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.