Friday, June 28, 2013

legalizing the urban backyard...pigeons in the garden

It was not until we moved away from our previous house, built in a small neighborhood in the middle of what had been farm land in a town that was decidedly farmish, that we were allowed to have our own flock of chickens.  It was written into our homeowners association rules that chickens, or fowl, of any variety were not permitted.

We moved from our semi-rural area into the city of Portland though, admittedly, we are on the outskirts.  In truth, there are farms right down the street from us.  We can smell the cow manure on hot and breezy days as a reminder of their presence.

Here, in our city, we are allowed to have six backyard chickens.  This is according to a city ordinance created several years ago and crafted in response to an increasing interest in urban chicken tending, local food, and backyard homesteading.  So our ladies are legal and appropriately enclosed.

I searched the internet for just the right backyard coop for us, was stunned by the price, and then was delighted to find a well priced used one on Craigslist.  The only problem was that it was located deep in the heart of Vermont.  Jonathan gamely rented a U-Haul trailer and drove across Maine and New Hampshire and then into Vermont, lost his cell phone signal -- and therefore GPS -- and still somehow figured out where to find the seller of the coop.

There were several hours during which I, back here in Portland with the kids, did not hear from him.  A great deal happened to him during these hours, including moving this enormous beast of a henhouse across the seller's yard, getting it into the trailer, being gifted two surprise starter chickens,  then leaving and heading home.  And realizing that since he had no signal, he had no map, and he really had lost track of where he was.

He got incredibly lost.  And not only was he lost, but he was lost with two fowl in his car (this is my new-to-poultry husband who had never been in close proximity to a live chicken anywhere, let alone trapped in a car with two).  And an open U-Haul trailer with a bright red barn-like chicken coop in the back.  There were some double takes.

He headed in the direction that his nose told him to and somehow ended up back in New Hampshire.  Given that New Hampshire is my place of birth and he and I have spent a good deal of time in its northern parts, he thought he recognized where he was.  And he did, but what he recognized was the beginning of the Kancamagus Highway, one of the most beautiful and scenic routes in the region.  But curvy and torturous, steep and decidedly not coop friendly.

I don't know how he did it, but he got that coop home.  And we were unexpectedly chicken owners.  I mean, we planned to have chickens.  But we were being careful, getting their housing set up, fencing built, their permit and food all arranged before the actual chickens arrived.

The two chickens spent the night in a dog crate in the house.  They were very cute and endearing, until we smelled that smell that lets you know why it is a barnyard smell and not a household smell.

And thus began our journey into homesteading, backyardin', and seeing just what we are able to do hidden here behind our urban facade.  Friends arrive at our home and are surprised.  By the large garden.  By the coop just behind the playground.  By the fact that I turned an unused side lawn into a fruit patch.  By 50,000 bees.  One friend, in efforts to make sense of what he was seeing, spied two new pullets in the kale patch.  You have pigeons in the garden! he exclaimed.

We have since found Paris Farmers Union, the one store in town that sells organic chicken feed and this store has become the place we go to ask for advice about our flock when the need arises.  We have not been able to find an urban vet who is willing to care for our birds.  I have learned most of our poultry medical care needs from books.  I have found The Chicken Health Handbook to be very helpful.

How I wish there was a place here in Portland that was for the urban homesteader, much like the Honey Exchange is for the urban beekeeper.  I have found a permaculture group that is amazing, but a place that combines knowledge and products, education and support specific to the urban environment?  That would fill a need.  Something like Asheville's Small Terrain, an Ashley English favorite.

Albeit progress, urban homesteading rules such as the six chicken limit are beginning to be a struggle for me.  I believe that six chickens was chosen to be the limit because it was thought that this would provide enough eggs for a family.  Maybe most families.  But what about the family of five, including one sprouting 12-year-old, that bakes and prepares most of its own food?  I find that I sometimes do not have enough eggs.  Or what about when one or several of your chickens molt or get broody and therefore will go for weeks without laying.  Or the fact that apparently chickens only lay for the beginning years of their lives.  What does one do with the hen who is with us still, but provides no food despite eating the feed we provide?  A bit of flexibility and consideration to backyard specifics would be helpful.  For example, recognition that we have a large and private backyard -- huge by urban standards -- would help.

