Why did the chicken cross the road?
In Arlington, we may never know.
A new organization, "Backyards, Not Barnyards," is hoping to keep the practice of backyard chicken-keeping illegal in the county, according to Arlington Now.
According to the organization's website, the group is worried about excess animal waste, the transport of what the organization calls an "unsustainable" amount of chicken feed, increased risk of salmonella exposure, an "explosion" in the population of mice and rats and last: "The smell! Oh, god, the smell!" (Yes, that's actually how they put it on the website.)
This group comes in direct response to the Arlington Egg Project, a group that wants exactly the opposite -- to modify county ordinances to allow Arlington residents to raise hens in their backyard. (Backyard chickens are illegal in Arlington now, except on plots of land one acre or larger.)
The project, which launched in 2011, lists many reasons on its own website why backyard hen raising should be allowed. These include the ability to raise "sustainable" home agriculture and environmental concerns; backyard chickens, advocates say, decrease reliance on chemical fertilizers and factory farming. Plus, as founder Ed Fendley told the Washington Post in 2012, "Fresh eggs taste better."
All looped into this fight, according to Arlington Now, is a set of recommendations to be made by the county’s Urban Agriculture Task Force to the County Board on June 11 that will include the endorsement or the condemnation of backyard chicken raising.
"Backyards, Not Barnyards" grew out of rotten experiences with backyard hens by the organization's founders, Darnell Carpenter and Jim Pebley. For Fendley, it was, again, the opposite -- he wants to be part of the movement he currently cannot join. He cannot raise chickens at his Bluemont, Va., home while the residents of other major cities, including Baltimore and San Francisco, can.
Home chicken farming is not a new concept in the area -- although it is catching on in popularity. While D.C., Fairfax City and Alexandria ban raising chickens, nearby Montgomery County, Prince George's County and even Fairfax County allow it, to the delight and chagrin of many of the residents. (See, e.g., the spirited debate about the propriety of backyard hen-keeping in these very places that took place on the notoriously feisty D.C. Urban Moms and Dads message board last year.)
Carpenter and Pebley hope to raise signatures and support to petition the county board before it makes a decision on hen raising, but the much older Arlington Egg Project is already way ahead of them. The organization had already gathered over one thousand signatures by February 2012, and even has the support of the Arlington County Environment and Energy Conservation Commission who give the idea of urban farming its stamp of sustainable approval.
Both organizations may need to work around the "cluck" in order get what they want. "Backyards, Not Barnyards" hosted a meeting last Wednesday in an effort to build support. The Arlington Egg Project, on the other hand, is selling t-shirts and hawking their petition on their website and Facebook page for continued support.
Where do you come out on this issue? Should Arlington allow backyard hen-keeping? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
Check out our slideshow of our brunch with the founders of the Arlington Egg Project:
Chad Blevins: It's a mix between a Buff Orpington and Red Star. It's 75 percent Red Star, which is a good brown egg producer. And 25 percent Buff Orpington, a breed from England that's good in cold weather. A hardy bird. Heather Blevins: We found them on Craigslist.
Heather Blevins: They're so fun. I call them my little hennies. They're really cool pets.
Ed Fendley: Our objective is that residents who have typical households in Arlington would be able to realize the benefits of backyard hens and still make sure they are good neighbors. Tom Carter: In Raleigh, North Carolina, which is my home town, where they re-legalized backyard hens recently, most of the people who have put coops in their yards live in affluent neighborhoods. It's not the cheapest way to get eggs. It's the sad truth that healthier food generally costs more. People are beginning to understand the difference between sustainably grown and locally grown food, and those who can afford it are willing to do it. Ed Fendley: There's all sorts of different models. That's what we're hopeful we'll do in Arlington, is take a look at what various communities are doing and find out what the options are. The Arlington Egg Project, our goal is to foster that communication. To eventually have the zoning ordinance changed. But we are open as to how the community and the county board chooses to do that. We would envision limits on the number of hens. We would envision a ban on roosters. We would envision means to ensure secure, proper and humane housing for hens. There's lots of ways to do those things. We just want the conversation to take place that helps us figure out as a community what would be best.
