center, recreational facilities, a community center, a system of bike/walking paths, and homes. Four of the villages have interfaith centers, common worship facilities which are owned and jointly operated by a variety of religious congregations working together.

Most of Columbia’s neighborhoods contain single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and apartments (though some are more exclusive than others). The original plan, following the neighborhood concept of Clarence Perry, would have had all the children of a neighborhood attend the same school, melding neighborhoods into a community and ensuring that all of Columbia’s children get the same high-quality education.

In short, the design for Columbia was intended to bring people together into a larger family-like unit, not homogenous, but at least coherent.

In light of the widespread acceptance and acknowledged success of the Columbia planned development, is it such a stretch then to consider a
lso requiring developers to build community agricultural spaces with a community?  Such spaces could (and would) be used for raising fruits and vegetables, and there could also be facilities for keeping chickens for eggs.  Instead of the ad hoc creation of community gardens–like the “Pea Patches” in Seattle that were first created to fill in dirty vacant lots–space would be set aside for agricultural activity from the start.  Residents could participate in their community through working in the gardens, regularly or just during planting or harvest.  And they could raise chickens in their own backyards too, or in a designated area, using the eggs produced, and sharing the overflow with neighbors.  But however localized agriculture is accomplished, there would be the recognition that such activity–civic agriculture, to use the term coined by Thomas Lyson–was not just about food production; it is about creating community too, by feeding interaction, and sustaining it.

Such community is not coerced, however; it is not some latter-day version of totalitarian collectivism.  Instead, community is given a chance–and a place–to grow.  As envisioned by the late Lyson, civic agriculture accomplishes “a re-localizing of production.” Perhaps even more importantly, it “represent[s] a broad-based movement to democratize the agriculture and food system.”[11] This democratization is an inevitable by-product of civic agriculture because it only “flourishes in a democratic environment.” And this is because: 

Community problem-solving around agriculture and food issues requires that all citizens have a say in how, when, and by whom their food is produced, processed, and distributed. Food and agriculture are an integral part of community life and recognized as such. Indeed, citizen participation in agriculture and food-related organizations and associations stands as a cornerstone of civic agriculture.

And we are, as a result, reminded that food can be “more than mere sustenance.”

If we are to accomplish the creation of civic agriculture, this re-localizing food production from the fringes to the “living center” (as Martin Buber described “true community”[12]), then we must create the infrastructure necessary to its viability.  This means that we will need to mandate the creation of agricultural space in urban and suburban settings–like the parks and pathways and other public spaces in Columbia, Maryland.  By doing this, we will also reverse the trend begun decades ago when suburbs were built by expanding into agricultural areas, thus pushing food production further to the fringes of community-activity, and then banishing it altogether as food production became concentrated in far-away factory farms. 

When we somehow have a hand in its creation, and locate food production within our cities and suburbs, food can bind us together. This is what Lyson meant by describing civic agriculture as being in large part about “a re-localizing of production,” something that has certainly started to happen. Signs of the ongoing re-localization are easily found in such things as the increasing popularity of farmers markets, and the locavore movement.  But even these signs, although positive, prove the need for further effort; most who sell at farmers markets drive miles to get there.  And while real communal bonds form between food producers and their customers at the local market, at the end of the day, farmers return to their own community rather than being a part of the one where they sold their goods.  The locavore movement has therefore moved the locus of food production closer for many, but not made it truly local, not put it at the center of where we live.  Nor have food movements currently underway spurred true participation in the production process–like, for example, the raising of chickens in the backyard. 

With civic agriculture, growing fruits and vegetables within communities, and keeping chickens, can come to be seen as something vital–a way to build bonds between neighbors, like my own mother would in walking around her neighborhood, handing out the overflow of her tomato-production, and freshly baked loaves of zucchini bread and carrot cake.  The one story told at her memorial service that I will never forget is a joyful reminiscence, shared by a former neighbor, telling of how my mother taught them how to grow bountiful crops of tomatoes, how to prune for maximum fruit production, and what other vegetables grew well in the micro-climate of their neighborhood.  He also recalled, again with great joy, all the cookies and cakes that my mother would bake and share with anyone who wanted one or two or three or more. “She fed the whole neighborhood, and loved doing it,” he said.

I thought about my mother reading a recent essay in the New York Times magazine that discussed the growing phenomena of stay-at-home mothers taking up gardening, tomato-canning, and the raising of backyard chickens.  The title of the essay is The Femivore’s Dilemma, and I definitely recommend the essay in its entirety.[13] But the following long quotation from it will give you a sense of the point the author is making in noticing the conjunction of feminism with the locavore movement.

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place. Given how conscious (not to say obsessive) everyone has become about the source of their food–who these days can’t wax poetic about compost?–it also confers instant legitimacy. Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?

There is even an economic argument for choosing a literal nest egg over a figurative one. Conventional feminist wisdom held that two incomes were necessary to provide a family’s basic needs–not to mention to guard against job loss, catastrophic illness, divorce or the death of a spouse. Femivores suggest that knowing how to feed and clothe yourself regardless of circumstance, to turn paucity into plenty, is an equal–possibly greater–safety net. After all, who is better equipped to weather this economy, the high-earning woman who loses her job or the frugal homemaker who can count her chickens?

