Like love and marriage, sustainability and joie de vivre go together like a horse and carriage. Mr. Sinatra would agree, I am sure. Indeed, they are the foundation of private, small-scale farming practices in urban areas.
This is not merely a fad; it is a fait accompli; one that continues to evolve as more and more families seek to make quality of life central to their experience. In many towns around the nation, discussions regarding ways to promote and enable durable agriculture in urban settings are not rare. The farming landscape is one that never ceases to evolve and adapt to changing needs and perspectives.
What is the driving force behind the urban farming phenomenon? A desire to bring to the table nourishment whose origins are known; concern about the well-being and humane treatment of the animals that provide some of our food; a strong, perhaps irresistible, inclination to have a hand in the creation of the sustenance on our plates.
Since all our activities have consequences, this raises questions and concerns. Take hens, for example. What of sanitation, noise and relations with neighbors? What about the well-being of farm animals living in a small backyard?
Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle were among the fist communities to allow their citizens to keep hens and roosters on private, urban property. By now, we know that this practice has positive ecological benefits: Not only do hens provide inexpensive and wholesome food for a household, but they contribute compost for gardens and help reduce waste because these animals can feed on leftovers.
According to Seattle Tilth, a non-profit educational organization whose mission it is to educate people about organic gardening and the conservation of natural resources, the city allows 3 chickens per 5000 square feet and one chicken per additional 1000 square feet. This contributes to ensuring adequate sanitation and a proper living environment for the animals. As with any other domestic animal, a chicken that is properly cared for is just as clean as a family pet. What about noise? What about roosters? Seattle Tilth offers this solution: “Many chicken owners keep the coops dark until later in the morning, or ply neighbors with fresh eggs”.
What about animal well-fare? Animals on urban or smaller farms tend to get much attention and farmers in urban settings tend to treat their animals like family pets. This is not to say that commercial farm animals necessarily do not live in the proper conditions, but in truth urban farmers tend to pamper their animals more, perhaps simply because it is easier to do so when the herd or flock consists of a handful of animals, as opposed to hundreds.
Even on a very small-scale, what sort of impact does urban hen-keeping have on commercial egg producers? Can both practices co-exist? Urban and conventional farmers envision possibilities, not contradictions. One such possibility is a partnership. The concept is simple: commercial farmers place a few hens in the care of individuals or community farms. Both parties then share the profits from the sale of eggs within the immediate community. I essence, this is a variation on the theme of the farm stand, with mutual and shared benefits.
Nancy Merrill, of Wallingford, Washington, is an active participant in the urban-farm movement who keeps three hens named Sparky Rascal, Red Ellen and Calliope. In a Seattle Times interview, Merrill explains that, “The neighborhood kids bring by bugs and worms to feed the flock. It feels like maybe a ‘farmette’. I like the routine of it. There are chickens on every block in Wallingford. It’s a change from lawns and ‘House Beautiful.” When a neighbor’s house went up for sale, Merrill had all three feathered friends in plain view. “No one made a peep”, she points out.
Another Seattle Times article recalls an incident at the Seattle City Council Chambers: “A family from the Matthews Beach neighborhood toted a rooster into the Seattle City Council chambers last month to testify in support of urban fowl. Council members didn’t flinch. Instead, they fawned over the bird. Awww,’ cooed Council President Richard Conlin, Nice!”
One thing is certain, closeness to the earth, in all its forms, adds a sense of vitality. Interest in urban farming is on the rise. From gardening to goat and chicken raising, city dwellers painstakingly and proudly create their little corner of farm life. From balconies to modest backyards, they garden, harvest, prepare, can and preserve, tend to the animals, compost, and otherwise maintain a full cycle of activity that is close to the land in every season. Too much work? No. Worthwhile work for a harvest of benefits.