This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Twenty-two years ago, when Merryl Winstein began raising chickens in her own Webster Groves backyard, the practice brought up certain words for some people -- like low-class.
“Now, there are other words,” says Winstein, “like sustainability, low-carbon footprint and green living.”
In the more than two decades since her first chickens began laying their first eggs, a lot has changed. Raising backyard chickens is seen, by many, as sustainable and a way to have some control over their food source.
It’s much easier to find resources now, Winstein says, than when she began and could find only two books out there from the 1950s and '60s. Now there’s a Meetup group for backyard chicken enthusiasts, a Facebook page for urban backyard chicken raisers in St. Louis, and numerous ways to meet people involved and get more information, including Maplewood’s first ever Chickenfest last October.
Ordinances are also evolving to deal with the practice. In Richmond Heights, you can raise up to five chickens, thanks to an ordinance that came in effect last year. In Maplewood as of 2011, you can raise up to six hens. In other places, like University City, quarterly inspections are required, which cost $75 each; there's a permit fee of $150; and the city limits the number of permits it'll issue each year. And in Brentwood, chickens aren’t allowed at all.
Winstein started her own journey to care for and raise chickens (as well as goats) with lots of paperwork, calls and trips to city hall and several appearances before the Webster Groves city council.
“Back when I had them, I had to pretend they were pets,” she says. “I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s a forward-thinking thing to do now.”
All the chicks are doing it
“It’s wildly popular,” Jean Ponzi says about the growing desire to raise your own chickens.
Ponzi, green resources manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has seen interest in the practice grow as more and more people want to have a real connection with their food source and as more and more people care about the quality of their food. It’s a way to feel reconnected to nature, she says. Chickens are interesting and fairly low maintenance, and children love caring for them.
To Winstein, who also makes her own cheese, the quality of the eggs her own chickens produce is matchless, she says. It feels good to eat healthfully, and years ago, she wanted her own children to reap the benefits of a farm life that happened to be in the suburbs. Minding chickens taught them to be self-sufficient, to have discipline, to stick with a job even when it’s not so pretty and to care for something else.
Tim Dunn, a city councilman in Maplewood’s second ward, has five chickens currently. In Maplewood, he says, 36 people have licenses for backyard chickens; six alone joined that number in the last two months.
Last year, Friends of the City of Richmond Heights held an information session on raising backyard chickens and 96 people attended, says Linda Lieb, who is on the sustainability committee. This year, a recent meeting drew 92 people.
For Lieb, the attractions are the same as for Dunn, Winstein and Ponzi. Plus, she says, chickens are small and not very loud. (Most cities don’t allow roosters.) Their waste is compostable, she says, and they even can eat some table scraps.
Raising chickens for their eggs isn’t dollar to dollar more cost-effective. You have to build or buy a pen, buy chicks and then maintain them. But that may be comparing apples to oranges, Lieb agrees. Organic and even local food, for instance, isn’t always cheaper, though some people feel it’s a worthwhile investment.
“Some people are doing it because that’s what they want to do,” Lieb says.
And as more and more people get interested, cities are trying to keep up. That’s why Maplewood passed its ordinance in 2011, Dunn says, laughing.
“It’s a national phenomenon,” he says. “You want to keep up, you know.”
On the books
When Lieb first moved to St. Louis from Huntsville, Ala., a few years ago, she and her husband thought about raising backyard chickens themselves.
So Lieb called Richmond Heights to see what its ordinances said about the matter.
“And they said, unofficially, if you do it, we’ll look the other way.”
But Lieb felt that if she was going to do it, she should work to make it OK for everyone to do, instead of sneaking around. She was asked to join the board of Friends of the City of Richmond Heights. Around that time, the city was beginning to write an ordinance that would haven been restrictive and expensive for backyard chicken owners, and Lieb began working to make it one that would instead be resident-friendly.
