Changing the zoning laws; making your town safe for backyard hens


Last week I wrote about the rapidly growing practice of raising backyard hens (for the eggs and the laughs).  One of the problems in some communities however, is that zoning regulations may make raising hens illegal.

There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or noisy (as many suburbanites imagine).

Many of us who are committed to family and neighborhood level self-sufficiency believe that the keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.  Even though it may illicit  sneers from some people (often people who have never seen a live hen or eaten a really fresh egg), it is most important that we try to change these local laws to not only allow but to encourage backyard hens.  This is an issue of Food Sovereignty!

We MUST fight city hall!

Toward that end, I’ve been working with a group of neighbors in my own town to try to convince our Planning Board to change the zoning regulations to make a few backyard hens legal.  Before speaking publicly to town hall however, I applied for a Special Permit and went through the process of getting a Special Permit so that my own birds were legal.

The “educational experience” of getting a permit cost me $210, and took several months.  Most of my friends who raise hens, just don’t tell anyone – as they feel the regulatory process is simply too burdensome.  I fully understand this viewpoint, but I wanted to “get legal” myself so that I could try to change the regulations.

Once I had my own Special Permit (dutifully filed with the County Registry of Deeds), I began attending Planning Board meetings to ask for their help to change the law.  We got great press coverage, unanimous support from the town Agricultural Commission, and a statement from the local Board of Health agreeing that backyard hens did not represent a public health problem.   We were feeling pretty good!

Next, a group of about a dozen residents (with experience raising chickens) developed the basic concept for an amendment to the Town Zoning Bylaw and the Town General Bylaw, which would make it easier to raise backyard hens.  We met with the Planning Director on several occasions and got his help putting our ideas into the correct legal language.  The proposals were then submitted to the Planning Board along with a couple hundred e-signatures, asking for their support of our Citizens Petition that would eventually be voted on by annual Town Meeting.

In spite of widespread public support as well as the encouragement of the Health Department, the Agricultural Commission, the Health Director, and the Animal Welfare Officer, the Planning Board Zoning Subcommittee remained unconvinced!  They insisted that some residents were worried about smells, noises, and rodents.  The Planning Board filed a revised version of our Town Meeting article, which would require abutter notification by certified mail and a public administrative hearing to ensure that our hens were not a hazard to public health and safety.

This was getting a bit absurd!

So a group of us showed up at the next Planning Board meeting and with the support of the town Agricultural Commission and lots of citizen support, we convinced the Planning Board to change their somewhat “draconian” recommendation.  Our compromise was to “license” our henhouses (much like a dog license) but to modify the process of neighbor notification to make it much simpler and more about education than regulation.  We are making progress!

But we had lots of work to do!

When a small group of hen owners began this process, we thought it would be obvious to any thinking individual that raising a few hens was not a public health threat, nor a nuisance.  We were wrong.   There were lots of good questions raised by members of the Planning Board and the general public, along with a few that were a bit over the edge.  Next we geared up for a good old fashioned public debate on the floor of a New England Town Meeting!   We tried to understand the concerns and fears of those who were in opposition and to answer all rational questions from our neighbors.

We wrote letters to the editor of our local paper, participated in several listserves and responded to questions on the Town Meeting discussion board.  When our article was heard by Town Meeting, we had the local Health Director, the local Animal Welfare Officer, the Agricultural Commission, the Planning Board, and the Select Board on our side.  While several objections were raised in public session, in the end the new bylaw was approved overwhelmingly by Town Meeting members.  When it was all over, I sent personal notes of thanks to all of the people involved and created a web page to celebrate our victory.

Of course, my town is not the only one dealing with this issue.  Here is a typical news story about changing the chicken laws!


Based on our experience, I’ve got some suggestions for those of you who are considering trying to change your local regulations based on my experience so far.

