Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hampton Roads Sustainability Expo!

4 Chesapeake Hens spent the day at the Hampton Roads Sustainability Expo in Virginia Beach. Tom Powell and his family were there, as was my friend and fellow Chicken-Activist, Wendy Camacho. The Expo even allowed us to bring a couple of hens as poster-girls for the movement. Here we are, with our poster-chickens:

L-R: Wendy, 2 Gold Sex-Link Hens, Mary Lou and Tom

I was pleased to have a chance to meet our local online food co-op and several of its vendors at the event. The Virginia Urban Homesteaders League was there, beekeepers and beekeeping groups, local food activists, and so many others! Many of them are rooting for us to win the right to keep our backyard hens, and we thanked them all for their support, interest, and appreciation today. We are not alone!

Tom's son, Xavier, poses with us, too!

Wendy and I presented "A Case for Chesapeake Hens: Chickens on the Road to Sustainability," which was well received. 

Photo courtesy of Lanette Grovesteen Lepper

 Many people stopped at our booth. Tom, Wendy, and I all talked until we were hoarse. It was a pleasant surprise to see how many people already knew us, knew our group, liked our page, read this blog, and were willing and able to help us in some way. It was a great feeling. Several people told us they loved the hens--who stole the show!-- and that our booth was their favorite at the whole event.

We gave out lots of flyers advertising Pat Foreman's upcoming appearance at the Chesapeake Central Library on Tuesday, October 9. We encouraged residents from Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach to check out as well as our own Facebook page to network with others to change the laws in their own communities. We urged Chesapeake residents to dress in red and come to the Planning Commission meeting on October 10 at 7 PM, where we plan to object to recent recommendations regarding changes to the zoning laws by the Planning Department. Supporters will arrive dressed in red, the color of the "Little Red Hen."

Why do we object? One provision would limit hens to four per household, despite the fact that both local and state laws make it a misdemeanor to sell chicks (under 8 weeks of age) in flocks of less than six. We do not mind the proposal that the hens be kept in pens but find the requirement of an additional six-foot privacy fence around the entire back yard to be unnecessary and burdensome. Everyone who heard about requiring a fence in addition to a secure pen thought it was ridiculous, and many people promised to come out in force as a show of support.

We hope they follow through. We suspect they will.

How will the Planning Commission React? Stay tuned to find out. Or, better yet, come to the Commission meeting, dressed in red, and be among the first to know.

Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why Does 4 Chesapeake Hens Want Six Chicks?

Regular readers know that I belong to a group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that advocates changes to the zoning laws in Chesapeake, VA. Current law allows chickens only on land zoned agricultural. There is one exception: owners of "residential estates" of 3 acres or more my have four hens kept in a pen.

Potential changes are before the Planning Commission right now. Unfortunately, the proposed changes are still unnecessarily restrictive and expensive. The Planning Department has proposed that hens be allowed upon all single-family residential lots, but only four hens, which must be kept confined to a pen, with easements for the coop, and with a six foot privacy fence around the back yard, to boot!

We are most upset about the privacy fence, but fellow chicken activist and political guru, Andrea Margrave, recently published this detailed account of why the four-hen limit is also a terrible expense. The laws Andrea refers to (about buying chicks in flocks of six) are at the municipal level in Chesapeake but are also reflective of Virginia state code:

Sigh. Just did the numbers on ordering juvenile birds as opposed to chicks. (from McMurray hatchery) Just 4 laying hens of a common breed (Rhode Island Reds) are 17.95 EACH, for a total of 71.80 for 4 hens. Then, add shipping of.... areyousittingdown.... $111.00, for a grand total of 182.80.

THIS is why we need the Planning Commission to change the number of hens from 4 to 6, so people can buy locally and LEGALLY from farm stores or order chicks from a hatchery in amounts larger than 4.

It is confusing, but the law states that you aren't allowed to buy or sell less than 6 chicks at a time, up to the age of 2 months. After 2 months you can buy any number the retailers will allow. Unfortunately, hatcheries don't sell 'juvenile birds' until they are at least 15 weeks old (old enough to be 'hardened off' from the cold, and just on the verge of starting to lay eggs).

