Then, and now: the joys — and truths — of urban chicken-raising

Three cheers — and a hearty cock-a-doodle-doo — to the Burnsville boy who persuaded the City Council to relax its animal control ordinance and allow the keeping of chickens in town.

Stefan Remund, 11, was in the audience and beaming Tuesday night when the council directed its staff to revise the ordinance, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. He and his seven backyard chickens were busted by animal control officers in September.

I don’t recall having to fight City Hall when I went into the chicken-raising business when I was about Stefan’s age, half a century ago, in the urban heart of Valley City, N.D. In fact, I don’t believe I sought any go-ahead from my dad, either, which must have led to a spirited “talk” I’ve long since forgotten.

It’s a great learning experience, Stefan, though some of the lessons will be hard.

Price has changed
Raising chickens legally is going to cost you a little more than I had to lay out in the late 1950s. The new Burnsville ordinance will mandate a $50 permit, for starters, which would have been more than enough to discourage my financial backers. Also, you’ll need a certain amount of fencing, even though you’ll be limited to four hens. The Burnsville council must include at least one member with rural roots, because the new ordinance is to include a ban on roosters. More on that later.

I had no permit to buy, my brother helped me build a large enclosure with used wire mesh, and I believe I paid all of 6 cents apiece for my chicks at the feed store down the block. I want to say I started with two dozen birds, or a little under $1.50 worth. Feed took only a few more nickels.

I could have recouped that investment several times over by selling the chickens once they were pot-sized. Dad, after all, soon was volunteering to do the slaughtering for free.

But these were not dinner-table commodities to me. They were pets, on a par with my painted turtle and canary, not far below the dog and several ranks above any cat in the neighborhood.

Stefan may know this. He may have learned it while he and his chicks waited for the wheels of democracy to turn in Burnsville. But chicks grow. They change.

From cuddly puffs of yellow to …
Before long, some of my cuddly puffs of yellow had become noisy, off-white roosters, able to escape their wire enclosure and determined to announce the coming of each dawn as if it were the last. This they did from the front doorstep of our neighbor, a kindly old jeweler named Carl, who smiled the first few times he told my dad about his 4:30 a.m. wakeup call but soon dropped the smile.

“They’ll have to go,” my dad told me.

My chicks had lost the charm of youth. They strutted and preened like so many obnoxious teenagers. They didn’t smell as nice as when I brought them home from the feed store, either.

But I was sad. Dad saw that, and he tried to reassure me that it would be better for all concerned, including my chickens.

“We’ll take them out to Uncle Ragnvald’s farm,” he said. “They’ll like it out there.”

And so for a time I enjoyed picturing my chickens growing old together while scratching their way around my uncle’s expansive farm, laying eggs and socializing with the other farm animals — just like in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

It doesn’t work that way, Stefan. Weeks, maybe months after your chickens are grown and they are dispatched to your relative’s farm out by Northfield or Olivia, you will ride out with your family to visit, and dinner will be fried chicken. My Aunt Signe made great fried chicken.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Bravin on 01/16/2009 - 03:50 pm.

    Hey Chuck!

    Are you suggesting that Stefan will have to get rid of his chickens before too long? Don’t count on it. Times have changed since the late 1950’s in the “urban heart of Valley City, N.D.”. Our country’s population is much more urbanized than it used to be. People have lost touch with where their food comes from. Stefan is part of a huge movement of urban dwellers who are figuring out how to regain that connection. Here in Portland, Oregon we have a thriving urban farming movement and backyard chicken movement. I call them movements because there is a huge wave of interest building in urban agriculture. Stefan is just one of those “early adopters” you hear about with new and innovative ideas. Our next generation of farmers will come from urban areas. They will grow in urban areas. Stefan is just ahead of the curve. Go Stefan!

    Here are a few of the urban farming efforts I mention that are happening in Portland.

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