Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to get backyard chickens legalized in Virginia's cities: one perspective

I am the founder of a grassroots network, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied the Chesapeake City Council to make up to six "female chickens" legal in the backyards of all single-family residential lots, with certain restrictions.

Bernadette Barber is a Virginia Farmer who is pushing for the Virginia Food Freedom Act. This act, if passed, would allow all Virginians to sell their homemade foods and baked goods legally to others under the following conditions:

  1. The sale is made face-to-face,
  2. The maker's name and address is labeled on the item sold,
  3. The list of ingredients is included on the label.
Right now Bernadette cannot legally make a pie with farm-fresh eggs and other ingredients grown right on her own farm and sell it to her neighbors. To do that legally would require government inspection and approval.

This makes little sense to me.

Anyway, Bernadette says her group has been getting many inquiries about backyard chickens. She asked me to write a post about how to get them legalized in cities. I agreed, so here is my advice:

1. Have a thick skin. In the course of your efforts you will hear all kinds of negative comments about what you are trying to do, about how City Council will never listen to you because you're not a rich developer, etc. If you feel you are right, keep going. If you get answers from government officials, and they don't sound right because they don't jibe with your research (see below) or don't seem well documented by facts, don't give up.

2. At the same time, listen to people. If these same people are spreading misinformation, find out what it is so you can do your research and counter it. If there are valid concerns, work on addressing them.

For example, a Virginia "depredation law" originally required Animal Control Officers who caught a dog in the act of killing a chicken to kill the dog on the spot. This concern was unsuccessfully raised by those who opposed backyard hens in Chesapeake. And it has been one of the roadblocks thrown against our sister group "4 Virginia Beach Hens" in a neighboring town. This state law was disturbing, so our group combined with the Virginia Beach group to address this law at the state level. Once it came to several humane organizations' attention, we had no difficulty in getting this law changed so that ACOs had the option to seize the dog, instead. Problem solved.

3. Do your research. Our group has the reputation in Cheseapeake of being polite and extremely well-informed. This has gone a long way with City Council.

Start with actually reading the ordinances that address keeping backyard chickens in your community. Don't just call zoning: actually get the ordinances and read them. They are often available online through Municode or you can go to your local public library for help.

Read all you can about backyard flocks. Read the CDC and USDA websites on keeping chickens and disease prevention, too. Other good resources are Chickens and You, including 7 false myths about urban chickens. Pat Foreman, a Virginia resident, wrote a book called City Chicks that has good information and a chapter about changing city ordinances. Any information you can get from government or university publications should carry extra weight and be even more useful. We also found it helpful to research when and why chickens were first banned in residential areas in Chesapeake.

Did you know that, under Virginia law, chickens under the age of eight weeks of age can only be sold in flocks of six or more? This is a good example of doing your research before heading to council. A neighboring municipality only allows four birds, for example. Its residents are often frustrated when they stop at a farm supply store for chicks in the spring and are told they may only buy six or more. Research leads to better planning in advance to hopefully avoid these kinds of situations.

4. Network, reminding your supporters to be polite and well-informed every step of the way. Find ways of using your volunteers' strengths: whatever they are willing to give time and commitment to. Get them working together. Use online social networks, Change.org, etc., but don't discount the importance of face-to-face time. Those willling to take the time to meet in person will mostly be the backbone of your movement. Also reach out to those contacts within city government who are sympathetic to your cause, willing to listen, and willing to work with you. They will be crucial. It is especially helpful to find those in the mayor's office or on city council who will support your efforts. Here in Chesapeake we were lucky to have the support of Councilman Robert Ike early on in the process.

Part of networking is linking up with groups in your area that might already be working on legalizing or keeping or educating about chickens. In Southeastern Virginia there's Backyard Hens for Norfolk4 Virginia Beach HensHampton Roads HensPortsmouth Hen Keepers, and Peninsula CHicken Keepers, to name the most popular and active groups other than 4 Chesapeake Hens. There are active groups in Richmond and in Fredericksburg, too.