I checked on a few others that weren't sold out, and Meyers was 136.80 for 4 juveniles including shipping. Cackle didn't even list juvies, only a few select grown birds, mostly rare birds like a single Lakenvelder for $75 (the cheapest!) or one Silkie for $125 shipped.

Compare the price of chicks, freshly hatched, or even fertilized eggs to incubate yourself. 6 RIR female chicks only cost 15.78, and the shipping is less than that at 14.70. 6-10 hatching eggs will run you anywhere from $30 to $45 shipped from McMurray, even less other places. Meyer will ship for free any number of eggs from a huge variety of breeds, with the exception of a 'small order' surcharge if you get 6 or less. So if you get RIR's they are $3.87 per egg plus the $7 surcharge. 6 chicks would set you back even less, but I couldn't see if shipping was included for the chicks or not.

My point is, it is REALLY OUTRAGEOUS the cost to ship mature birds compared to getting just 6 chicks locally (Southern States was GIVING them away with the purchase of a bag of feed this spring!). Neither SS nor St. Brides will sell you less than 6, because I asked. And with the new Tractor Supply opening up sometime in the coming year, we will have plenty of options to buy locally, if the City will allow it.... 
 **Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

4 Chesapeake Hens at the Expo!

4 Chesapeake Hens will be at the Hampton Roads Sustainable Living Expo on Saturday, September 29, from 10 AM to 6 PM.  Mary Lou Burke and Wendy Camacho will be giving a presentation, "A Case for Chesapeake Hens: Chickens on the Road to Sustainability." The time will be from 2:00 to 2:30 PM on the "Sustainable Homes" stage.

Come find us at the Virginia Beach Convention Center! Watch our presentation! Come to our booth and visit a spell!

**Update: One of our fans will bring two of his "girls" to the Expo on Saturday! We were given permission to bring them as long as we kept them caged and kept them at our booth. Consider it done!

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

4 Chesapeake Hens' Initial Response to Proposed Amendment to Chicken Ordinances

Our grassroots community group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, has been campaigning for more egalitarian ordinances concerning the keeping of laying hens in the city. The current laws state that one's property must be zoned agricultural to have chickens. The only exception is property is zoned "RE-1," a "residential estate" of three acres or more. Then owners can have up to four hens in a pen as family pets. Currently the matter is before the Planning Commission, which has researched a proposed ordinance. Members of our group are not satisfied with the proposed changes; we have published and distributed our own vision for the role of chickens in our community in a document called "A Case for Chesapeake Hens."

Andrea Margrave, our group's political leadership, sent Beverly Hanson, the Planning Department's Office Coordinator, the following message today. It outlines most of our objections:

Dear Ms. Hanson:

I was delighted to read tonight the release of the Planning Commission's draft of the new ordinance regarding backyard laying hens.  Our group has worked hard to get this process done in a professional and speedy manner, and the response from the City on all fronts has been astoundingly fast.  Thank you.

My concern this evening is twofold:  First, I question the inclusion of requiring a 6 foot privacy fence.  The ordinance already mandates an appropriate pen or enclosure for the hens, one which necessarily would include a top to prevent escape and to deter predators.  The reason for the fence requirement would surely not be for keeping the hens enclosed then.  Perhaps it was added to prevent visual contact with the hens?  I would venture to say that chickens are no more unsightly than a dog, cat, rabbit, or other family pet.  I sincerely question the validity of this addition and formally request its removal.

Now, my second concern has to do with a conflict I see arising between the limiting of hen ownership to only 4 per household and the City's own Code making it a Class 3 misdemeanor to purchase or sell less than 6 chicks at a time.  How are we to abide by this ordinance if it is self-defeating?  I would like to see it changed to reflect a more reasonable number of 6 - 10 in order to remain in compliance.  Link to the conflicting ordinance below:

Thank you once again for your time and diligence in serving the citizenry of Chesapeake.