Also, I have learned that there are differences in chicken nature, one of the most dramatic being whether our chickens are farm raised or backyard raised.  The hens that are the most comfortable with us, that squat when we try to pick them up and submit to our attentions rather than running off, or worse peck at small hands, are raised by families in their backyard, usually with children involved.  I would love to be able to raise some to share with new families entering the backyard chicken movement, as I now know from painful experience that this would lead to greater success for beginners.  The chicken equivalent of package bees rather than nucleus colonies, for example.  But the Portland Ordinance does not allow this kind of mini-hatchery.

I also have struggled with loss of chickens to urban predators, hawks mostly, and therefore have had to introduce new chickens to the mix.  I have approached these introductions like the psychologist I am.  And I know from talking to people more knowledgeable than I am and from reading lots of books that introducing one or two younger, weaker, and outnumbered new hens to an existing flock is very challenging.  We have had some very unsuccessful introductions.  The pecking order?  Aptly named.  So, again, the number limit of six is not in the best interest of this backyard flock.  And I do believe that the ordinance was written in hopes of assuring proper and humane care of the animals.  I am just not sure that it accomplishes this in some cases.

Since those first starter chickens, we have put in a sizable vegetable garden and fruit patch which provide a substantial amount of our own food, fresh in the summer and preserved or frozen in the winter.  We are in our first year of beekeeping, which we hope will increase our plant crops and provide honey in our kitchen.  We tap our sixteen maples and garnered two gallons of syrup this year.  And we have eggs.  Sometimes we wait on just one more so we can complete a recipe.  And sometimes  we have so many that we have to gift some away.

Julia said to me yesterday while she was having a snack: Mommy, we really need to get a cow, because then we could have whole meals that are made by us, in our backyard.

I know. I actually have been looking into that. I am thinking about dairy goats instead of a cow, given where we live.  But it looks like we aren't allowed to have any livestock in our area of Portland. At least not yet.  I am investigating whether there are any other people in Portland that I could join who are trying to change this.

Julia started to look concerned. Would it be something that made you have to go away?

Huh? Oh, you mean, like a job?

No, like Occupy Maine, she said, remembering my explanations of the park near the library with the banners and tents.  Would you have to go live in a tent somewhere??? 

Later in the day, as we drove home, I pointed out -- admittedly with annoyance -- the stumps of the trees close to the road in our front yard that the City of Portland had cut down during their annual tree removal activities. Why these lovely, privacy providing, unassuming trees, one of which was a maple soon to be tap-able, were deemed necessary to remove this year, and not during the many years that they had grown until now, I do not understand. I had counted on that tree in a few years to reach a diameter that was tappable!  I texted Jonathan and he immediately, perhaps impulsively, sent out an email to the city asking them to consult with us before they do so in the future. I fear we are getting a name for ourselves in this fair city of ours. 

Because, of late, Jonathan, on missions mostly pushed by me, has been spending a lot of time in the lines at City Hall.

I have sent him to inquire about: backyard chickens, treehouse building rules, wharf construction for the river, tax payments, outdoor cooking and fires, and most recently questions about whether we are allowed to raise livestock of any kind here. We have almost three acres, a river as a back property line and, until recently, full privacy from the street.  And our neighbors? Well, one neighboring house you can't see through the trees, and the others are not going to complain.  Because they are dead and lie quietly in Ye Olde Burying Ground next door. And, as I said, less than a mile down the road from us Portland's zoning changes from residential to semi-agricultural.

Moreover, I have to believe that this house, built in 1786, has had livestock here of some kind. I am trying to heat this house with the fireplaces in the ways in which it was built and designed, restore a bread oven, turn the fussy flower gardens into a family's food providing vegetable garden, and see the barn as a window into its past. I think a dairy provider of some sort is just what this house needs, and just what we need to continue down our path toward making small differences and changing how we think about food and its role in the environment.

Nicholas gasped when he heard about Jonathan's tree email and repeated City Hall visits. What??? He could get arrested for that!!!

He has good cause for alarm.  Because he would like to know exactly who is going to take care of us when I go live in a tent and Jonathan gets hauled off to the slammer for our backyardin' ways.

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