In 2010, eggs from two big US factory farms were linked to 1,500 salmonella-related illnesses, prompting a recall of more than 500 million eggs.
That incident inspired many people to consider raising their own egg-laying chickens in urban and suburban neighborhoods. But many have been surprised to find their town doesn't allow that.
"A lot of us are interested in the fact that our food supply is so awful that if we really want to be healthy, we really have to start thinking downward," says Matthew Wilson, a software engineer who lives in Cleveland Heights, where he is now raising four Barred Rock hens.
While there are downsides (hens ravaged the family's garden), the eggs are more nutritious than what's sold in most stores and there's less waste. Whatever they eat from the garden shows up in the egg yolks. "The yolks are a dark, rich, orange color and my egg shells are visibly different than store-bought eggs," Wilson says. "Store-bought eggs are all very uniform, because the odd-shaped or odd-colored ones are thrown out. Mine are gloriously random."
And it's a great learning tool for kids that connects them to the food they eat.
Although Cleveland has allowed people to raise chickens in residential backyards since 2009, suburban Cleveland Heights did not. Wilson repeatedly asked the City Council to approve backyard chickens and they did so as part of a series of green zoning ordinances last May. They approved, and set guidelines for, many activities that more people want these days, but are often controversial in suburban neighborhoods: renewable energy generators, rain water barrels, front-yard gardens, and backyard chicken coops.
To raise chickens, residents must get a permit, which involves appearing before the planning commission and submitting details the project with scale drawings.
When that permit is granted, residents are allowed to keep four egg-laying hens. Chickens must be kept in the backyard, and the coop must be at least 10 feet from the house and property lines. Sorry, no roosters are allowed because of the noise.
(Photo courtesy of Kara O’Donnell, City of Cleveland Heights)
One concern is that residential chicken farmers aren't necessarily trained properly in animal welfare. Wilson is self-taught. He consulted sites such as backyardchickens.com and reddit.com/r/BackyardChickens for tips and best practices. Another web site, UrbanChickens.org, offers information about laws and organizations in communities from New York to Maine to Florida.
It takes only a couple hours each week to feed the hens and clean the coop, and they get 12-18 eggs a week. "I wanted my kids to know how to take care of the animals. That they require us to take care of them," says Wilson's wife, Lindsay.
What's happening in Cleveland Heights is just the latest example of growing interest in ethical, safer egg production. Safeway, the second-largest supermarket chain in the US, is the first major grocer to certify cage-free eggs.
And the largest producer of free-range eggs in the US, Vital Farms, is raising money through a crowdfunding site to transform conventional farms into pasture-raised operations.
In fact, orders for chicks have doubled over the past few years for Meyer Hatchery by suburban and urban residents. "We have seen a significant increase in backyard chicken keeping which we attribute to folks wanting to live more sustainably," Jess Brushaber of Meyer Hatchery, told EcoWatch.
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