Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Backyard poultry debate wasted opportunity

Could have triggered discussions over urban food-security issues

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What's unfortunate about last week's showdown over backyard poultry at city hall is it was more about bad puns than a constructive policy debate on urban food security.

Even the proponents -- who dressed in costume and smuggled a live hen into the hearing chambers -- appeared to make light of the proposal to allow city residents to keep a few laying hens.

As for city councillors, if Grant Nordman is any indication, the motion put forward by Coun. Harvey Smith was nothing more than fodder for corny jokes.

"From all the dumb clucks at city hall, thanks for coming," Nordman told an audience representing the farm and agricultural community at the Oct. 30 Harvest Gala banquet. He noted he was asked to bring greetings because Coun. Smith was too busy "guarding the henhouse."

"Don't worry boys, we're not going in that direction," Nordman said, as if backyard henhouses represent a threat to mainstream agriculture.

Farm animals are lumped in with pythons and chimpanzees under the City of Winnipeg's exotic animal bylaw, even though most people don't view them that way. For example, when a CBC online poll asked whether Winnipeggers should be allowed to keep chickens, almost 59 per cent of respondents said yes, while 41 per cent said no.

Concerns over noise and nuisance don't really hold up to scrutiny. A few clucking hens or, for that matter, the occasional bleat from a goat roaming a fenced backyard make less noise than a barking dog or a lawn mower. They produce less waste, and they recycle vegetation, including the dandelions people fear will take over if the province goes ahead with a cosmetic pesticide ban.

You could argue they are nature's own weed and feed with the added bonus of producing edible byproducts.

Far from feeling threatened, farmers looking in on this flap from the outside are somewhat bemused. On one hand, they see an opportunity in the growing curiousity urbanites are developing around food production, but they also note there is more to keeping hens than setting them loose in the backyard.

"We view it as more of a change in society in which people are taking an interest in how their food is produced," says Harold Froese, a longtime egg producer and industry leader.

Froese understands people's concerns about mainstream agriculture, particularly recent safety scares such as E. coli and listeriosis, and the desire for food self-sufficiency.

"We're not adamantly opposed to it, we just want to ensure the general public and councillors understand what the issue is about," Froese said.

"The primary issues are food safety and animal care," he said. "We view this as an opportunity to educate people on what's involved with looking after hens."

In his view, chickens shouldn't be treated as pets. In other words, don't name your food. If not managed properly, backyard flocks attract rodents and breed disease, although no more so than overflowing bins of uncollected garbage.

Will these small-scale operators be willing day in and day out to keep the birds warm in the winter and cool in the summer? And what's the plan for the hens, which can live up to 14 years, when the humans are done with them? People may not like mainstream agricultural practices, but at least there's a plan.

Froese's concerns about backyard poultry production are backed up by the Minneapolis-based Chicken Run Rescue, albeit for entirely different reasons. The charitable agency promotes an "ethical evolution" away from using hens as a food source. In their world, chickens are people, too.

Nevertheless, its website -- at http://www.brittonclouse.com/chickenrunrescue -- tries to ensure people considering raising backyard poultry know what they are getting themselves into.

Chicken Run Rescue has tracked a significant spike in rescues and surrender requests in the Minneapolis region in recent years, mostly related to backyard poultry producers who grew tired of their experiment in urban agriculture.

"The challenge of increased interest in backyard flocks is to ensure that people who have good intentions about creating a more 'sustainable' world make an informed choice before they make the commitment," founder Mary Britton Clouse writes before listing off a series of "inconvenient truths," complete with gory details about such mysteries as what happens to the baby roosters nobody wants.

It's clear the debate in Winnipeg hasn't matured to the point of an intelligent discussion. That's a loss for both the urban and rural communities.

The reality is, most people who dabble in agriculture eventually find themselves back in the grocery store or at the producer's gate, more knowledgeable about the issues and with new appreciation for what takes to produce food well.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 B8

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