  1. Find friends to help.  Unless you are unemployed, you will need to attend lots of meetings.  Having others help you cover these meetings will help (I’ve been criticized by town board members for not being able to show up at some meetings when I had to work).
  2. Study the issue and learn from others.  Follow the blogs, Facebook groups, and listserves for advice from others who are going through the same process.  You will feel less lonely, when things aren’t going well.
  3. Be patient and try not to get angry (I’m not particularly good at this).  When you have people who have no experience and are getting their information from the internet making decisions on what you can and can’t do in your backyard, it is difficult to be patient.  Anger won’t help – no matter what!
  4. Be persistent.  Its a bit of a game.   But if you continue to show up for public meetings and continue to share your message respectfully, the “crazy ideas” you propose at first will slowly become common sense.
  5. Volunteer for a town committee or board yourself.  It is really easy to criticize others (who are generally volunteers) when they disagree with your particular concern.  Sitting on the other side of the table gives you perspective, experience and respect for those volunteers, most of whom are doing a great job.

Finally, if you are not successful with a frontal assault (like a zoning change proposal), it might help to try to change the culture of the community.  Bring speakers to town to talk about bigger issues like sustainability, the “homegrown revolution,” self-sufficiency, the Transition Towns movement, Food Sovereignty, etc.  Asking for a change in zoning to allow backyard hens makes more sense in the context of this larger discussion.  I’ll let you know if it works!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

Let’s all raise hens (for the eggs and the laughs)


For the past few weeks, I’ve been posting about food issues.  Last week, I wrote about the Food Sovereignty movement.  The prior week, I shared some ideas on how to deal with the emerging global food crisis.  This week, I thought I’d suggest a very simple action that almost anyone can take in response to these complex issues, and one that I’ve written about on my “local” blog in the past…….  raising backyard hens!

I find that when I spend too much time thinking about the many problems we face today, I can easily slip into a state of despair.  At these times, I need to “do something,” and even a simple action often helps.  Perhaps it makes no logical sense – but it works!  One of my favorite things to do when I’m “down” is to hang out with my backyard hens.

Of course I’ve got to go out to our hen house every day to collect the eggs (even in the coldest weather), so this has become something of a habit for me.  It helps me “get real” and relax for a few minutes.  I generally bring the “ladies” a gift; sometimes wilted leaves of some old greens, maybe a handful of worms (from my vermiculture bin), maybe a soft tomato or a handful of corn kernels (that I collected from local farm fields after the harvest).  The hens get pretty excited when they see me coming out the back door!

I’ve been raising hens in my backyard for years.  I don’t live on a farm but in a “normal” suburban neighborhood and I believe this is something almost anyone can do.  In addition to the eggs (which I share with my neighbors) I love to watch the ladies scratch, fight, talk strut, play, and “argue” with each other.  And the kids in the neighborhood love to come by and visit the girls too.

Let’s all raise hens!

Raising hens is a simple, practical response to the complexity of the global food crisis.  By taking small steps toward personal, family, and neighborhood self-sufficiency, we can begin to take more responsibility for our lives.  A few eggs each day won’t change the world, but it can change the way we think about the world.  It connects us to another creature and reminds us that we are part of a living system.  Or at least it can – if we pay attention.

One of the problems of course, is that zoning regulations in some towns make raising hens illegal.   I’ll write about my personal experience trying to change these laws in my hometown next week.   There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens in the neighborhood.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or dirty (as many suburbanites imagine).

The keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.   And its fun and educational for kids!

To give you some idea on what it might be like to have hens in your backyard, have a look at this fun and instructional video.


To help you get started, I’ve compiled a few resources that I share with my friends.

  1. An article on why to raise chickens
  2. A list of useful resources (links to more links)
  3. The City Chicken (a fun and useful web page)
  4. An excellent and simple description on how to raise hens
  5. A hen cartoon (check it out)


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

And if you happen to live in Western Massachusetts, join us for a workshop on Raising Backyard Hens on April 2, 2011!

Food Sovereignty: the people’s response to the global food crisis


Last week’s blog, “The Future of Food; Dealing with Collapse,” elicited a lot of comments.   A few of them reminded me that if we are going to address the global food crisis, we must listen to the people who do most of the work growing food.   We must hear from the peasants, farm workers, and small landholders who grow 50% of the food on the planet.

