Category Archives: Homegrown Revolution

Changing the zoning laws; making your town safe for backyard hens

Last week I wrote about the rapidly growing practice of raising backyard hens (for the eggs and the laughs).  One of the problems in some communities however, is that zoning regulations may make raising hens illegal.

There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or noisy (as many suburbanites imagine).

Many of us who are committed to family and neighborhood level self-sufficiency believe that the keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.  Even though it may illicit  sneers from some people (often people who have never seen a live hen or eaten a really fresh egg), it is most important that we try to change these local laws to not only allow but to encourage backyard hens.  This is an issue of Food Sovereignty!

We MUST fight city hall!

Toward that end, I’ve been working with a group of neighbors in my own town to try to convince our Planning Board to change the zoning regulations to make a few backyard hens legal.  Before speaking publicly to town hall however, I applied for a Special Permit and went through the process of getting a Special Permit so that my own birds were legal.

The “educational experience” of getting a permit cost me $210, and took several months.  Most of my friends who raise hens, just don’t tell anyone – as they feel the regulatory process is simply too burdensome.  I fully understand this viewpoint, but I wanted to “get legal” myself so that I could try to change the regulations.

Once I had my own Special Permit (dutifully filed with the County Registry of Deeds), I began attending Planning Board meetings to ask for their help to change the law.  We got great press coverage, unanimous support from the town Agricultural Commission, and a statement from the local Board of Health agreeing that backyard hens did not represent a public health problem.   We were feeling pretty good!

Next, a group of about a dozen residents (with experience raising chickens) developed the basic concept for an amendment to the Town Zoning Bylaw and the Town General Bylaw, which would make it easier to raise backyard hens.  We met with the Planning Director on several occasions and got his help putting our ideas into the correct legal language.  The proposals were then submitted to the Planning Board along with a couple hundred e-signatures, asking for their support of our Citizens Petition that would eventually be voted on by annual Town Meeting.

In spite of widespread public support as well as the encouragement of the Health Department, the Agricultural Commission, the Health Director, and the Animal Welfare Officer, the Planning Board Zoning Subcommittee remained unconvinced!  They insisted that some residents were worried about smells, noises, and rodents.  The Planning Board filed a revised version of our Town Meeting article, which would require abutter notification by certified mail and a public administrative hearing to ensure that our hens were not a hazard to public health and safety.

This was getting a bit absurd!

So a group of us showed up at the next Planning Board meeting and with the support of the town Agricultural Commission and lots of citizen support, we convinced the Planning Board to change their somewhat “draconian” recommendation.  Our compromise was to “license” our henhouses (much like a dog license) but to modify the process of neighbor notification to make it much simpler and more about education than regulation.  We are making progress!

But we had lots of work to do!

When a small group of hen owners began this process, we thought it would be obvious to any thinking individual that raising a few hens was not a public health threat, nor a nuisance.  We were wrong.   There were lots of good questions raised by members of the Planning Board and the general public, along with a few that were a bit over the edge.  Next we geared up for a good old fashioned public debate on the floor of a New England Town Meeting!   We tried to understand the concerns and fears of those who were in opposition and to answer all rational questions from our neighbors.

We wrote letters to the editor of our local paper, participated in several listserves and responded to questions on the Town Meeting discussion board.  When our article was heard by Town Meeting, we had the local Health Director, the local Animal Welfare Officer, the Agricultural Commission, the Planning Board, and the Select Board on our side.  While several objections were raised in public session, in the end the new bylaw was approved overwhelmingly by Town Meeting members.  When it was all over, I sent personal notes of thanks to all of the people involved and created a web page to celebrate our victory.

Of course, my town is not the only one dealing with this issue.  Here is a typical news story about changing the chicken laws!


Based on our experience, I’ve got some suggestions for those of you who are considering trying to change your local regulations based on my experience so far.

  1. Find friends to help.  Unless you are unemployed, you will need to attend lots of meetings.  Having others help you cover these meetings will help (I’ve been criticized by town board members for not being able to show up at some meetings when I had to work).
  2. Study the issue and learn from others.  Follow the blogs, Facebook groups, and listserves for advice from others who are going through the same process.  You will feel less lonely, when things aren’t going well.
  3. Be patient and try not to get angry (I’m not particularly good at this).  When you have people who have no experience and are getting their information from the internet making decisions on what you can and can’t do in your backyard, it is difficult to be patient.  Anger won’t help – no matter what!
  4. Be persistent.  Its a bit of a game.   But if you continue to show up for public meetings and continue to share your message respectfully, the “crazy ideas” you propose at first will slowly become common sense.
  5. Volunteer for a town committee or board yourself.  It is really easy to criticize others (who are generally volunteers) when they disagree with your particular concern.  Sitting on the other side of the table gives you perspective, experience and respect for those volunteers, most of whom are doing a great job.

Finally, if you are not successful with a frontal assault (like a zoning change proposal), it might help to try to change the culture of the community.  Bring speakers to town to talk about bigger issues like sustainability, the “homegrown revolution,” self-sufficiency, the Transition Towns movement, Food Sovereignty, etc.  Asking for a change in zoning to allow backyard hens makes more sense in the context of this larger discussion.  I’ll let you know if it works!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

Let's all raise hens (for the eggs and the laughs)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been posting about food issues.  Last week, I wrote about the Food Sovereignty movement.  The prior week, I shared some ideas on how to deal with the emerging global food crisis.  This week, I thought I’d suggest a very simple action that almost anyone can take in response to these complex issues, and one that I’ve written about on my “local” blog in the past…….  raising backyard hens!

