Saturday, February 22, 2014

Urban Farming and the Right to Raise Chickens

Though ‘urban farming’ is gaining in popularity and credibility from consumers, citizens, food and industry watchdogs alike, it seems municipal governments and many residents are less than thrilled with the idea.

Urban farming may seem fairly self-explanatory, but it should be noted that the phrase encompasses community gardening (or even a garden on your balcony), composting (in your backyard, city, or community), bee keeping, and keeping chickens. It should also be noted that none of the above raises more concern than keeping chickens in one’s backyard.

Currently, keeping chickens is outlawed in the City of Toronto. Despite the law, there is a rather large number of “underground” chicken farmers in the City (read here for more). It is also outlawed in Hamilton and Barrie, though there is a growing call for those municipalities to update their by-laws on the issue.

To the west of Toronto, in the County of Peel (Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga), backyard chicken coops are both legal and illegal – depending on which county and area you reside in. It is banned in the City of Mississauga and Caledon, unless the chickens are located on property zoned for agricultural purposes. Brampton, however, is one of the few municipalities in Ontario that permit chicken coops in residential areas. As far as I know, Guelph and Niagara Falls are the only other major towns or cities in the province that allow backyard hens.

In Mississauga, Port Credit resident Marianne Kalich has been fighting the City for over two years for her right to keep chickens in her backyard. Ms. Kalich started a petition, which you can view and sign if you want here. Some of her reasons for wanting to raise backyard hens include:  the desire to have pesticide-free organic food; for concerns related to animal cruelty and the conditions of slaughterhouses and abattoirs; and to use waste from the chickens as fertilizer.

These concerns appear to be grounded in reality. A recent study found that nearly half the organic fresh fruits and vegetables tested across Canada in the past two years contained pesticide residue, according to a CBC News analysis of data supplied by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). According to The David Suzuki Foundation website, the safety of genetically modified foods is unproven, while a growing body of research connects these foods with health concerns and environmental damage. The website also adds that for this reason, most developed nations have policies requiring mandatory labeling of such foods at the very least, and some have issued bans on genetically modified food production and imports. This is not the case in Canada, however.

In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods was the source of a listeria outbreak. More recently, XL Foods was the source of an e-coli outbreak. Based on this and countless recent meat and food recalls, it is understandable that reasonable Canadians may have a lack of trust towards food companies and even the CFIA. For many, the debacle involving the CFIA and XL Foods was the last straw, so to speak. As the story unfolded, alarming details were made public, including the fact that XL Foods was warned by the CFIA at least 6 times over sanitation and food processing concerns.

Moreover, based on recent indications, the federal government does not seem to fully appreciate the importance of this issue, or at least do not have a grasp on it. After months of insisting that the Canadian food safety system does not need more inspectors, it appears the federal government has suddenly changed its mind. When it released its budget on February 11, 2014, the government said that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will hire 200 more federal food safety inspectors over the next 5 years.

The ethical treatment of animals and prevention of animal cruelty is another reason why more people are becoming interested in raising their own chickens. “The Earthlings” is a recent documentary on the conditions of animals raised for the meat (and by-products such as eggs) and the conditions of the abattoirs themselves. The film can be viewed here, though I must warn you that it contains graphic and disturbing scenes. In a recent article, Ms. Kalich has stated that urban farming is a “more nutritious and humane” alternative to factory farming. She also claims that “chickens are much more likely to carry disease when they’re hatched in a factory…where they’re extremely stressed”.

While researching this topic, I came across a lot of comments that said hens stop laying eggs after a year or two and, thus, many fear what would happen to the chickens after they are no longer useful. Unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of misinformation out there. According to, chickens tend to lay fewer eggs as they get older, but most breeds can lay more or less productively for five or seven years. It is standard practice for factory farms to slaughter hens at a year old or so because they might lay a couple fewer eggs a week. Laying one or two fewer eggs per week in a backyard or domestic setting does not cause fiscal concern, but a commercial entity such as a factory farm sees "financial sense" in killing all their one- or two-year-olds and bringing in fresh chattel. Furthermore, there are many farms and other types of chicken farms that accept older hens.

Doubtless, there are many who simply do not want chickens in their residential neighbourhood. Many believe chickens should properly belong on a farm or other agricultural area. “People get very stressed when they have raccoons, rats, skunks and opossums in their neighbourhood, all of which are attracted to chickens and eggs,” says Barry MacKay, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, in an article in the Mississauga News. Mr. MacKay’s group has lobbied against urban coops in the GTA. But don’t Mr. MacKay’s fears regarding these scavenging animals apply equally to garbage left at curbside, which is in fact a weekly occurrence in neighbourhoods all across the GTA?

In the same article, Councillor Jim Tovey, of Ward 1 in Mississauga, said, “there is also some concern about chickens flying the coop…flying over fences and scaring children.” It should be noted that Councillor Tovey had initially supported the idea of backyard chicken coops as recent as August 2013, where he stated that he wondered why the City allows snakes, lizards and ferrets, but no chickens. “People want to grow local and eat local and this is a way to get fresh eggs,” he said.

The concern about chickens flying the coop and scaring children is a rather weak argument. If harming children is the concern, then a strong argument can be made that dogs are a bigger threat. In a story featured in the Hamilton Spectator’s website, Mississauga recently witnessed a sharp spike in dog bites, but it is highly unlikely that the City would consider banning dogs. Instead, leash laws would be cited. The idea is that reasonable restrictions to animal ownership are in place and are intended to be followed by the animal owner.

Ms. Kalich says she discards significantly less food waste because she feeds most of her scraps to her chickens, which also provide her with “chemical free” fertilizer for her plants. In fact, the waste created by hens serves as an excellent nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Noise concerns are also fairly prominent. Most noise would be attributed to roosters; however, roosters are not required for chickens to lay eggs – only to fertilize them. A neighbour’s barking dog could make more noise than cooped hens in a neighbour’s backyard.

There was a Mississauga council meeting in November 2013 where some wards expressed interest in possibly hosting a pilot project. Ward 1 Councillor Tovey said any such project in his ward would have to wait until at least 2015 and said that he’s looking at how other municipalities have ruled on the keeping of urban chickens. Councillor Tovey need look no further than another member of the County of Peel; The City of Brampton.

The City of Brampton’s By-Laws explain the circumstances in which a Brampton resident may keep chickens in her backyard. By-Law 13 contains the rules regarding owning 2 or less hens. The by-law provides for hens to be kept in an animal quarter (i.e., chicken coop) that is at least 8 metres (25 feet) from any dwelling, school, store or shop, and at least 2 metres (6 feet) from each boundary of the property on which it is located. The coop must be constructed to prevent the escape of hens and properly maintained. All equipment and materials must be kept within a building or structure (such as a shed). The coop must also be screened from the view of the general public – which may necessitate plants, hedges, or a fence to be erected as a screen. The hens’ food, as well as their waste, must be contained in airtight containers to prevent odours and disposed of in a manner that will not create a public nuisance or health hazard. The City of Mississauga By-Laws prohibit the keeping of chickens on one’s residentially zoned property.

The underground urban chicken farmer movement is growing. Those that keep chickens claim hens have therapeutic benefits, as they are good pets and companions. They also claim that since the eggs are fresher, they are healthier and better tasting. More and more are keeping urban hens, but until Mississauga legislation is changed, these people are running fowl of the law.