Without their voice,  policy makers responding to the food crisis, will continue to invest in the same industrial model for growing food that is the root cause of the problem.

If we care about sustainable food and farming, we must work for Food Sovereignty.

According to La Via Campesina, “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture.”   One of the “raps” against sustainable agriculture is that while we talk about Social Equity as one of the three principles of sustainability, most of our efforts focus on Environmental Integrity and Economic Vitality.  Food Sovereignty provides a framework to make sure we maintain a focus on justice!

Food Sovereignty is about solutions!

La Via Campesina is a global movement of peasant farmers and workers.  In 1996, they introduced the concept of Food Sovereignty at the World Food Summit in Rome, and since then the principle of Food Sovereignty has been adopted by many organizations.

This movement which brings together the environmental, economic and social aspects of food production was created to serve the needs of small and medium-size farmers, migrant workers, the landless, women farmers, and indigenous peoples from all over the world.  These are the same people who are most likely use agroecological principles to grow food in a way that builds rather than degenerates natural resources.

A recent United Nations study claims that small farmers, using agroecological techniques, can double food production in 10 years.   These techniques are supported by the International Peasants Movement, La Via Campesina, which claims that peasants can feed the world.

According to Via Campesina “food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption.  It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement.”

This global movement however, is not only relevant in developing countries.  Last week, a town in Maine passed the first Food Sovereignty law in the U.S.  I encourage you to learn more about this movement and to support one of the 148 member organizations in 69 countries working for Food Sovereignty.  And join the millions of small farmers and workers around the world on April 17, 2011 to celebrate the struggle of peasants and rural people to survive and continue feeding the world.

To learn more, go to April 17, 2011 – International Day of Peasant’s Struggles.

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

The future of food; dealing with collapse


Did you know that almost one billion people are hungry – another one billion are chronically malnourished –  and still another one billion others are overweight due to poor eating habits?

This is a global food crisis!

Last week, I explored the root causes of this crisis.  Isn’t it strange to think that the structural cause of the food crisis is actually the industrial food system itself!  As fossil fuel becomes increasingly expensive, the system that is so dependent on petroleum for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation technology, packaging and shipping, is unraveling at the seams and triggering political unrest.

But before you accuse me of being one of those “door and gloom” bloggers, I think there are realistic solutions to this crisis (especially for food exporting countries like the U.S.).  Other aspects of industrial societies are likely to experience more severe disruption than the food supply as oil prices rise.  This is at least partly because there are steps that individuals and local communities can take to respond to increasing food prices and potential shortages.  Today’s blog post examines some of those steps.

Last week I made the bold claim that we need to think creatively about;

  1. tax incentives for small, integrated farms committed to selling within their own community,
  2. public investment to support bioregional food systems (within a specific foodshed),
  3. changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution”and
  4. education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

These social structures are needed to help us build much-needed resilience into the current industrial food system, which is vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world and already in collapse in many developing countries.  It is time to take action!

Of course the skeptic in me still wants to ask “how likely are those of us who are well-fed (perhaps overfed)  to take action“?  Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, in their book Empires of Food: Feast Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, state that we are unlikely to get serious about a new food system until we have “a public outcry for tax incentives directed at promoting sustainable agriculture.”  Are you willing to cry out?

In previous posts, I wrote that we need to shift our way of thinking before we are likely to create those necessary social structures.  But until we can imagine a future different from the past, it is unlikely we will see such a shift of thinking.  Imagination is key.

Lots of people today are interested in talking about solutions.  We are planning a public event in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts that might be an example.  This sort of event is not difficult to organize.  There are good resources and models within the Transition Towns movement and some communities have done their own research, such as Feed Northampton.  The important thing right now is to imagine a future different from the past, because peak oil changes EVERYTHING.

