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Chicken issue reveals pros and cons of local food

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 15, 2009 7:30 AM

Hundreds of locals have signed a petition urging Iowa City officials to allow Iowa City residents to raise up to five hens in their backyards. The motives for backing such a petition range from sustainable practices and egg collection to economic stress and educating children. Consumer demand for locally produced food has grown steadily for years. The factors driving this trend stem from concerns about food safety and consideration of the environment. Increasingly, farmers are distributing their crops through local farmers’ markets and food cooperatives. So, clearly, the next logical step in the push for sustainable, locally grown food is backyard chickens, right?

The benefits of raising chickens are certainly reasonable. As well as eating feed from a store, chickens also consume weeds, bugs, slugs, and worms from the garden; they even eat table scraps. By passing off some amount of food waste to chickens, composting efforts are expedited. The breakdown of food material is taken care of by the chickens, and their waste can be used as fertilizer or added to a compost bin. Their droppings, which are high in nitrogen, improve the quality of compost.

Even though chickens contribute a great deal to their caretakers’ gardens, the main justification for owning backyard chickens is egg production. Eggs produced from backyard chickens are, on many levels, healthier than those produced by factory farm hens. The business model of these fowl factories is to produce eggs as swiftly and inexpensively as possible. Such hens are often confined to cages, without the ability to hunt and prowl for bugs. These chickens are unnaturally confined, and they produce less nutritious eggs. Furthermore, and more obviously, backyard-produced eggs are fresher. Eggs purchased from grocers can be days — or, in some instances, weeks — old.

On average, chickens produce around 300 eggs a year; however, the amount varies depending on the breed of the hen and their level of contentment. In fact, happy hens produce more eggs than disgruntled ones. Those eggs must be collected daily, which leads to one of the larger concerns regarding backyard birds — personal responsibility. Chickens are messy, dirty birds. They create a great deal of waste, even at the modest population of five. There is reasonable concern that the stinky result of residentially owned chickens would result in less than pleasing aroma for neighborhoods.

The fact of the matter is that Iowa City is a transient community. Not only do students appear for a determined number of years before disappearing from Iowa City and moving onto bigger and better things, but many other people do, too. There is a very real concern over what would happen to chickens at moving time. Local animal shelters already work with abandoned or donated pets. Adding chickens to the equation would stretch resources even further. Free-range eggs are already fairly readily available. We must consider the effect urban chickens would have on local farmers. We are, after all, an agricultural state, and a 10-minute drive to the country can produce reasonably fresh eggs, too.

Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey — who said her grandmother owned chickens — said she was not interested in supporting such a move because supporting local business leads to a more dynamic economy, but she is interested in hearing what others have to say regarding the matter.

“I grew up in Iowa City and understand rural economies,” she said. “I think it is important to maintain a distinction between urban and unincorporated communities.”

Those interested in raising hens in their backyard are encouraged to sign the online petition. If the councilors decide to deliberate, they will be forced to consider how effective such plans have been in other urban areas. For now, it’s best that Iowa City residents not count their chickens before they are hatched — or until they are authorized under city zoning laws, as the case may be.


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