Thursday, August 22, 2013

Local food coming home to roost

Local food coming home to roost

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On the chance you missed it, earlier this summer the Champaign City Council voted to revise the municipal code and allow residents to keep a certain number of hens at home. The change was motivated by a citizen effort led in part by Karen Carney, a long-time resident of the city who also happens to be my long-time spouse. I met with her over coffee recently to discuss the benefits of keeping hens, environmental and other.

She told me the idea first grabbed her as she listened to an installment of “In My Backyard,” [find it here] the WILL radio feature by Lisa Bralts of Urbana, a city that never enacted rules against keeping hens. She said, “Hearing people talk about the ways having chickens connected them to their neighbors made me think, ‘That would be a really cool thing to do.’”

She sees keeping a small flock of egg-laying hens as a natural next step in our family’s progress toward eating more locally produced foods. She acknowledges that there are options for 
buying eggs from nearby farms where humane and environmentally responsible practices are the norm, but likens the satisfaction of getting eggs from your own chickens to growing your own tomatoes.

[Photos by author. Carney holds a hen belonging to a friend for now, but anticipates having her own next year (above) and hens foraging in the friend's backyard (below.)]

Carney also called attention to a link noted by Bralts and others between chicken keeping and the way people relate to the system of food production as a whole. “You might call it a ‘gateway’ behavior,” she said. “Once you begin to participate directly in producing your own food, you become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with the foods you buy, which can prompt you to make better choices.”

One of the chief benefits of keeping hens Carney cites is that it enables gardeners to “close the loop” of their food production. “Think about the radish tops in our garden,” she said. “We’ll be able to feed those to chickens, who will convert them into eggs, which we’ll eat, and manure, which we’ll use to fertilize the garden. What was ‘waste’ before will now stay in the system.” (She also shared another name some gardeners have for chicken poop, “black gold.”)

Carney also pointed out that backyard chicken keeping can play an important role in maintaining genetic diversity among chickens nationwide and around the world. That’s because hens used by large operations are bred for one trait only—productivity. When people select hens to keep at home, they’re often interested in other qualities as well, especially appearance and personality. So you wind up with a demand for heritage breeds that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The resistance to changing the city ordinance in Champaign—which turned out to be pretty minimal—was driven in part by concerns that keeping chickens would offend other people with unpleasant noise or smells. But research by staff in advance of the chicken study session this summer showed cities that allow residents to keep hens have not found them to be a significant source of tension among neighbors.

Indeed, Carney sees chicken keeping as a community building enterprise. She said, “Chickens foraging in a yard can be fascinating to watch, and people who keep them sometimes find that neighbors, especially kids, drop by just to see them out.” In addition, she cited the supportive groups that form naturally among people who keep hens.

If you’d like to connect with Champaign residents who are looking forward to keeping chickens you can reach Karen Carney at