Blogging Bayport Alameda

August 14, 2013

Susan Davis: Animal Farm Re-Dux

Filed under: Alameda, Guest blogging — Lauren Do @ 6:00 am

A funny thing happened on my way to the feed store last spring.

A brouhaha erupted in Alameda over backyard farm animals.

It all started when a group of Alamedans, many of whom already have backyard chickens, started working with the city to clarify the existing (albeit ancient) ordinances governing who can keep which kinds of animals (including fowl) where on their property.

For instance, the old ordinance said we could keep 5 full-sized pigs in our yards. The new proposal capped it at 2 mini pigs. The old ordinance didn’t stipulate how many sheep or goats one could have here; the proposed ordinance capped their numbers at three (or four, if they’re dwarf goats), plus provided minimum space requirements.

In other words, the new ordinance didn’t say, “Be fruitful and multiply farm animals!” It said, “You can still be fruitful by producing your own goat’s milk, sheep’s wool, and eggs in your backyard, just as you have always been allowed to be. But here are some new limits as to just how much you can multiply those animals.”

Feathers started flying at the first public meeting on the proposed ordinance, when a local woman suggested the project was being driven by people who wanted to set up backyard slaughter facilities and that the updated ordinance would result in an overabundance of farm animals across the island, along with pests, disease, and the gruesome sights and sounds of animals being killed.

Similar concerns were raised in this space, when Lauren posted about the ordinance here, here, and here and then more recently here, when she gave a gentle “yay” to the idea of creating an Alameda Community Farm in the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve.

The number of comments and intensity of rhetoric took me by surprise – in part because I grew up in a farm town and have lived with and worked around animals for most of my life and have written about them off and on throughout my career. But after looking back over the several hundred (wow!) comments posted about backyard farm animals, what really strikes me is how alienated our modern culture is from the very animals that provide some of our most basic foodstuffs — eggs, milk, cheese, butter, and various kinds of meat – as well as wool.

It’s not like we don’t already share our lives – our homes, our beds, our yards, even, sometimes, our offices and hospitals – with other types of animals, all of whom could cause public health issues if not well taken care of. All of these animals poop; in fact, we let indoor cats, rabbits, birds, and “pocket pets” poop inside our houses! And all of our pet animals attract vectors (e.g., fleas, ticks, and yes – I know it’s gross — sometimes even flies and maggots) when not well tended, as well as a rather daunting array of internal parasites.

But “farm animals” seem to be somehow “other.” Home stores feature a plethora of farm animal kitsch (think dish towels with hens on them and pig-shaped cutting boards). But real “farm animals” strike people as yucky – not only dirty and smelly (and they poop!), but somehow lacking in the appeal (e.g., cuteness, intelligence, specialized behaviors, a capacity to bond with humans) that our “pets” have.

I’m not going to go into how cool farm animals can be – how my eldest and biggest hen, Henrietta, for instance, sleeps every night with one wing draped over the back of my smallest hen, Mel or how baby goats will clamber into your lap to snuffle your neck or nibble your eyelashes. But I will say that most of us who have spent time around farm animals – outside of factory farm setting, that is — are aware that they are, well, individual creatures with personalities and behaviors that can be just as interesting as “pets,” like cats and dogs. Never mind the fact that they produce eggs and milk and wool.

Which brings me to the idea of that community farm.

I realize this idea came to the Sweeney park-planning table a little late. But I think having a common area where people can participate in raising farm animals (the current proposal would be to have people buy a “share” in animals at the farm) could be a hugely good thing in Alameda. It would provide community members with a chance to see who these animals are and how they can be raised outside a factory farming situation, to have contact with these “other” species who are so much a part of – yet apart from – our lives. The farm would provide food – maybe some of it could be donated to the Food Bank. It could be a place where kids and adults could get trained in animal husbandry – which makes me wonder if there could be a connection to 4-H or the Alameda Point Collaborative. (Disclaimer: I have not talked to Doug Biggs about this.) And it could provide a centralized place for people who want backyard farm animals, but maybe not in their backyard, to explore this avocation.

Similar programs – sometimes referred to as “community farms” or “city farms” — exist in other areas, including Simsbury, CT, Natick, MA, South Providence, RI, and London. And so even knowing that this idea isn’t on the current list of projects for the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve, I have to wonder: couldn’t we at least consider it?

Susan Davis was the most prolific writer of the former In Alameda gang. She knows more about education policy and backyard chickens than your average Alamedan.



  1. Thanks for keeping this on the front burner, Susan. (Though I haven’t heard any indications from Alex at the city where they are with the regulation updates, so maybe it is on the back burner for the City.)

    I love the idea of the community Farm. And I think Jean Sweeney would have too — I understood that she grew up on a farm and loved animals. I got a chance to tour the park a few weeks ago, and I’m sure there is a corner available that could be used for this idea. We just have to muster enough community support for the project.