Another networking idea is to be willing to attend local educational events for public outreach. Bring some hens with you if you can for the public to meet first-hand. While you're at it, remember to network with other "chicken groups," especially in your region and across your state. If a neighboring community with legal chickens is having a backyard "coop tour," invite your local decision-makers to attend. Give them sufficient notice. Hopefully they will attend so they can see for themselves how little noise, fuss, or odor backyard hens make.

5. Use the media to your advantage. Our group has used blogging, Facebook,  XtraNormal, Youtube, news releases, letters to the editor, Craigslist, and Twitter to advantage.  This has gotten positive exposure --free publicity!-- in our local and regional newspaper and local television station(s). Those who contact or talk to the media should always be aware that reporters may have biases. Talk to them anyway, but be cautious about what you say. Prepare some talking points in advance if time allows. Eventually you will know which reporters you can trust and which ones you cannot. Obviously, work with those who have a track record of being open-minded and fair (supportive is even better when you can get it).

6. Be prepared to appear as a cohesive, unified group in front of City Council on a regular basis. Get yourself on the agenda if you can. If not, most communities have regular times where open meetings or non-agenda items are scheduled for public input. Take advantage of these, but make sure a variety of speakers talk on various occasions on a variety of related topics. Have two or three speakers cover the evening's talking points, then invite the rest of the audience to stand at one point to show support. Get everyone in the group to wear the same color for the event. Group T-shirts or even stickers make a visual impact.

Research the rules for getting in front of council in advance. If your speakers must sign up in advance, do that. If only three minutes are allowed per speaker, be sure every speaker knows that and has actually timed the intended speech. Saad Ringa, a member of our group, has collected many of these speeches on his Youtube Channel for those who want to watch some sample speeches.

When you attend meetings, bring any supporting documents you want to submit, assuming your council allows them, and bring extra copies of these plus your written speeches to give to any reporters who show interest. Be sure they have the contact information of your group's leadership. Publish the speeches online through Google Drive and share them publicly.

If your item actually comes up on the agenda, find out how far in advance to submit any documentation you want council to consider and give them out within that time frame. Here in Chesapeake we were told two weeks in advance was good lead time, so that's what we did.

Another idea that worked for us was to have a "City Council Member of the Week" whose contact information we posted online. As a group, we all contacted that one council member with our talking points. We then moved on to another council member the following week.

Contact can be positive rather than confrontational. One time our group gave free samples of fresh, local eggs for Council Members' consideration. Another time we wrote them all thank-you notes just prior to Thanksgiving. Sometimes you can catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes.

If you need to make Freedom of Information Act requests to get information you need from city government to make your case, put in your requests, but realize these take time and sometimes significant money.

7. Keep at it. One of the biggest differences between "4 Chesapeake Hens" and similar efforts by individuals and community groups before us is that prior speakers took the city's initial "no" as a final answer. We never gave up. We never had to make backyard hens an election issue, but our group was prepared to do that if necessary. Any public official who says he or she supports the environment or individual property rights but is against backyard hens is not "walking the talk" and needs to be held accountable at election time.

If this seems exhausting and time-consuming, nevertheless this is probably what it will take to get change made. Our group had it easier than many other localities. We faced opposition but we were polite, well-informed, persistent, organized, and lucky.

As my husband and I shut our laying hens into their hen house at night, as we listen to their gentle and contented cooing when they lull themselves to sleep, or as we eat the best, freshest eggs we have ever tasted, we find these efforts completely worthwhile. So have many others who helped us: some of our original supporters have found the educational side of our efforts so rewarding that they went on to start Hampton Roads Hens, a group that continues advocacy, education, and outreach on a regional level. We all wish you the best of luck with your own efforts at chicken activism. If we can do anything further to help you, please let us know.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sexing Chickens: Some Sound Advice

The following was written by Carol Bartram. I posted it here with her permission. Her words are both well written and wise. Thanks, Carol!
Hi, Chicken People,

The Chicken Chick has brought together a wealth of information about sexing chickens in this post:

The references at the end are also worth checking out! One of my faves that I didn't see listed is an article from Backyard Poultry Magazine (June/July 2011), also dispelling many of the myths you may come across in feed stores or elsewhere (thanks to Kathy for sending me this article):