Andrea Margrave
4 Chesapeake Hens

Well-written letter, Andrea! Let's hope your logic prevails in this matter.

Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Updated News From the Chesapeake Planning Commission

I received an email today from Beverly R. Hanson, the Office Coordinator for the City of Chesapeake's Planning Department. This was in response to " A Case for Chesapeake Hens," which I had submitted on behalf of 4 Chesapeake Hens for the Planning Commission's review.
She thanked me for providing the document and promised to forward it to the Planning Commission in anticipation of its meeting on October 10, 2012. She also said a proposed ordinance will be available online at within the next few days, and the staff recommendation will be available on or after October 5th.

This is exciting news! Will the proposed ordinance be something our group can support? Will the staff recommendation side with the chickens? Stay tuned: we will find out in the days and weeks to come!

Update: I just found out that the Planning Commission meeting on October 10 is open to the public. So that will be a busy week 4 Chesapeake Hens. We will be going to Pat Foreman's book-signing and lecture at the Central Library on the 9th, and then to the Planning Commission meeting on the 10th. But the end is near, and we are hopeful that it will bode well for the chickens.

Update: The Planning Commission has published its proposed hen ordinance here.  4 Chesapeake Hens is gathering comments from our Facebook page and from a related group, "Backyard Chickens for Chesapeake." Public comments are allowed at Planning Commission meetings, so we plan to make our opinions known at the October 10 hearing. We will be at that meeting dressed in red. Those who wish to speak need to sign up before 7 PM. Previous meetings can be watched online to get an idea of how the meetings are run. The meetings can also be watched live online at home by those unable to attend.

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What's Up with Chickens in Richmond?

I contacted L M Cromwell through for an update on the efforts in Richmond to get chickens legalized. I explained that 4 Chesapeake Hens is mounting a similar effort here in Chesapeake, VA. We would obviously be overjoyed if our state capitol liberalized its chicken-keeping laws. She said she hasn't heard anything since the mayor's office sent her the following update about a month ago. The next Council Meeting in Richmond is on September 24, and she's hoping the issue will be on the agenda, although there's no confirmation of that yet. Here's the update:

After the council requested that the administration survey the current ordinances and zoning laws relating to the raising of chickens in the City, a team of individuals representing the Food Policy Task Force, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Human Services, Animal Control, Planning and Development, Zoning Enforcement, the City Attorney, the Chief Administrator’s Office, the Richmond City Health Department and the Police Department was identified to review current practices in other cities and counties and to make recommendations to Council for revisions to current ordinances.

Those individuals have held several meetings and have developed a set of recommendations that I believe will address all of your concerns.  While not revealing the exact recommendations, I can tell you that:
                The recommendation does include a limit on the number of chickens
                It does not allow for the raising of roosters in the  city
                Although it does call for a permitting fee, I do believe the recommended fee is reasonable
                There are recommendations for coop distance to property lines
                There are recommendations for coop size and we are considering some restrictions on the design
                There are recommendations on the slaughtering of chickens

The next step is to present the recommendations to council in September.  At some point after that, there will be time allotted for public comment.

***Update on 9/30/12 from the Facebook Group "CHICKUNZ"

"As long as we keep up the pressure, it looks like a paper will be introduced on Oct 22nd(based on the CAO recommendation which was requested last May and presented in Sept). Then it would go to subcommittee (in November) before going back to Council for a vote. As long as residents keep speaking at meetings during the citizen comment periods and contacting their reps that they want a change, it may happen before December. We are looking at 2 months from now if all goes well-which may seem like a long time to residents, but it's really "close" for our city govt. ALL the updates (hoops we've jumped through working directly with Richmond Council since last December) are on the fb page too" (source).

**Update on 10/14/12 We received a link to the CAO's reports on chickens in Richmond. The CAO is the "Chief Administrative Officer" who works for the Mayor and City council there. These reports back up much of what our group has been telling the Mayor and City Council of Chesapeake. 

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas. Richmond is still a work in progress.