Ed Fendley: One of [the Arlington Egg Project's] founding members was Catie Drew, the granddaughter of Charles Drew, who was an eminent Arlingtonian. A scientist and prominent African American at earlier parts of the 20th century. At his home in Arlington he used to keep chickens -- Catie has a photograph of that residence, where she now lives, from the 30s, showing a coop in the corner of the yard. So, in Arlington, this was very much a part of the experience of residents in the earlier part of the 20th century. In the 1970s the county board formally codified what is essentially an anti-hen ordinance.
Chad Blevins: We had six roosters. We had four big ones that were making all this godawful noise. Our neighbors were like 'We love the cock-a-doodle-doo.' I was like 'I don't.' So I was like, 'Let's have all our friends over, we'll have this big party.' We slaughtered four of them, put them on the smoker. And I was like, 'Oh, we'll take care of that cock-a-doodle-doo problem.' The next morning I'm laying there in bed. The two little guys were like, 'Thank god the bullies are gone.' Heather Blevins: It was, to me, very refreshing to go through that process. We'd raised them from babies. Everything they ate was all natural. It was an amazing experience.
Chad Blevins: We're talking about it. Ed Fendley: Are they not as happy when they're two as when they're four? Chad Blevins: I don't know about that. Heather Blevins: I'm interested to see when we do get new hens how we have to introduce them. Chad Blevins: I've read, and I don't know if any of this is factual or not, that if you take the new hens and stick them in the coop when the other hens are sleeping, they won't know the difference.
Chad Blevins: Between the two chickens I'd say we're getting eight a week now. In the summer, you're going to get 10 to 12. Heather Blevins: Chad cooks a big breakfast every weekend.
Chad Blevins: We give them a lot of old bread. Scraps of dinner. We have them on high protein [pellets]. You can get all-natural organic chicken feed. Heather Blevins: Springtime we have our garden, and we just let the hens in. They eat all the weeds. Chad Blevins: For some reason they don't eat the vegetables. It's unbelievable. It's the squirrels that are a big problem. Heather Blevins: Our chickens also like our compost pile. Chad Blevins: They eat the worms and the bugs. I give them some cake if we have leftover cake no one's going to eat.
Chad Blevins: The whole idea behind this coop is you give them the nesting boxes on the side. Easy access to get the eggs. The big concern in the winter is water freezing. I rigged that up. [Pointing at a plastic bowl inside the chicken coop.] It's a heated dog bowl. It's got a thermostat. It works really well. The majority of the time is spent out in the run. In the evening sometimes we'll open up the run and let them in the yard. Heather Blevins: A fox got three of our hens. Chad Blevins: With the fox, we had this problem, they would dig under the run here. So we took this chicken wire and laid it flat, and laid the run on top. The fox can't dig down under the run. That's there for protection.
Chad Blevins: The flavor and the consistency. It's like a thick meaty yolk. It's like a slice of meat almost. I would recommend scrambling some, so you can see how hard it is to break those yolks. Then fry some up.
Ed Fendley: I kept chickens many years ago when I lived in a place far away. So I had some experience. More recently I became interested, like a lot of people, reading Michael Pollan's books, and thinking about where food comes from. I'm also a parent. My wife and I have four children. We think about where their food comes from. We think about how they understand how the natural world works. We were aware that many other communities allowed backyard hens, so launched the Arlington Egg Project. It's been a year since we launched and our goal is to promote a community conversation about the benefits of backyard hens. Our ultimate objective is for the county board to revise the zoning ordinance so that Arlington residents can keep small numbers of backyard hens, while prohibiting roosters and ensuring secure, proper and humane housing for hens.
Ed Fendley: We are the Arlington Egg Project. We will allow others to take up a conversation about other urban agriculture causes. Our group is devoted to legalizing backyard hens so that residents can realize the deliciousness of a backyard egg.