In my opinion, one of the most important take-homes is that even professional vent-sexers are not 100% accurate, so please think ahead of time about what you will do if you do end up with a rooster and can't keep him. Unfortunately, you can't assume it will be easy to find him a good home where he will eat off of China plates, or that someone will pay you big bucks to purchase him. Ideally, you will have scoped out some options ahead of time, but if not, the LAST thing to do is to release him somewhere for him to become someone else's problem and give us backyard chicken-keepers a bad name. The SECOND TO LAST thing is to take him to an animal shelter (where he will become someone else's problem, etc...). A MIDDLE thing is to ask me to send out an e-mail looking for a home, or for you to post him on the Hampton Roads Hens Facebook page, where you'll reach a wider number of folks on the Southside who have room for roos. (There are also people who can, relatively humanely, process roos for you, if you choose to go that route. Old Dominion Hay in Smithfield has hosted classes to teach this skill.)

Hopefully, someday residential areas will get rid of their anti-rooster inclinations so that a bit of crowing won't be such a big deal, but I guess we have to get hens accepted first, and I think our efforts at being good neighbors will help a lot. I recently had a good talk with our newest neighbors about our rooster, and to my great relief they said they used to hear him, but now the only time they notice the sound is when somebody new comes to visit and asks if someone has a rooster. Whew --Quercus' lovely crow has faded into the background for them! I can see how a lot of roos talking to each other throughout the day in close quarters might be a different story...

Cluck and cock-a-doodle-doo,
Carol Bartram
Peninsula Chicken Keepers (PeCK)
peninsulachickenkeepers.weebly.com

Friday, August 1, 2014

Chickens and Grubs

Don and I are avid composters; Don probably more than I am. He reminds me of that old nursery rhyme about "snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails." Sometimes the more disgusting a project is, the more he seems to enjoy it. He likes to take care of and feed our kitchen composting worms, for example.

Actually, a properly-managed compost pile is far from disgusting. When well managed, compost piles do not smell unpleasant at all. But they do harbor a variety of bugs, microorganisms, and other things that I am not enough of a scientist to explain. Don seems to revel in this, particularly in the grubs.

Honestly, I think he revels in the grubs for their own sake ("snakes and snails..."). But he also likes to spoil our pets, and our four laying hens love nothing better than insects, particularly goodies from the compost pile, and especially grubs.

We are lucky that our climate is in "Zone 7" on the climate maps, which means that we are in the northernmost range of the Black Soldier Fly. These flies are voracious at eating up kitchen scraps to the point of being scary in a B horror-movie sort of way. And they make fantastic nutrition for the chickens, converting the kitchen scraps to fat, protein, and calories, which our dear hens then convert to eggs for us and fertilizer for our compost piles and garden.

Then the garden waste and kitchen scraps go into the compost pile, which then grows new larvae right up until the weather gets too cold for the soldier flies in the fall. Don has discovered that if he puts a big pile of "green" type kitchen scraps in the compost bin when the weather is warm, then covers that with a good layer of sawdust so it doesn't smell, then puts some chunks of fresh pineapple with the moist side down on top of the pile and the hard shell of the pineapple up toward the sky, then he can harvest black soldier flies by the handful (I shudder) to feed to our "girls," as folks in the U.S. call their chooks (a British or Australian name for backyard hens).

Black Soldier Fly Larvae Wriggle in the Remains of a Pineapple


I jokingly call Don their "rooster," because he brings them the choicest (to them) morsels and tries to make sure all the girls get their fair share, despite their jockeying and pecking order. And, believe me, they watch him closely and follow him around the yard, especially during composting season.


The Hens Watch Don Carefully During Composting Season


Don Makes Sure All the Chickens Get Their Fair Share
 Disclaimer: There is some risk of botulism, or "Limberneck," to chickens that eat fly larvae, especially if the grubs have grown in anaerobic conditions, such as in carcasses. For more information in general on raising Black Soldier Fly Larvae, check out this blog.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dehydrating Herbs

I am having great fun with my Excalibur brand food dehydrator.

