Laws get in the way of urban farming

If you happen to be strolling through Pittsburgh's suburbs -- or even the city itself -- don't be too surprised when you hear the soft cluck, cluck, cluck of...chickens?

Yes, chickens. They are a fast-growing trend in the area of urban farming, right up there with homegrown organic produce, beekeeping and community gardens.

An Avalon couple who recently moved to the area brought a unique request to the borough this month: Were they allowed to have a small chicken coop in their back yard?

After some research, the answer turned out to be "no," based on the zoning code that currently covers Avalon, Bellevue and Ben Avon. The joint zoning code says that property must measure at least 40,000 square feet -- an acre -- before the owner can house a maximum of four chickens or ducks.

But despite uncooperative zoning codes, you don’t have to look far to find a suburban chicken coop nestled in a back yard.

The City of Pittsburgh recently amended its ordinance regarding backyard farming. While the practice has been legal for some time, tough restrictions and a pricey and cumbersome permitting process kept most people from setting up coops, at least legally.

The new ordinance allows homeowners whose lots measure at least 2,000 square feet to house up to five chickens or ducks, or two de-horned miniature goats. Larger lots can house additional animals. It also decreases the permit fee from about $340 to $70, and the wait time for a permit from months to a single day.

What has spurred the interest in farming among city and suburban dwellers?

Part of the reason for the growing popularity of chicken farming is economics. Consumers have watched the price of eggs nearly double this year as an estimated 80 percent of the egg-laying chicken population was wiped out by an avian flu that swept through the massive commercial chicken farms.

Another reason is an interest in making sure our food is not tainted by various chemicals, including pesticides and, in the case of chickens, antibiotics that make their way into the human body.

And finally, consumers are growing more and more invested in cruelty-free food sources that cannot be guaranteed by claims that the animal was "cage-free" or "free range."

At one time not so long ago, most people grew their own food, including chickens, in their back yards. These miniature farms sustained families during the Great Depression, and as recently as World War II, the United States government was encouraging people to plant "Victory Gardens."

Then came the growth of supermarket chains, and the distance we stepped from the source of our food.

"Maybe this whole grocery store thing isn't working out as well as we thought," said Jana Thompson, who helped draft Pittsburgh's new ordinance, and has worked with citizens throughout Western Pennsylvania to change zoning laws. Her Mexican War Streets property is home to four chickens and an apiary for bees. Most of her neighbors have no idea the chickens are even there, she said.

The "perceived nuisance of chickens" is just that, she said, "perceived.” While those unfamiliar with urban farming might expect chickens to smell bad and make a lot of noise, those nuisances just don't exist in the real world, Thompson said.

While it is true that both noise and odor can be found in large, commercial operations, where thousands of chickens are housed in close quarters, "It's pretty hard to make six chickens stink," according to Thompson.

The noise problem is eliminated by outlawing roosters, she said. Hens do not need a rooster around to produce eggs, and roosters are the main source of noise. A hen certainly produces less noise than a blue jay, she said, and their clucking tends to blend in with the other "bird noise" of the neighborhood.

While most people keep chickens primarily for their eggs, some people may want to dine on the chicken itself. Most ordinances also will outlaw slaughtering any animal on residential property.

Curt Whelpley, whose family owns several Agway stores in Western Pennsylvania, manages the Mt. Nebo Agway on McAleer Road in Ohio Township. The store, he said, sells "tons" of chicken farming-related items. The sale of chicken feed has remained consistent over the last 25 years, he said, but what they have noticed is that instead of the fewer loads of large quantities of feed, the stores are seeing a whole lot more smaller sales of a bag or two of chicken feed.

While many may attribute that to the neighboring areas of Ohio Township and Franklin Park, in fact, Whelpley said, those areas prohibit the popular backyard chicken coops. A lot of chicken-raising enthusiasts are coming from the City of Pittsburgh, he said, as well as from Sewickley. Both Sewickley and Pittsburgh host annual "coop tours" to show off some of their successful urban farming ventures.

Whelpley and Thompson agree that, as Thompson put it, "Chickens are easy." The major problem faced by urban farmers will actually be protecting the birds from predators, including raccoons, dogs, hawks and foxes. That's where a well-built coop comes in. Agway sells coop kits, which can range in price from $150 to the deluxe $800 version, but Whelpley said that many people build their own. In the spring, the store will again host its annual "poultry night," featuring experts on urban chicken farming and even a nutritionist to advise on how best to feed your chickens and ducks.

The two also agree that this smaller-scale farming is creating a new relationship between humans and chickens. Whelpley said that customers bring their chickens to the store, even walking them on leashes.

That relationship is a good one, Thompson said, giving people a broader perspective of how their food in general is produced. At the same time, it makes it more important than ever for people to develop a plan for their new family members. What happens when the hen is no longer able to lay eggs? What do you do when a hen dies?

There is a wealth of support for would-be chicken farmers, however. the Web site touches on every subject imaginable when it comes to raising chickens in the city or suburbs, and for fun, you can check out the Discovery Destination Channel's show "Coop Dreams."

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