The new ordinance, which went into effect in January 2012, allows residents to have five chickens and no roosters. Right now, Lieb says, four permits have been issued and complaints have numbered zero.
When complaints come, though, in other cities, they’re often for noise or nuisance reasons. That ruffles the feathers of the backyard chicken advocates, pun intended, because such issues are a fact of life with dogs.
When facing opposition in Maplewood, Dunn says, he made the chickens vs. dogs argument.
“What I said was, look, dogs are louder than chickens and we allow dogs.”
Winstein has faced the same battle over the years.
“Dogs have all these rights,” says Winstein, who also owns a dog.
But unlike dogs, chickens don’t make much noise. And if chickens are properly cared for, which most ordinances specify, smell shouldn’t be an issue either.
If people try to keep too many chickens or those chickens aren’t properly cared for, Lieb agrees, the smell could lead to neighbor complaints.
The real issue, Winstein says, is that ordinances are needed to deal with the problems. The cities with the best ones have mechanisms for addressing problems when they come up and a fair system for giving notice if the chickens are causing a public nuisance. They also allow a decent amount of time to remedy the problem.
Cities have ordinances to deal with problems, she says, not to regulate people's opinions about what their neighbors should or should not be allowed to do.
Even though Webster Groves is making some changes to its current ordinance, Winstein says, she thinks it’s a good model.
And Maplewood, Dunn says, is a live and let live community, and that approach applies to backyard chickens as well.
“We respond to complaints,” he says. “And that’s how we run the city."
No room for interpretation
Unless you’re on two or more acres, chickens are not allowed right now in Ballwin. In Creve Coeur, you can’t have them on lots smaller than 7,500 square feet. Up to four chickens are allowed in Ellisville and the same in Festus, if you’re on half an acre or more. There’s no limit in Kirkwood, Ladue, Rock Hill or unincorporated St. Louis County.
In her search to help the people of Richmond Heights understand backyard chickens, Lieb has compiled and updated a Google Doc with information about several cities in the county, their guidelines, the numbers of permits issued and complaints. St. Louis, she reports, has allowed fowl for the last 20 years; it has had 11 complaints in the last 12 months, all for chickens roaming.
In her report, Lieb includes resources, books, online discussion forums and local workshops and classes for people who want to learn more, as well as a sample petition form for getting ordinances passed or changed in your own city.
And, for now, she and her husband are waiting until they take early retirement to begin raising their own chickens in Richmond Heights.
The practice, while both a trend and a throwback to days of living off the land, isn’t without some issues.
Cleanliness in handling chickens is, of course, crucial.
"That's important with any kind of animal," Lieb says. "Our city council brought that up; any time you handle a turtle, a rabbit, anything, those issues are the same with chickens."
Winstein had to deal with this in 1998, when Webster Groves started to question the health safety of backyard chickens. In response, Winstein called the Missouri Health Department.
"He said salmonella is caused by a break in the chain of safe food handling practices," she says. "He said it has never been shown that people who work on farms with chickens get salmonella any more often than anyone else."
The USDA offers some simple tips on how to keep backyard birds healthy, and the Humane Society has also chirped in on the positives and negatives of backyard chickens, recommending people consider adopting adult birds and offering tips on their care, protection and maintenance.
Twenty-two years ago, when Winstein set about to raise backyard chickens, she was told, again and again, that Webster Groves only allowed cats, dogs, birds and fish. When she finally asked to see the ordinance, it read that ducks, turtles, pigeons, doves, rabbits and chickens were prohibited, unless that person obtained a permit.
In many places around the metro area, getting and keeping that permit has gotten much easier than it was for Winstein. Still, don’t count on other people to interpret your own city’s law for you, she says.
“You need to know what your law says."
Raising backyard chickens can become part of a person’s life, she says, it brings food, a fascination with the chickens themselves and interest from friends.
But the first step, Winstein says, and the one she took two decades ago, is reading the actual ordinance.