Have you ever grown something that looks and tastes so good, you want to preserve that goodness for the long term? My mint grows beautifully in the spring, for example, but I know it will look cruddy when the summer heat hits, or after it flowers. But right now it's gorgeous.

I took a great class on dehydrating taught by my friend Lanette Lepper through the Virginia Urban Homesteaders' League. Until then I had always thought of dehydrating most foods as a last resort. But her class, especially tasting the samples she brought, opened up a whole new world for me. I discovered that dehydrating is one of the oldest, safest, most economical, and most nutritious methods of food preservation known to humankind, and that many foods actually taste better after dehydration.

I had tried dehydrating a few years ago using a cheap dehydrator and discovered I didn't have the patience for it. What I learned in Lanette's class is that an Excalibur will save the time and trouble of swapping out trays to keep the drying even, it has a thermostat that you can set, and that certain models are big enough that you can use them to make yogurt or proof homemade bread in. I was hooked.

So far I have successfully dehydrated bananas, lots of stawberries, some strawberry and mulberry fruit rolls, vegetables like kale and arugula from my CSA from Farm Chicks Produce, and lots of fresh herbs. The herbs taste amazing and are 20 times better than anything you can buy in the store. Here are some pictures from my efforts at drying herbs, including sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, and lemon balm, today.

Preserve your mint when it looks most inviting!
Lemon balm ready to dry on a tray of the dehydrator
The 9-tray Excalibur has so much room, you can even make yogurt in it!

The Excalibur comes with a great manual and a starter recipe book. But not everything is best dehydrated. Basil, for example, loses a lot of its flavor when dried. Some foods rehydrate better than others. But I am finding this process useful enough that I plan to keep it up. I can't wait to enjoy my own mint in the smoothies I make this summer and in the mint herb teas (tisanes) I will enjoy all winter long.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Berry-Picking: Backyard Fun, Life Lessons, or Both?

Picking Berries is Best in the Morning Shade

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.  --Epicurus

Today I went berry-picking, right in my own back yard! In the summer I like to make smoothies from Stonyfield Farm non-fat organic yogurt, frozen berries, a little juice or almond milk, and various flavorings, especially mint from my garden.

Due to the antioxidant or flavonoid properties of the berries, and perhaps due to rising fuel prices, the price of the frozen berries I like has gotten high. I have therefore started planting blackberries, fig trees, huckleberries, paw paws, and other "easy" fruits and berries for my region. I am a teacher, so I will use some of my time in the summer to pick and preserve these backyard treasures. In the meantime I may find time to go to pick-your-own places at local farms, which is a terrific way to save money and support local farmers at the same time. I also get some local berries and fruits as part of my family's weekly farm share from Farm Chicks Produce.

But my most rewarding source of fresh berries comes from trees that have been growing on our property for years. We ignored them, almost as though they were a nuisance, until I finally realized the berries they produced were not only edible but truly delicious. The trees are, in fact, black mulberries, Morus nigra, as far as I can tell. Now that I realize how easy it is to pick and freeze these, I pick all I can during the few weeks of the year when the berries are available. Best of all, the purple-black berries are nutritious and a source of those sought-after antioxidants that make the price of blueberries, for example, so ridiculous these days. Besides smoothies, I also like them in muffins, plain, or mixed in yogurt. Their flavor is a little tart, but pleasantly so.

Berry picking is not just a way of saving money. It's a time for reflection and for communing with nature. I love the sound of the birds singing and of my backyard hens softly clucking to each other, or the sight of a native bee among the leaves, seeking pollen from the mulberry flowers. Today I was reflecting about the myriad life lessons I have gathered along with the mulberry fruit:

