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Flight Lines: Keeping hens, more than just a food source

Hens peck for food in an enclosure in Catalina, Ariz. Submitted photo by Bubba Schwartz

“Going down there to tend to my birds is a joyful and wonderful part of my day, I look forward to it every time,” my friend Bubba Schwartz told me recently. He was referring to the chicken pen where 11 domesticated hens reside in a corner of his yard in Catalina, Ariz.

Both of my parents grew up on farms with chickens. While I did not, I still recall well visiting my grandparents and helping with their chores, either cleaning the coop or gathering eggs. Even more memorable was the rich buttery flavor and color of the eggs. Sadly, most of the current generation of breakfast eaters won’t experience this.

Nothing available at the grocery store today can come close. Obviously a wide taste chasm exists between farm fresh eggs where tedious care is provided the birds and factory farms where economy of scale is paramount.

Homeowners looking to keep a small flock for personal use run into a range of acceptance from communities across the country. In some areas this practice is fairly common, in others, not so much, including West Fargo.

For reasons that mostly baffle me, the city of West Fargo does not allow this practice while nearby cities like Fargo, Grand Forks, and Fergus Falls do. Our specific ordinance states, “No Person shall keep, feed, or maintain fowl or other non-domestic animals of any kind within the City…”

Nearly four years ago a young couple, Justin and Ashley Morken, attempted to get the city to adopt an ordinance to allow a small number of hens to be kept on private property. According to a May 5, 2010 Forum article, “The Morkens said allowing chickens in the city would promote eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyles, which have grown more common among younger generations.”

The proposal was ultimately shot down after a heated 40-minute discussion at the next commission meeting, according to a subsequent Forum article. The usual viewpoints were put forth against it: Threat to property values and neighbors not wanting to see chickens in town. Morken’s neighbor Kim Schaeffer was quoted at the time, “You should build on a farm if you want farm animals.”

As a lifelong North Dakotan and self-described Libertarian, these arguments fall flat. Justin’s father, developer Jim Morken, nailed it for me when he was quoted as saying, “Any time we can grant more rights we should—as long as it doesn’t provide a nuisance or is a hazard or a danger to somebody…you’ve got a lot more problems with dogs than you would ever have with hens.” I second that. Although the stray cats frequenting my yard are a bigger issue for me.

It seems as if many of us have lost the attachment to our rural roots where the traditions of inviolate property rights and live-and-let-live ruled the day. Instead we have become, well, urban and somewhat petty. Granted, a reasonable level of civic conformity is necessary for a smoothly functioning community, yet a small hen enclosure behind appropriate fencing (invisible to neighbors) doesn’t seem to rattle common sense.

The notion of homegrown food and produce is gaining momentum worldwide. Local sources of such products are being actively sought by a growing number of consumers. Organic is everywhere. Community gardens have sprung up in many places for those who lack the yard space for one. The keeping of hens fits squarely into this mindset in a lot of places.

Apart from the obvious advantages of growing one’s own food, there is a level of well-being that surrounds a person in the company of animals. Ask the folks who bring pets into nursing homes, or promote horse riding for handicapped individuals. Something magical and spiritual takes place; a serenity once commonly felt among our rural ancestors. “It is such a satisfying thing—a hobby that I enjoy—it gives me great purpose,” said Schwartz, adding, “It’s so relaxing, like getting a massage.”

My New Year’s wish is to one day see West Fargo revisit this issue. A well-crafted ordinance limiting the number of hens (no one needs roosters making a racket), defining the size of the enclosure and describing the permitting process, should not be that difficult for a young, vibrant, forward-looking city to pass.