the state

– of chicken myths. by vastate
Wednesday, 22 April 2009, 18:21
Filed under: -of green, -of harrisonburg, -of jhumphrey, -of localism, -of politik

i was curious about what’s going on around town, chicken-wise.


i knew that there was some recent city council activity, but wasn’t sure of the details.  so i got the skinny.

and here is the chicken update, courtesy of harrisonburg backyard chicken project participant, nicholas detweiler-stoddard:

Good Evening Jill and Happy Earth Day!

At the April 14th council meeting we were only able to briefly introduce who we are as a group (we were not on the official agenda). Our official presentation will be at the upcoming council this Tuesday the 28th at 7pm. While it does not appear that there will be space for public comment at this meeting, we are hoping to have a large number of supporters turn out to show their support by their presence.

At this upcoming meeting, the Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project will simply present its case for an ordince change and the council will vote whether or not to send this on to the planning commision to draft such a change. Once such an ammendment is put together, it would then be taken before another city council meeting (along with a time for public comment) to be approved.

We are expecting continued opposition from the Virginia Poultry Federation (on the 14th, Pres. Hobey Bauhan stood to express his deep concerns about the biosecurity risk our chickens will pose), but we hope to have Tad Williams, a poultry/CAFO inspector for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), speak to the relatively inconsequential disease risk that backyard flocks pose. We will present our reasons for keeping backyard hens, address some of the main concerns that have come up (public nuisance fears, biosecurity risks, and increased burden to city resources), and offer some specifics we think should be included in a pro-chicken ordinance.

If this does go through, HBCP hopes to offer itself as an active public resource for those interested in engaging in urban chicken keeping as a more sustainable means of connecting to their food sources.

See the attached document for some of the benefits of urban hens as well as a few of our suggested ordiance specifics. Also attached is a study by John Hopkins School of Public Health essentially debunking the claim that backyard flocks spread avian flu. The other is a study put out by GRAIN studying some of the real causes behind AI outbreaks in poultry flocks.

Thanks for your interest. If you haven’t already, check out the handful of comments on the mayor’s blog and leave some of your own! (

Peace be with you,
Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard
Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project participant

you heard the man!  go post your opinions for kai’s reading pleasure.

also, in case you get involved in any backyard chicken debates around the water cooler,  check out this great link from the aforementioned tucson chicken guru.


it neatly outlines four of the most popular anti-urban chicken stances (including those proposed by Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation in the recent rocktown weekly article), and offers these myth-busting talking points:

  1. Chickens produce too much poop – the fact of the matter is that dogs and cats produce way more excrement in a week than a flock of four hens. And while the chicken manure can be converted easily into fertilizer to help your garden grow, for health reasons, you cannot do the same with dog and cat poop.
  2. It’ll cost too much to enforce an urban chicken law – the kind of people who want to raise chickens in their backyards for eggs are doing so (mostly) out of a sense responsibility for taking control of their food sourcing and reducing their carbon footprint. These are not the kinds of folks who’ll be requiring animal control to come out and bust chicken owners for too many animals making too much noise (see: dogs).
  3. Owning chickens means hosting salmonella in your backyard – the food safety folks have done a great job sensitizing the public to take care in handling chicken so as to avoid salmonella. The simpletons spreading salmonella fears as an argument against urban chickens don’t seem to understand that salmonella is a problem of safe food handling, not of responsible pet ownership.
  4. Backyard chickens will spread the bird flu – the fact is, it’s through backyard flocks that we might insulate ourselves from the spread of the H5N1 virus and the like that tear through the million-bird in-bred flocks of large-scale agribusiness. But, of all the arguments against urban chickens, this is the point most often deployed as an end-of-discussion “so there.”

6 Comments so far
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i’m interested to see what happens with this. i don’t have a problem with people responsibly keeping/raising animals, but i think you bring up a good point about the dogs in the reponse to myth 2. there’s a beagle in our neighborhood that we’d like to see something horrible happen to on account of how often we wake up to it’s insufferable baying. we want to be good neighbors and so haven’t called the police about it, but also feel kind of weird about having to go knock on their door and say ‘don’t you hear your dog barking? don’t you think you should put it inside?’ (all that to say, i do see potentially problematic issues with enforcement).

which kind of leads me to the other thing i was thinking of….

i will pretty much guarantee that the majority of complaints will not be filed against people who are raising chickens ‘out of a sense of responsibility for taking control of their food sourcing and reducing their carbon footprint.’ i think that they’ll be filed against hispanic folks and will likely be motivated by more than just people’s problems with chickens. (not saying that i think people’s racism should keep this from happening, just that it has the potential to blow things a bit out of proportion).

i think if proper regulations are put in place, communicated to all chicken owners (not just the earth hugging variety), and enforced then this could be a good thing for our city.

Comment by seth

in response, i raise two points:

1.) there is beaucoup precedent for urban chickens in the united states. including in cities with a hispanic-heavy population – such as tucson. so, i agree with you that our dearest racist neighbors should play absolutely no role whatsoever in the chicken decision. as disgustingly present as it may be, we should refuse to give racial bias enough credit to be a talking point in this discussion.

2.) what do you think about the fact that our city’s huge chicken-centric industrial focus has and will play a large part in how all of this will play out. the laws exist because the industry wants them. no other reason. big business in harrisonburg is getting it’s proverbial feathers ruffled.

also – i want to clarify that i did not write those lovely chicken myth-busters. they came from a great site called

Comment by vastate

right on,
i do think it’s crazy that we’d let the poultry industry dictate whether or not individuals can raise their own chickens, but i’m not completely certain as to what dog they have in the fight. it seems like they’re saying there are health/safety concerns which you’ve roundly (and seemingly soundly) refuted, but that leaves us to wonder about their actual motivation. it seems to be sort of an unspoken assumption that they’re worried about how this will affect their bottom line, but i have a hard time believing that a modicum of citizens raising chickens in the small town in which a poultry company is located would effect them at all.

what do you think?

Comment by seth

I think it is interesting that the poultry industry is concerned about illnesses that may spread from the city chickens to their poultry farms in the county….especially considering that fact that the county already allows backyard chickens. So, given a basic understanding of geography, one would assume that if the county chickens aren’t spreading disease then the city chickens will be even less of a threat. Maybe I’m missing something.

Comment by Erin

just for clarification,
the county doesn’t categorically allow chickens. spoke to someone today who said their land was rr1 (i think), which is for residential/recreational use. my understanding from speaking to her is that the only animal she can keep (other than normally accepted pets) is a horse.

Comment by seth

[…] 22:43 Filed under: -of green, -of harrisonburg, -of jhumphrey here’s an update on recent harrisonburg backyard chicken project activities.  this group has been working hard for the legalization of urban fowl… After […]

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