  • Be gentle. Bruise the fruit or break a tree limb, and you wll regret your haste.
  • Be persistent. Berries that aren't ripe yet need a revisit in a couple of days, or sometimes even a few hours. Frequent sessions will fill your freezers, but neglect the job, and you will find your potential harvest lying all over the ground.
  • Plan ahead.  It is easy to make cuttings or grow more trees from cuttings, and then you can share them with your neighbors.
  • The grass isn't always greener elsewhere. Why pay the supermarket for something like berries, when fresher ones are growing on your own property?
  • Be thankful for what you have.
  • Use the right tools for the job. The right ladder can make a trip to the backyard even more productive, and the right pail (see picture below) can keep you from spilling your berries all over the ground. I learned this the hard way.
  • Things go better when your foundation is firm. Plant your ladder securely before you start climbing.
  • Don't overextend yourself. One needs to keep a certain balance in life.
  • Look at things from different angles and perspectives. It's amazing how shifting your position a few inches in any direction--up, down, or sideways--can cause you to see opportunities you couldn't see before.
  • Waste not, want not. Backyard chickens are great for this. If too many berries have fallen to the ground, we can fence our laying hens with them for an afternoon. They will gobble them up, fertilize the trees a little with their manure, and gobble up any ticks or other bugs they can find in the understory. Then they turn all they found into nutritious eggs, all while having a grand time! It's a win-win.
  • There are pluses and minuses to everything. Besides getting a little dirty and sweaty, there are greenbriers, poison ivy, and occasional ticks to watch out for. Overall, though, the experience is more than worth it. 
  • Setting a little time aside to pick berries is really setting aside time for yourself.
  • The best things in life really ARE free!
I wish more people would unplug from their computers, video-games, and television for a while and go berry-picking, even in their own back yards. They would discover the beauty of the natural world around them and be healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually for it. I know I am.



A good ladders is helpful, but it's a long way down!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Waterbath Canning Class with the VUHL

The Virginia Urban Homesteaders' League hosted a great class on waterbath canning, hosted by a woman named Cat, her friend Courtney Reitzel, and Misty Townsley. I have enjoyed all the VaUHL events I have attended and highly recommend the group to anyone who aspires to grow and preserve food.

I have a confession to make. I have attended two VaUHL canning classes, namely waterbath canning and pressure canning, and loved them both. I was so impressed with the idea of preserving my own food that I bought the biggest canner available online.

The only problem was, when I got it, I found out it was too big for my stove. It is almost too big to store anywhere in my kitchen.

But now we have a new stove because the old one needed replacing, anyway. I enjoyed the referesher course and look forward to preserving foods this summer, especially tomatoes. I also got an Excalibur dehydrator after attending another class. I want to preserve all kinds of foods, but especially strawberries, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes. I've already started to preserve home-grown herbs and even brew my own herb teas.

But I digress.

I will post pictures and captions to describe today's event. I took about 30 minutes of videos, too, for my own use. If anyone wants them available to watch, leave a comment here, and I will post them online.


Misty, left, and Cat, right, prepare carrots and daikon radishes to pickle. VaUHL promotes seasonal eating.

Our teachers show off the different foods they have canned. They provide plenty of written materials.
The guide to the beginner that was most higly recommended was the Ball Blue Book, seen to the left in the picture above. We all got plenty of handouts and even the recipe for the pickled carrots and radishes that we made in class today.


Courtney Reitzel, left, and Misty prepare for their class at Pembroke Manor United Methodist Church

Sampling our instructors' home preserved foods was a major incentive to learn to can. Delicious!
Did I mention their food was delicious? There's NOTHING like it in stores!

Misty, Cat, and Courtney emphasized that people should use USDA-approved methods and tested recipes, like those found in the Ball books. Another recommendation was Preserving by the Pint for small batches. They reminded people that carelessness or the use of outdated methods can result in illness or even death. Botulism is a deadly bacteria that will grow in improperly stored and preserved goods.

But they said that anyone who can read and follow a recipe in a cookbook is able to can food safely. After today's class. I believe them. But I plant to be careful, just in case.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Before You Get Backyard Chickens

Read this great blog post. If you cannot answer all or most of the questions, you are not yet ready for chickens! Do more research, first.

I know this post is short, but the "29 Thoughts to Ponder" post says it all!

On the other hand, this post about chickens and factory farms explains why it's well worth the effort to do it right.