Burnsville city chickens

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There’s an old adage that says, “no one should watch either sausages or policies being made.” The message is, of course, that both processes are inherently messy and employ ingredients most of us would consider garbage.

This old saw was rolling around in my head as I switched off my laptop computer after watching the Burnsville City Council debating a young resident’s plea to keep seven hens in his backyard chicken coop.

To learn more:
“You can do it real economically,” advises Peat Willcutt. A young man who kept his first chicken at age five, Willcutt has joined forces with a couple of neighbors to raise chickens, ducks and geese in his Minneapolis backyard. He says this type of venture can be very practical when several households get together to maintain a single coop. Willcutt gives classes on the topic and hosts a web site with information about raising fowl in urban settings.
• 125-page on-line guide from the University of Minnesota, Poultry Your Way: A guide to poultry management alternatives in the Upper Midwest.
• Centers of Disease Control website states pathogenic avian flu has not been reported in the US.
• The Humane Society of the United States has launched a campaign against caged egg production. This website offers loads of useful information. For example, it reports that a growing number of retailers are refusing to buy eggs produced in cage operations. In the Twin Cities, free-range eggs are available from numbers of grocers, including the Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops.
• About permit to keep chickens in Minneapolis
• About permit needed in St. Paul

As I write, Senators McCain and Obama have launched into their second presidential debate, but I’m a bit distracted. Why think about urban chickens when our next president is answering tough questions about energy, the free-falling economy and the war? I think it’s because the Burnsville chicken issue is about exercising democracy in our own backyards.

Last month, 11-year-old Stefan Remund went before the City Council and asked that it allow him to keep his chickens. In considering young Remund’s request, the Council took into account its land use authority, the restrictions governing the number of dogs and cats any one household can own, and the possibility that residents may decide to take up poultry husbandry. This got complicated. Fortunately, there were lawyers and city administrators on hand to help navigate the jurisdictional maze. As I watched, I had to keep reminding myself that this was about seven hens in a backyard chicken coop. Hens that lay eggs. Hens.

Burnsville’s current ordinance forbids chickens where Stefan lives. Fearing an incursion of the avian flu, the council voted in 2005 to ban hen houses in certain zones. Federal health officials no longer consider avian flu a national threat. (More info on avian flu scare.)

More than reversing an unneeded restriction, the City Council will also be deciding whether to encourage a healthy connection between good food and how it is produced.

Jennifer Remund explains that by keeping chickens, her sons have “learned responsibility.” Stefan and his 10-year old brother Wesley gather the eggs “and thank the chickens for them,” she said. And that attitude is in dramatic contrast to the way most laying hens are kept in commercial settings.

Consider this: If you take a regular piece of typing paper (8.5”X11”) and fold up two inches along the short end, you’ll end up with a piece of paper that measures 8.5”X9”. What you’re looking at is about 70 square inches, roughly the amount of space an egg-laying chicken gets to call home during its short life in a cage-confinement farming operation.

Seventy square inches; not big enough for a chicken to do what comes naturally – scratching for bugs, stretching its wings every once in a while, nesting, sitting in the sun. Unfortunately, most eggs produced in the United States come from industrialized factory farms where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of laying hens are crowded together in stacks of cages. According to the Humane Society of the United States website, about 280 million laying hens are pushed together in “barren, wire battery cages,” conditions banned by Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria.

Battery cages and other industrial farming practices raise more than humane concerns. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts states that since the 1940s, the use of low levels of antibiotics and growth hormones has become common not only on poultry operations, but on industrial farms for all species.

If you’re in your mid-50s or older, you grew up before industrial agriculture became the norm. Most aging baby boomers were raised on more healthfully-produced foods. Although the industrial model had begun to emerge ten years earlier, in the 1950s, Mom’s scrambled eggs probably arrived fresh off a family farm.

Back then, most eggs came from chickens that ran around in hot pursuit of anything that squirmed, hopped or crawled. And, of course, bugs were plentiful back then because the herbicides and pesticides that are at the root of so many of today’s pollution problems hadn’t yet flooded the landscape. All that fresh air, protein, and exercise produced thick, calcium-rich eggshells and bright orange yolks that stood high in the pan. Eggs with real muscle.

Can you buy free-range eggs today? Yes, but they are the exception, not the rule.

After much discussion, and a voting up and down of proposals, the Burnsville council members decided to examine all their animal pet regulations and to ask staff to propose a new ordinance. The council also determined that Stefan can keep his hens while this work is in progress.

I hope the City Council will design an ordinance that will give more Burnsville families freedom of choice: to buy conventional eggs, or to exercise the opportunity to raise a few backyard hens and eggs in ways that are at least as healthful as those of 50 years ago.

I mean, think of the possibility: Burnsville citizens might once again be able to raise more of their own food and expand the scope of their 21st century “Victory gardens,” a valuable effort in these economically tumultuous times.

Sylvia Burgos is a public relations professional who lives in Wisconsin farm country, commutes into St. Paul. She podcasts and blogs about politics and food at www.artisanbreadcheeseandwine.com .