I am not sure that my mother (or I) would agree with the idea that a woman growing her own vegetables is a source of “legitimacy”–as if not doing so would make one illegitimate, at least in the eyes of some.  But there is no question that there is value in growing your own vegetables, a value that extends beyond the gardener, and the family, to the greater community.  There is also a value in recognizing that it was not that long ago that families had no choice but to raise their own vegetables, and keep chickens for eggs and meat, and raise other livestock too.  As Lyson helpfully reminds us about our country:

Less than 100 years ago most rural households in the United States sustained themselves by farming.  While some agricultural products were sold for money on the open market, others were produced solely for household consumption or for bartering with neighbors.[14]

Thus, it was not for gaining a sense of legitimacy or personal fulfillment that households produced their own food; it was so as to not starve to death; it was to survive.  Still, even in battling starvation, food was not “mere sustenance”–which is what the food is that lines the shelves of supermarkets, and the fast food we purchase at the drive-thru and gulp down on our way to whatever our next destination happens to be. 

When people raise and make food to eat, and bart
er it in exchange for that which others made, true community ends up being built.  To barter means also to share, and to interact with neighbors in a way that generates meaning and trust.  You do not cheat someone with whom you will need to barter again.  Such barter-exchange cannot be treated as a zero-sum game, it is something that requires that all participants benefit, and that no one lose.  This is the sometimes overlooked moral of William Faulkner’s Snopes novels and short stories, which chart the rise and fall of the Snopes family, a rise and fall both caused by cheating their neighbors.  Such cheating variously harmed and helped many; however, its ultimate consequence was the destruction of a community, Frenchman’s Bend.  Where the exchange of goods does not engender trust, where you are as apt to be cheated by your neighbor as helped, there can be no bonds of loyalty, and thus no sense of community at all.

Well into the modern era, communities and villages throughout Europe were centered around not only local agriculture, but such things as community hearths where once a week or so local residents would bring bread to bake.  One of the most memorable scenes in Jacques Pepin’s excellent autobiography, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, was one that involved him being “loaned” by his mother during the summer to a farmer and his family to assist the area’s communal efforts to keep everyone fed during World War II. Here is how he describes it:

Like every other household in Montvernier, the Merciers lacked an oven large enough to bake the dough Mme. Mercier had laboriously prepared. Instead, the people of the town share a massive common baking oven with the residents of a nearby village called Montbrunal. Bread-baking day had all the excitement of a carnival. Villagers greeted each other loudly and gossiped in small clusters. Kids ran about and played….

The oven seemed as large as a house, and…I watched the baker-farmer feed it with the pile of wood needed to bring it to the proper temperature. The smell of so much baking bread was enthralling.  We stood there for hours. One after the other, farmers arrived with their loaves, two dozen or so each, and the baker would take over.  At the end of the day, some farmers brought casserole dishes, containing anything from beans to cabbage, to be cooked overnight in the heat retained by the oven.
* * * *

Montvernier offered plenty of experiences for a young city boy…But for me the most impressive thing…was that wood-fired bread oven and the way it not only nourished but also brought together the people of two remote mountain communities.[15]

I think Chef Pepin’s story illustrates as well as any story could both what is missing in a society defined by industrialized food production, and how much there is to be gained by a rebirth of civic agriculture. In a time when the divisions among people are so many and deep, it is perhaps beyond naïve to think that something as seemingly simple as a neighborhood garden and backyard chickens could knit together a community, and turn strangers into friends.  But then I think again of my mother sharing her home-grown tomatoes, and find myself a little surprised that she did not keep chickens too.  I guess the shared tomatoes, cakes, and cookies were enough.  But, in any case, in my longwinded way, that is why I think that backyard chickens matter.



2.  See, e.g. Hara Estroff Marano, A Flock of One’s Own, Psychology Today, 50-51, January/February 2010.  Near the beginning, this article notes: “For a large and rapidly growing number of people–especially those in urban and suburban areas of the country–eating healthy, eating local, reducing environmental costs of consumption, and knowing where your food comes from boils down to one thing: raising chickens in your backyard. Or on your roof. Or even balcony.” Id. at 50.

3.  To read the entire blog post, go to: http://www.foodpolitics.com/2010/02/backyard-chickens-an-art-a-science-a-social-movement/

4.  To check out this fascinating magazine, and its Website, go to: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/ The image that is found at the beginning of this essay comes from the most recent issue of the magazine.  Also worth seeing is the BackyardChickens.com, which was, according to the Website, established in 1999, and has since “become the #1 destination for the information you need to raise, keep, and appreciate chickens.”

5.  Go to: http://www.salemchickens.com/

6.  To read the article reporting on the council vote, and the controversy surrounding it, go to: http://www.salemchickens.com/SJArticle-910270339_1_.pdf For other news article related to the “Chicken Revolution,” go here: http://www.salemchickens.com/news.html

7.  For one such essay on this topic, please see Chicken in America: A Lesson in Irony (and Bad Taste), found at: http://www.marlerblog.com/2008/12/articles/lawyer-oped/chicken-in-america-a-lesson-in-irony-and-bad-taste-guest-blogger-denis-w-stearns-jd/

8.  See Harvey Ussery, Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market, Thinking It Through, available online at http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/issues/3/3-1/Harvey_Ussery.html

9.  Marana, supra note 2, at 51.

10.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia,_Maryland

11.  Thomas Lyson, CIVIC AGRICULTURE: RECONNECTING FARM, FOOD, AND COMMUNITY, 19, 25 (Tufts University Press 2004).  Lyson was Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University. He passed away in 2006.

12.  According to Buber: “True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (that is  required too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another….” Martin Buber, I AND THOU, 94, (trans. W. Kaufmann, 1970).

13.  Peggy Orenstein, The Femivore’s Dilemma, N.Y. Times Magazine, March 11, 2010, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/magazine/14fob-wwln-t.html

14.  Lyson, supra note 11, at 8.

15.  Pepin, supra note 1, at 13-14.

© Food Safety News
  • Really insightful post about chickens. I think the US governent really needs to let all cities raise their very own chickens. SOoner or later it will happen, I can see a huge shift to raising backyard chickens.