IN OUR PREVIOUS BLOG ENTRY, Backyard Farming, we explored how you can turn your little patch of land into an urban homestead. A tiny sliver of land in the Annex may not be able to feed a family of four, but backyard homesteading brings with it many educational, nutritional, and experiential benefits. And once you turn your own backyard into a fruit and vegetable garden, you may find yourself so consumed by it and caught up in the excitement that you start fantasizing about how you might take it to the next level. For the intermediate-level urban agriculturist, I would suggest Backyard Chickens.
I SHOULD BE FORTHRIGHT and explain here that I have some personal experience with chickens, myself. Three years ago, I was living on a modest permaculture plot in a small town. Our next door neighbours were conventional chicken farmers, and they raised what must have been several thousand chickens at a time in a concrete coop that is apparently considered to be the industry standard for housing fowl nowadays. From right up close, I could see that their living conditions were absolutely atrocious.
I DON'T WANT TO ENGAGE in provocative hyperbole, but it's hard to not make the comparison between these cruel cages and genocidal concentration camps. Certainly, from the chickens' own perspective, they would not be able to see many major differences between the two. True, chickens may not be capable of making calculations in advanced trigonometry. But you know what? Neither am I... And in their ability to experience physical and emotional pain, there is no measurable difference whatsoever between a chicken and your Great-Aunt Shirley.
I AM NOT GOING TO USE this forum to advocate for a vegan lifestyle. Certainly, there are a thousand and one industries that cruelly use animal products when non-living materials would clearly suffice. But there are so many competing philosophies around human food consumption, and it seems that almost every other week another doctor or dietician comes up with a new regimen that purports to grant its practitioners maximum human health. So I definitely won't tell you not to eat animal products, but I definitely will ask of you, that if you do so, to try to do it ethically and morally.
UNFORTUNATELY, FROM MY OWN perspective, there are not really any store-bought ethical options in the City of Toronto. Now of course ethics and morals are purely subjective, and not everyone is going to agree on how other species should be treated. But the point is that the industry is dominated by only a couple of massive agrobusinesses, who grow their chickens in horrid conditions. And the laws that strictly regulate the industry are tailor-made for these faceless corporations, so even if you wanted to band together and create an eco-alternative, you can't!
AND FROM THIS SAD STATE of affairs emerges the backyard chickens movement. Historically, city slickers have peacefully co-existed with non-human animals for as long as there have been cities. It is only in the last sixty years or so that a sanitized version of suburbia has been pre-packaged and sold to the North American people, one in which there is a complete disconnect from our food sources, and our kitchens bear no evidence as to the origins of the animals we eat. And so nowadays our children have come to believe that slabs of meat are born already stuck onto styrofoam and wrapped in plastic... (and if Biotech has their way, they soon will be)!
BUT I REMEMBER YEARS AGO when I was looking for a place to rent in downtown Toronto, I saw a first-floor apartment in Little Portugal. The landlord took me on a tour of the house, and I was startled to discover a chicken coop in the backyard, with real live chickens in it! Apparently, this was not an anomaly; lots of Italian immigrants came over to this country and maintained their traditions of raising chickens for fresh eggs. Many continue to do so till this day. It's officially illegal, but as long as the neighbours don't complain, it remains unreported and everyone is happy.
IN THIS CRAZY, MIXED-UP WORLD we live in where food prices are rising all the time and we can't trust the household-name big businesses to provide us with healthy and ethical food, it's starting to make more sense for more people to think about raising chickens on their properties. And this has not gone unnoticed by the bureaucrats at City Hall. In a couple of months, they will be rolling out a backyard chicken pilot program in a number of neighbourhoods, to see how people react to it. Just like city-wide recycling services and compost collection: if it's a success on a small scale, then they'll expand it to the entire city.
AND TORONTO IS NOT THE ONLY city in North America that is considering amending its by-laws to officially permit small-scale urban egg farming. Dozens of American cities have already given the green light to backyard chickens: from San Francisco to Phoenix, Portland to Pittsburgh, Seattle to St. Louis, Chicago to Boston, Atlanta to Miami, Denver to Dallas, Los Angeles to Las Vegas; even the biggest metropolis on the continent, New York City, has A-okayed raising chickens in residential neighbourhoods. Even closer to home, in Brampton to the north, Guelph to the west, and Niagara Falls to the south, town councils have spoken with one voice: Legalize it!
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? If you support the idea of legalizing backyard chickens, then please call you City Councillor and encourage them to co-sponsor a bill. If you're open to the idea of raising chickens in your own backyard, then get educated, learn everything you need to know. And if you live in one of the neighbourhoods that gets the go-ahead to bring the chickens out from the underground, and if you're ready to accept the responsibility and reap the rewards of having backyard chickens, then give us a call, and we'll happily design and build you a backyard chicken coop!
For more information about raising chickens in Toronto,
check out TorontoChickens.com.
For more information about industrially-manufactured animal products, two excellent films are Fast Food Nation and Food Inc.