    Comment by therealdanwood — August 14, 2013 @ 7:35 am

  2. I too thank you for keeping this on the front burner and also wonder where the City is in the process of revising the ordinance. I agree that well, yes, my chickens DO have individual personalities. But even if they didn’t, they add a touch of the comedic to our lives so endearing it’s hard to imagine life without them at this point. Re-capturing that connection to the animals that feed and clothe us feels organic and, well, just right. It’s a re-awakening of sorts, and vital to the re-greening of a Planet.

    Comment by Gaby — August 14, 2013 @ 10:03 am

  3. I think the community farm idea should be tried. The most important element is getting the right people involved to staff and run it. Start small and if that works, look to expand.

    Comment by Denise Shelton — August 14, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  4. Green Acres – Arnold gets the Swine Flu

    Comment by Ziffels get Sniffles — August 14, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  5. If The Farm thing doesn’t work out

    Comment by Ziffels get Sniffles — August 14, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  6. So, I did my share of neck stretchin’ and feather pluckin’ on a large lot in Oakland. It’s just part of having chickens. Whether you buy your chicks from the Sears farm catalog which I did, or incubate your own eggs which I did, you get about half hens and half cockerels. You gotta do something with all but one of those cockerels. Either wring their necks, or let ‘m go in your neighbor’s yard. The process is pretty messy, and no matter how clever you are, you end up with blood, guts, feathers, and heads on the ground. In the moderate-lot-sized Fernside area, I wouldn’t subject my neighbors to that, and I would hope they would return the favor.

    As for larger animals, I don’t think pigs, goats, sheep, etc., belong in Alameda residential areas. (And, no, I don’t think the pig riding in the stroller is cute, either.) There should be a minimum acreage requirement for them, on the order of an acre of vacant land per animal.

    I thank Susan for giving us references to other urban farms. Because of the reference to the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve, I looked at the references, to check acreage, animals, and finances. I found this:

    – Community Farm of Simsbury, CT: 140 acres, nothing about finances, except for 501(c)3 corporation.

    – Natuck, MA: 27 acres on which Natick Community Organic Farm sits was secured in perpetuity as conservation land. The land was put under the auspices of the Town of Natick’s Conservation Commission. Natick Community Organic Farm Inc. took over paying the full salaries of its Director, Assistant Director, and Farm Administrator, well over $140,000/year.

    – South Providence, RI, Urban Farm: 3/4 acre, *no* animals, annual budget $825,000, 89% of which comes from donors.

    – London: 20 different farms to tour through this web site. I looked at the one with the photo of the chicken, Hounslow Urban Farm, says it has cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, poultry, rabbits and ponies on 29 acres.

    The conclusion I draw is that existing urban farms with farm animals are all larger than the 22 acres of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve. The urban farm without animals is roughly the same size to the community garden already planned for the preserve. Finally, urban farms do not support themselves, but require a significant (i.e., 90%) subsidy.

    Comment by Tom Schweich — August 14, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  7. Tom has the complete answer in his comment.

    Comment by Suzanne — August 14, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  8. #6, Tom, I think that if the community supports the idea of a “community” or “city” farm, it could be adapted to meet the size/nature of the site. The current proposal from the Alameda Community Farm folks, for instance, is for just 5 acres (“small,” as Denise recommends). (You can see the link here:

    I also don’t believe that having chickens (or chicks) necessitates slaughter. It is possible to buy chicks that are already sexed — or to buy pullets or mature hens, if need be. And many backyard chicken raisers get rid of unwanted roosters by giving them to farms or breeders (especially in the case of heritage breeds), or advertising them locally. I have faith that this is an issue, too, that community members could work out. It just takes a little flexibility, creativity, and willingness to brainstorm about what would work where.

    Comment by Susan Davis — August 14, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

  9. Comment by laugh a minute — August 14, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

  10. Setting up a community animal farm, in my mind, equates with giving a girl a horse. The first 6 months – year she’s thrilled, then happy, then has to be reminded to go across town to take care of it, then eventually you are doing the care and looking for a buyer. So, to avoid this we, the city, need to set really good boundaries to make sure it is a well run, contracted, humane endeavor. Not easy, but doable and separate from backyard animal regulation. Susan doesn’t say how many fowl may reside in one backyard of what size, but 6 in well landscaped yard worked well for a friend. He didn’t have a rooster. As each hen stopped laying he sent it away. Kept the one he liked best as a pet.

    Re: Tom’s comment, yes slaughter house techniques can be used anywhere, yes, there are the Rambo gut and cleaners out there, and if we, the city, decide to have farm animals, that will certainly have to be well thought out before we start a citywide farm. BUT fish and fowl are being dressed and gotten ready for the table all over Alameda all year long. This is happening and has been happening for decades. Responsible hunters and fishers do a clean, silent job and they clean up after themselves. It’s not as if the backyard farmer is going to slaughter the whole gang at once. For the larger animals, why would you do that in the same yard where you have neighbors over for drinks? Take it to a dresser and get back packages of chops for the soup kitchen, food bank, dining table.

    Comment by Li_ — August 15, 2013 @ 8:29 am

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