Ever since we brought our first two hens home we have been candid about the process of raising them. The major platform for communicating about backyard chickens has been our blog. We have also attended Toronto Food Policy Council meetings promoting the legalization of backyard hen keeping, we have invited people over to meet and handle them, and we have communicated and shared advice with other hen owners. This level of uninhibited frankness has lead to many people knowing about our three backyard hens. We always hoped that the clear evidence the hens gave that they were suitable pets would dissuade anyone who met them from filing a complaint to the authorities. The lack of any bad odor, their calm and gentle demeanor, and the benefits of keeping them, both eggs and manure. Apparently, this wasn't enough, on November the 9th we received a notice from Animal Protection Services that we had to remove our beloved hens on the basis of a complaint.
The notice told us that we had to remove the "prohibited animal" within five days. After the bylaw officer paid a visit my fist instinct was to seek out who had filed the complaint. The reality is that the identity of whoever complained is of no consequence. Curmudgeon's who cant mind their own business will always exist. What is of consequence is that this law exists in the first place.
Restrictive laws on egg production don't only exist in our urban backyards. They exist across the province in many sustainable mixed agriculture farms. These are farms people believe to be the way of the future, that will take us away from our reliance on industrial agriculture. Ontario's Livestock and Livestock Product Act requires that all eggs be graded prior to sale. This means that the farmer has to take their eggs to a grading station. Here the eggs are washed and inspected for defects with the purpose of maximizing the quality and safety of eggs sold to consumers.
This limits a farmer who chooses to forgo the egg grading station to selling their eggs only at a farm stand on their property. The majority of the eggs that one may buy at any farmers market in Toronto are ungraded and so illegal. The reasoning behind a farmer avoiding the egg grading station is that it removes their control over the production of the egg that they provide to their customer at the farmers market, CSA member or a partnered restaurant or shop. This is because the eggs that a farmer takes to the egg grading station, particularly a small farmer who may only have a couple hundred hens, doesn't always get back the eggs that he takes in. This means that despite all the farmers efforts to raise the hens in a manner that is in synergy with the farm, they may receive eggs from a producer that makes none of these efforts. Egg grading also takes time, which reduces the freshness and taste of the eggs for those who will be eating them.
These restrictions to egg production are an affront to a farmers autonomy over his produce, and to the urban consumers food security. It limits our ability to access adequate eggs that maintain a sustainable practice and ecological integrity. Similarly the removal of our backyard hens has impaired our food security. Not only in the sense that it limits us from having a good source of protein from our own backyard when we can't afford to purchase alternatives or if their was a global or local crisis that limited access to food. Removing our backyard hens puts us in a position of dual insecurity in the sense it limits our ability to produce an egg of finest quality, as the farmer does, but also our ability to consume an egg, as the farm member does, that is lower in cholesterol, higher in protein, and vastly superior in flavour.
After brooding about this reality for a couple of days it became time to decide what we should do with our three hens in order to avoid the astronomical fine. Fantasies were abound. We could set up a rotational grazing method that would involve hopping the coop from backyard to backyard around the city leaving bylaw officers confused and bewildered. We could replace our hens with up to 30 pigeons or a dozen meat rabbits just to piss off whichever person filed a complaint. Raising these animals in such high numbers in Toronto is legal, I suspect because the squab and rabbit production boards aren't as influential as the Egg Farmers of Ontario are.
After setting these fantasies aside we decided it would be best to let them retire at our friend Leland's farm in Campbellford. There they would join a motley crew of 20 other chickens, and the lucky gals will meet their first roosters. Prior to their big move to the country we decided we would like to have front yard chickens for a couple of days. The ladies clucked around the front lawn, excited to eat new patches of grass and dig in undug areas of soil. Baylik was also excited to get to know the car, luckily she didn't do any scratching. It also allowed passersby to see the hens and ask questions. It even gave a little two year old her first chance to meet and pet a chicken, her mother was pleased.
Luckily Leland and his mum Debbie had constructed a new coop just days before we took the hens up. They had also removed all the fencing around the coop area allowing the flock entirely free range of the property. Our plan was to introduce the hens at night, but they accidentally got into the rest of the flock. I am happy this accident was made because it was very amusing watching the hens interact with their new flock, and particularly meet a rooster for the first time. I just narrowly missed seeing their introduction to the goats, but I definitely heard their startled reaction, the goats didn't seem to mind much. According to Leland they have adjusted to their new home very nicely and still scratch around in their little group of three.
People keep asking me if a cried when I dropped off the chickens at their new home. I didn't. Nor did I cry when I ate the last egg, fried sunny side up and served on top of braised short ribs from Weber's family farm and shooting thyme from our windowsill, though I was very close. I think I may cry when I have to shell out money on a dozen eggs for the first time in eight months, and after this experience, I'll make sure they are an illegal dozen from a farmer I know.
This will be my last post. I've thoroughly enjoyed this urban agriculture experiment from the gardening to the dinners. It has inspired me, among other things, to go work on a farm for the year of 2011.