Farm City Living: Backyard Chickens and Urban Agriculture

HALIFAX Enthusiasm for local food is on the rise in Halifax. One only needs to witness the bustle of the Saturday morning farmers’ market. It’s so busy that the market is moving to a bigger location to accommodate the crowds. New markets are popping up all over the city. Whether it’s from a North End street-side market or one found in a South End parking lot, more and more people are buying local food.

Although most Haligonians embrace the local food movement, Halifax city council isn’t on board; at least when it comes to urban poultry. The beginning of 2008 saw city council taking a stance against food security with its decision to ban backyard laying hens. Almost two years later, it seems that urban agriculture enthusiasts and amateur chicken farmers will get another chance to plead their case.

The issue first came into the limelight in January 2008 in the West End of Halifax. At the time, Louise Hanavan was raising three laying hens in her backyard, collecting fresh eggs and using the manure to compost her garden. But a complaint from a neighbour put an end to her small-scale urban farm. Reg Harper claimed that the chickens were attracting rats and not long after, Hanavan was given official notice to move the hens off the peninsula. It seems foolish that this single complaint about attracting vermin (in a port city that is full of mice, rats, cats and other assorted pests) was enough to derail the entire city’s foray into urban agriculture.

Hanavan’s story made it into the local media and became a hot topic of debate. It sparked discussion about the legitimacy of backyard chickens and the advantages of urban agriculture. Even Brooke Taylor, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Agriculture, weighed in on behalf of Louise and her backyard chickens. While this support was not enough to change the by-laws, it did result in a staff report looking at the feasibility of changing the legislation to allow backyard hens. This report was also to consider how other cities in Canada regulate farm-city animals.

In February 2009, almost exactly a year after the Hanavan controversy, the city released its report [PDF]. The report found that two of the cities studied, Victoria and Niagara Falls, permit residents to raise hens in the urban center. Within a month of the HRM publication, Vancouver city council amended land use by-laws to allow for egg-laying hens within the city. In the Maritimes, Moncton recently approved a pilot program that allows for a few urbanites to raise hens within the city until July 2010. If the project is deemed successful, its coordinators will propose changes to the existing by-laws so that more residents can start backyard farms. In Toronto, urban farm supporters are petitioning for the right to raise chickens in the city. The HRM report concludes that the “current by-law provisions for the keeping of livestock are longstanding” and because staff has not experienced cases similar to Hanavan’s, “it is staff’s opinion that no further action is warranted.”

Why did Halifax shy away from urban chickens?

With all the pro-chicken action happening in other Canadian cities, it seems like Haligonians missed the chance to be a model for urban agriculture and local food security.

But the fight for city chickens in Halifax isn’t over yet. Next week, urban agriculture enthusiasts will get another chance to plead their case thanks to District 14 Councilor Jennifer Watts. Ten months after the publication of the municipal report, Watts is putting a pro-chicken motion on the table at the Peninsula Community Council’s meeting on December 14th. Watts’ motion will request that “staff open a planning application to consult with the public, address any potential issues (e.g. separation distances, number of hens, prohibition of roosters) and, if appropriate, draft amendments to the Halifax Peninsula Land Use By-law to permit backyard laying hens.”

For Louise Hanavan and other local chicken fans, this news is good news. Hanavan says, “I’m proud of her [Watts] for welcoming urban agriculture to our city,” but she cautions the staff who write the report not to place too many restrictions on residents interested in backyard fowl. Rearing chickens should be simple and cheap. Restrictions like permits and minimum lot-sizes would make it impractical for many people. Hanavan thinks that it would be great to see the city add “an educational component” to the legislation. She would like to see workshops that teach people how to raise chickens responsibly so that they can proactively address issues like attracting vermin.

John Van Gurp, an online urban-chicken activist, supports Watts’ motion on two levels. He says, “it makes sense for people to be involved in food production.” Van Gurp sees the HRM’s initial reaction to the chickens “as the cold-hand of government stifling a harmless activity.”

And raising chickens is easy. I kept sixteen hens on my farm this summer and they were the most straightforward part of the rural life – feed them food scraps and a bit of grain, collect the eggs. Simple.

Urban chickens connect people to more than just their food supply – they build community. Residents can provide their friends, family and neighbours with farm-fresh eggs. Children can learn about caring for animals and agriculture. Neighbourhoods can share the responsibility of raising backyard hens. Small-scale backyard farms promote sustainability and contribute to vibrant, healthy urban communities.

Several Canadian cities already allow backyard chickens. Those that don’t are in the process of making it happen. As momentum for urban agriculture and backyard chickens builds, we can only hope that Halifax gets on board and that our legislation begins to reflect the values of the people living in this city. We may not be the leader with hens, but perhaps Halifax can strive to be the first city in Canada to encourage backyard ducks (or turkeys or goats!).

Photo by Katie McKay

5 comments

  1. Hey Mark, great article. Know of any examples of cities (canadian or international) that have had urban chickens for a long time already? Wonder if they have any insight into the long term impact of getting these guys in our backyards.

  2. Having met and talked to Louise about this a few years ago, I thought she was a very responsible… um… chicken keeper. She told me that she had asked her neighbors for their thoughts about her interest in raising some chickens, and they were all down with the idea. This guy that phoned her up was (from what I hear) a block down the street.

    I’m going to have to agree with Van Gurp: raising chickens responsibly seems like a pretty harmless endeavor. Not sure why our council waists so much time on these ridiculous affairs when we have bigger fish (or eggs) to fry.

  3. I have been raising hens for eggs on my property in Halifax for the last two months. We have engaged the support of neighbours by offering fresh eggs to families who help our flock when we are out of town. Local children are able to learn where food comes from and how to raise animals humanely for food. Our property on Bloomfield St in Halifax has become a petting zoo of sorts for the community and has brought a vitality to an address that was formerly a CRACK HOUSE before we purchased it and convereted it to urban agriculture. Today I was served a notice by HRM to remove my hens by August 6th or face charges. I am opting for ‘facing charges’. I could raise rats in my backyard and violate no bylaw. Raising hens for food is a crime? This is insane!!!

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