**Update: on December 13, I received a message from the Richmond group that the Virginia Capitol is close to allowing up to four hens in a coop in urban backyards with certain restrictions. There will be a public hearing on January 28, 2013, and the group is hopeful to have hens legal by this summer. Here is the proposed ordinance, which was introduced on November 26, 2012. The ordinance promposes a $60.00 fee to have the hens, which the group hopes the City Council will consider reducing.

**Update in April of 2013: Richmond got a "hen ordinance" passed that allows up to four hens, no roosters, with certain restrictions. There's a $60.00 annual fee for the permit (ouch!) 

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Case for Chesapeake Hens

Danielle Rawls just finished "A Case for Chesapeake Hens." I cannot wait to send it to the Planning Commission. I know I am biased, but I can't see how the Commission can NOT make a positive recommendation for us once they've read this beautiful and well-written document. Danielle, thank you for all the hard work you've put in on this project. Let's hope the pen conquers the nay-sayers!

**Update for Wednesday, October 10, 2012: The Planning Commission voted against changes to the law regarding laying hens? Why? We may never know! It was a split decision, but the Commissioners who voted against it will not give us specifics regarding their reasons. Click here for more details regarding this effort. There's even a link to watch a video of the meeting.

This matter comes back to City Council on November 20. Our group plans to be there!

**Update for Saturday, October 20: Our group has revised "A Case..." in response to input from the Staff Report and the Planning Department. Our newly-revised document is available publicly, and the old link no longer works.

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Chicken Activist's Letter to Dr. Ella Ward

Our group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, is working to change zoning laws in Chesapeake, VA, to allow more residents to own pet laying hens. The current law only allows hens on land zoned agricultural or on residential estates of three acres or more. We have made some progress: City Council voted to send the issue to the Planning Commission, which will probably review it on October 10. On October 9, Patricia "Pat" Foreman, the author of City Chicks, will give a book-signing, reception, and lecture at the Chesapeake Central Library. If readers are interested in attending, please keep in mind that books and tickets must be purchased in advance of this event.

In the meantime, we are continuing with our program of "City Council Member of the Week." This week's council member has been Dr. Ella Ward. Here is my most recent letter, addressed to her:

Dear Dr. Ella Ward:

On behalf of "4 Chesapeake Hens," let me thank you for your vote to send the "hen issue" to the Planning Commission for a recommendation. Our group is confident that the Commission's diligent research will produce recommendations in favor of the hens.

We hope that you or a representative of yours will be able to make it to Patricia Foreman's talk about the benefits of chickens at the Central Library on Tuesday, October 9. Pat has degrees in city planning, animal science, genetics, and nutrition, so she knows whereof she speaks.

In the meantime, if you have any concerns or questions for us, feel free to let us know. We will make our best efforts to address them.

Mary Lou Burke

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fall Squashes as a Centerpiece

I belong to an online local food co-op called Coastal Farms. While I mostly buy produce for our meals, I recently bought some fall squashes and miniature pumpkins that were too pretty to eat, so I arranged them into a centerpiece for our kitchen table. They were inexpensive and will last quite a while. Three of them:  the "Turks Turban," and the two acorn squashes, are edible. The two miniature pumpkins were advertised as decorative squashes. (The "Turks Turban" squash is also called a "Mexican Hat").

It feels good to support our local farmers when purchasing fall decorations. I could have spent three times the money on some cheap plastic frippery imported from China and not been half as happy with the results. Here are some pictures:

Fall Centerpiece of Local Squashes

Acorn Squash and Miniature Pumpkins as a Centerpiece

Another View of a "Turk's Turban" Squash (on left)
Update on 1/28/13. I cannot believe how long these squash have lasted! One got moldy back in November and went straight to the compost pile. But the rest have been fine. I have recently started cutting them up, scooping out the strings and seeds, and feeding them to my laying hens. Chickens love squash and pumpkins seeds, which are very nutritious.

Then I baked the squash and fed it to them. The girls liked that, too. I'll gradually cut up, scoop out, and feed the rest to the hens over the next few weeks, especially as a warm treat when the days get cold!

