Hosting pilot projects at community gardens is a nice way to gradually and responsibly ease citizens (both for and against) into the practice of these progressive initiatives.
By Joseph Sneep
Published May 18, 2013
Hamilton's community gardens are uniquely positioned within their neighbourhoods to facilitate the education, training, and proper implementation of domestic food production initiatives within the city, such as urban bee and chicken keeping.
Many of the objections raised against these initiatives arise due to conflicts between neighbors who want bees or chickens and those who don't. However, the gardens are neutral sites, situated at a remove from residences, thereby avoiding the condition of conflict.
In this way, they are ideal locations where citizens who are interested in implementing these initiatives can be trained and educated properly, and where those citizens with concerns can see how these initiatives can be carried out in a way that respects everyone's liberty.
The demand for such initiatives is not going to diminish, because the local food movement is only getting stronger in the city (e.g. The Mustard Seed Co-op is about to take off, and OPIRG McMaster has recently launched the Hamilton urban beekeeping (HUB) working group).
Besides, these initiatives have already been successfully implemented in many other cities (e.g. Guelph, Kingston, Niagara Falls permit coops; Toronto has many urban beekeepers), so why not Hamilton next? Hosting pilot projects at community gardens is a nice way to gradually and responsibly ease citizens (both for and against) into the practice of these progressive initiatives.
There are many arguments against the keeping of chickens in the city. Some rest on aesthetic grounds (e.g. unmaintained coops can be unsightly and smelly). Others have to do with health concerns such as the spread of disease, or the attraction of pests and rodents.
Councillor Terry Whitehead even made the suggestion that if one were to allow chickens, then it's only a matter of time before we have bigger livestock like cows in backyards as well.
According to the City's information report [PDF], so long as chickens are properly cared for, aesthetic and health concerns are nothing to worry about. If chickens are not being properly cared for, fines or other penalties may be implemented, but less than a handful of complaints have been made in each city that has permitted coops.
Before food production became industrialized, many Hamilton families kept chickens, pigeons, and even rabbits in their backyards; those skills and know-how have since been mostly lost, but, if regained, there would be no more trouble with keeping those animals now than there was then.
Keeping chickens involves no greater health concern than owning a cat or dog would, and any risks involved could be sufficiently mitigated by the right ordinances. Also, hens lay eggs without roosters, so no one needs to worry about crack-of-dawn cock-a-doodle-doos.
As for the slippery slope argument, chickens require so much less in the way of resources and space than big livestock that the comparison is unfair. Indeed, their low maintenance requirements are precisely what make chickens so appropriate for an urban setting.
All of this would be evident after a successful pilot project at one of Hamilton's community gardens.
The concerns associated with urban beekeeping revolve around two main issues: 1) bees occasionally sting people; and, 2) swarming.
At a community garden, the distance between the hive and neighbourhood residences is great enough, and there is enough food available for them on-site, that one can enjoy a ginger ale outside without having to worry about attracting too much attention from the bees - it is rather wasps that one needs to more often worry about.
Wasps have a much more testy temperament than bees, which are generally docile by comparison, though the two are easily confused from their appearance.
The issue of swarming brings us to another set of objections to urban domestic food production involving animals. This set is based not on dangers posed to humans, but rather to the animals involved in these initiatives.
Swarming occurs when a hive has reached a higher population density than what the resources available to the hive in the surrounding area can sustain. This causes the old queen to leave the hive with a bunch of workers in tow in order to start a new one somewhere else. They settle on a new spot, swarm it, and, if ideal, begin construction.
In this circumstance, the bees are intent on their work and will not sting anyone so long as they are not bothered. If a hive is swarming in an inconvenient spot, local beekeepers can be called in to remove it safely and quickly.
However, swarming may occur more frequently within an urban environment because there are less nectar resources available than in the countryside; and, if everyone had a hive in their backyard, the bees would be forced to compete with each other, honey yields would be lower, and urban hives may become even more stressed.
This suggests that it may be best for the bees if urban hives were kept at distances sufficiently far apart to promote hive health and discourage swarming (e.g. at least the distance between two community gardens).
Those concerned for chickens in urban environments will likely object on grounds that animals should not be used merely as a means to an end. So, the slaughtering of chickens or using them just for their eggs would be considered morally wrong on this view. Presumably, using bees just for their honey would be wrong as well.
However, city ordinances can be designed such that the animals involved enjoy a high quality of life. For instance, an ordinance might stipulate that only so many chickens may be kept in one coop, and the coop must be sufficiently large that the animals are happy.
Likewise for the bees: only so many hives per neighbourhood may be permitted. Neglect would be punishable, and the punishments enforced in the same way the city deals with neglect of more conventional pets. Permits could be issued at a small fee to account for any additional enforcement costs.
City ethical standards should be higher than those of factory farming; and, animals and humans alike would benefit from the resulting emotionally rewarding relationships.
As for the slaughtering of chickens, so long as the skills are in place to make sure the bird suffers as little as possible, is it not better to use every last bit of the animal, precisely out of a deep respect for it and the precious resources it consumed? But no matter, keeping egg-laying hens is enough for a beginning, and the more controversial issue of slaughtering may be dealt with later.
The local food movement is about de-intensifying food production, regaining confidence-building skills and know-how, and about showing people where their food comes from in order to develop an appreciation of the real cost of food: there's nothing like the pride of eating what you grow.
The educational, psychological, and social benefits of having chickens and bees in one's neighbourhood far outweigh the minor difficulties associated with them. The challenges of keeping chickens and bees today are the same ones many Hamiltonians easily dealt with fifty years ago, and are not significantly different from keeping dogs or cats.
If one wants bees and chickens in one's neighbourhood, or if one wants higher ethical standards for industrially farmed animals, then one needs practical demonstrations of the preferable way to do things.
Community gardens would be an excellent venue for such educative workshops and demonstrations since they are politically neutral sites between neighbors. Products from the bees and chickens could be used by community gardens to help offset associated costs, by selling honey for example, or eggs, or even chicken-poop as fertilizer.
These workshops would also foster better understanding between rural and urban ways of life. Hosting these pilot projects at community gardens would gradually and responsibly prepare the public for a safe and useful progressive move that Hamilton really should make.
In the meantime, City Hall can figure out the details of what models of implementation would work best for the city across all its wards.