So, drawing from the experience of others (and my own imagination), here are some ideas to consider that might be applied to your own community:

  1. If you live in an urban area, consider growing food on rooftops, especially of public buildings which may have large flat expanses of roof.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.  Look to re-configure parking lots with raised beds such as the organiponicos in Cuba.
  2. If you live in a suburban area, tear up that lawn and just grow food now! Don’t forget to consider hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  3. If you are in a rural area, ask if there are more human food crops that can be grown.  Much of the farmland in New England, for example, is still used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  4. And no matter where you live, think about ways your community can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle.  Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps food artificially cheap.  If we want more local food, we may need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.  The Feed Northampton report, for example, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.

We need to begin by imagining possibilities and then get to work.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.  Think about:

1. Slow Food

2. Fair Trade

3. Bioregionalism

3. Public commitment to human right to a nutritious diet

4. Public commitment to insure food producers earn a living wage

5. Zoning laws that allow urban and suburban families to raise their own food (including animals) – a right to survival law

6. Decent wages and training for farm labor

7. Education for young farm managers

8. Research into appropriate technologies

9. Programs to bring local food into the workplace

10.  And of course, grow our own!

These are a beginning.  Lets dream together about the world we want to create….. and then lets get to work!

What suggestions do you have for creating a more sustainable food system?  Please post them below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in taking college courses in Sustainable Food and Farming online this summer, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Is the modern industrial food system “in collapse”?


Cassandra (of Greek mythology) the daughter of King Priam, foresaw the destruction of Troy by the invading Greeks (who of course had come to retrieve  Helen).  Cassandra warned her father of the impending disaster – but no one believed her!  It seems the God Apollo, who had given her the gift of prophecy, had also cursed her by preventing anyone from believing her.

Frustrating, huh?

I suspect Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimias might understand her frustration.  Who are they you ask?

Well, they are just two of the modern Cassandras, who are trying to help us wake up to the impending collapse of the modern industrial food system.  But it seems Apollo is still up to his old tricks….. because based on our behavior, it seems we are still ignoring the warnings.

We didn’t listen to Tristan Stuart who reminded us in Waste, that “infinite abundance is an illusion.”  Nor did we hear Carolyn Steel, who claimed in Hungry City “our food system is no more secure, ethical or sustainable than Rome’s was.”  And Julian Cribb’s new book about food, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, is also likely to go unheeded.

Its all just too depressing, isn’t it.  The “foodies” seem to be too wrapped up in what Fraser and Rimas call “the New Gluttony,” which, in their words “turn food into fashion – and undermines the critical danger we face.” Of course, most people don’t think much about the food system and just take the current food system for granted.

If you are one of the majority of people who seem to believe that somehow the food in the grocery store will always be plentiful, will always be cheap, and somehow is actually good for you – you should read Empires of Food.   Most astute observers of the modern industrial food and farming system recognize that the industrial food system is harmful to people, society and the earth….  and is vulnerable to collapse.  Not convinced, well read what some of the experts are saying…..

Or listen to this 11-year old kid!

I suspect I’ll be accused of being “alarmist” by some readers who would prefer not to be disturbed.  But when there is danger in our path, an alarm is exactly what is needed.  A billion people hungry, another billion malnourished, and another billion ‘overfed’ sounds like a problem.   Students often ask how do we wake up those people living in denial.

Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people that a system built on cheap fossil fuel is at risk in a peak oil economy.  I won’t argue that continued erosion of the natural resources upon which our high level of productivity is based –  is a prelude to disaster.  Nor do I like to point out (especially to people who are just not interested) that a system that allows a few large corporations to control the food supply is fundamentally unjust.

I’m actually much more interested in working on solutions; like tax incentives for small, integrated local farms, public investment in bioregional food production and distribution systems, changes in zoning laws which support the “homegrown food revolution”, and public education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, and community self-sufficiency.

Relocalization may not replace the system of international trade which presently dominates the global food economy.  But there are surely things we should consider to help us build much-needed resilience into a food system in crisis today in the poorer nations – and on the verge of collapse in the industrialized world.


Next week’s blog will explore some of these solutions.

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.