Thursday, September 6, 2012


 I have terrible luck growing morning glories or their relatives, the moonflowers. They are supposed to be easy to grow-- invasive, even, in some areas-- but you wouldn't know it by the way they grow for me.

Part of the reason I have trouble with them is that the seeds require nicking, soaking, or both, before being planted, and I do not have the patience to bother with this. But Don does! He nicked the seeds for me before I planted them just below our front porch. We have old wrought iron railings there, and I hoped the plants would grow there and be pretty.

It worked! Sort of... only one plant grew well, a moonflower, but it was well worth it.

Moonflowers on the porch with potted purple passion in the background

They are called moonflowers because they are white and round, like a full moon, and bloom in the early evening and at night. They are pollinated by nocturnal creatures such as moths. Some varieties smell wonderful, but mine have a very faint scent. They cover the porch railings so gracefully, and the flowers look so good and dramatic in bloom, that Don says we are definitely going to try them again next year. But we will try nicking and soaking the seeds before planting, and keeping the seeds well watered until established, to see if we can't get more of them to germinate and grow.

Moonflowers in bloom

If you decide to try morning glories or moonflowers, be careful about planting them around young children. They are toxic, especially the seeds, and can be fatal!

I found a short Youtube video of a moonflower blooming in real time.

Moonflower vines cover the wrought iron on our front porch

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Chicken Activist's Letter to Scott Matheson

I belong to an grass-roots network, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that is trying to change local zoning laws to allow more residents to keep backyard laying hens. Here is a letter emailed to a member of City Council as a part of this ongoing effort.

Dear Scott W. Matheson:

Common wisdom states that whoever “controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world."

I belong to a grass-roots organization called “4 Chesapeake Hens.” Our quest for backyard laying hens is an effort by “we the people” to control where our own money goes, to make a small dent in the world’s petroleum consumption by eating as locally as our own backyards, and to take control of our food supply for our own health, safety, and happiness.

Some may argue that hens should be restricted due to urban density. But a retired basketball player, Will Allen, established a non-profit organization, “Growing Power,” that proves otherwise. “Growing Power” is located in the major city of Milwaukee, the 28th most populous city in the United States. 
Will Allen
A successful author, Allen is a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and was named one of the top 100 “people who most affect our world” in Time magazine in 2010. His organization operates an urban mini-farm on two acres, a lot no bigger than that of a small supermarket. People from all over the world come to learn how “Growing Power” manages to successfully raise over 20,000 plants, vegetables, and livestock such as worms, bees, goats, rabbits, and chickens so intensively and successfully on such a small lot. In a world facing economic hardship, peak oil, global warming, and the twin crises of food insecurity and alarming obesity rates, many see Allen’s growing methods as instrumental to solving some of the problems that we as a society are facing. As Allen puts it:

Everybody, regardless of their economic means, should have access
to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally (source).

Or as Time puts it:

A new movement is sprouting up in America's low-income neighborhoods.
Some urban residents, sick of fast food and the scarcity of grocery stores, have decided to grow good food for themselves. (ibid.)

“Growing Power” runs youth programs for inner-city youth that are so (sic) inspiring and effective. In January Allen earned national recognition for his efforts from the National Education Association (

What does this have to do with Chesapeake?

Our contention is that, just as residents of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago, and even Milwaukee can raise chickens legally, so can we here, given fair and just zoning laws. Changes to our zoning laws will allow us residents to feed ourselves better and to teach our youth the value of sustaining ourselves in an ecologically sound and humane manner. Through 4-H and other programs, the youth of Chesapeake will learn valuable economic and science lessons as well as learn where our food comes from.

Please change the zoning laws in Chesapeake to allow residents to keep up to six laying hens as pets. Open the door to residents and change-makers, perhaps even a future Will Allen, to make hens a part of our future urban farming efforts.

 Update: On November 20, Chesapeake City Council voted 6-3 to allow hens with certain restriction in residential areas.