I find that when I spend too much time thinking about the many problems we face today, I can easily slip into a state of despair.  At these times, I need to “do something,” and even a simple action often helps.  Perhaps it makes no logical sense – but it works!  One of my favorite things to do when I’m “down” is to hang out with my backyard hens.

Of course I’ve got to go out to our hen house every day to collect the eggs (even in the coldest weather), so this has become something of a habit for me.  It helps me “get real” and relax for a few minutes.  I generally bring the “ladies” a gift; sometimes wilted leaves of some old greens, maybe a handful of worms (from my vermiculture bin), maybe a soft tomato or a handful of corn kernels (that I collected from local farm fields after the harvest).  The hens get pretty excited when they see me coming out the back door!

I’ve been raising hens in my backyard for years.  I don’t live on a farm but in a “normal” suburban neighborhood and I believe this is something almost anyone can do.  In addition to the eggs (which I share with my neighbors) I love to watch the ladies scratch, fight, talk strut, play, and “argue” with each other.  And the kids in the neighborhood love to come by and visit the girls too.

Let’s all raise hens!

Raising hens is a simple, practical response to the complexity of the global food crisis.  By taking small steps toward personal, family, and neighborhood self-sufficiency, we can begin to take more responsibility for our lives.  A few eggs each day won’t change the world, but it can change the way we think about the world.  It connects us to another creature and reminds us that we are part of a living system.  Or at least it can – if we pay attention.

One of the problems of course, is that zoning regulations in some towns make raising hens illegal.   I’ll write about my personal experience trying to change these laws in my hometown next week.   There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens in the neighborhood.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or dirty (as many suburbanites imagine).

The keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.   And its fun and educational for kids!

To give you some idea on what it might be like to have hens in your backyard, have a look at this fun and instructional video.


To help you get started, I’ve compiled a few resources that I share with my friends.

  1. An article on why to raise chickens
  2. A list of useful resources (links to more links)
  3. The City Chicken (a fun and useful web page)
  4. An excellent and simple description on how to raise hens
  5. A hen cartoon (check it out)


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

And if you happen to live in Western Massachusetts, join us for a workshop on Raising Backyard Hens on April 2, 2011!

Food Sovereignty: the people's response to the global food crisis

Last week’s blog, “The Future of Food; Dealing with Collapse,” elicited a lot of comments.   A few of them reminded me that if we are going to address the global food crisis, we must listen to the people who do most of the work growing food.   We must hear from the peasants, farm workers, and small landholders who grow 50% of the food on the planet.

Without their voice,  policy makers responding to the food crisis, will continue to invest in the same industrial model for growing food that is the root cause of the problem.

If we care about sustainable food and farming, we must work for Food Sovereignty.

According to La Via Campesina, “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture.”   One of the “raps” against sustainable agriculture is that while we talk about Social Equity as one of the three principles of sustainability, most of our efforts focus on Environmental Integrity and Economic Vitality.  Food Sovereignty provides a framework to make sure we maintain a focus on justice!

Food Sovereignty is about solutions!

La Via Campesina is a global movement of peasant farmers and workers.  In 1996, they introduced the concept of Food Sovereignty at the World Food Summit in Rome, and since then the principle of Food Sovereignty has been adopted by many organizations.

This movement which brings together the environmental, economic and social aspects of food production was created to serve the needs of small and medium-size farmers, migrant workers, the landless, women farmers, and indigenous peoples from all over the world.  These are the same people who are most likely use agroecological principles to grow food in a way that builds rather than degenerates natural resources.

A recent United Nations study claims that small farmers, using agroecological techniques, can double food production in 10 years.   These techniques are supported by the International Peasants Movement, La Via Campesina, which claims that peasants can feed the world.

According to Via Campesina “food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption.  It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement.”

This global movement however, is not only relevant in developing countries.  Last week, a town in Maine passed the first Food Sovereignty law in the U.S.  I encourage you to learn more about this movement and to support one of the 148 member organizations in 69 countries working for Food Sovereignty.  And join the millions of small farmers and workers around the world on April 17, 2011 to celebrate the struggle of peasants and rural people to survive and continue feeding the world.

To learn more, go to April 17, 2011 – International Day of Peasant’s Struggles.

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

Gardening and living by three "ecological rules"

Spring semester is underway at the University of Massachusetts and I’m teaching a class called Sustainable Living with about 300 students.   My next several posts will share some of the lessons from this class.  My first lecture is called Ecology “Rules”.

The three ecological rules for living sustainably are:

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

This post looks at how we try to “obey Mother Nature’s rules” in my own household and garden and makes suggestions for you to consider in your own life.

1. Use Current Solar Income

Well, the obvious use of solar income growing food in the garden.

We have a big garden, with two unheated hoop houses that allow us to grow food during three seasons in New England.  But if you live in an apartment, you can still grow some food in planters and window boxes.  Or check with your town hall and ask about access to a community garden.  Or join a CSA (many deliver directly into the city).  But if you have a big back yard, why not try “food not lawns”.  Lawns require too much fertilizer and water and produce nothing.

A simple way to use solar energy is dry your clothes outside.   I enjoy feeling like I’m somehow beating the oil companies this way.  And while it is a small thing, I like to feel the sun on my back while I’m hanging the laundry out.

And if you own your own home, there is no better investment than solar hot water! 

Although, both oil and wood are originally solar, wood heat is much more “current” than oil and can be regenerated in a lifetime.  So we burn wood for supplemental heat.  It also provides a back up when the power goes out in a winter storm!

I suspect there are lots of other actions we could take to obey Mother Nature’s first rule.  Why don’t you add your own below in comments box?

2. Waste=Food

So, here’s the second rule…..  everything cycles, or “waste=food.”  And of course the easiest way to obey this rule is to compost food wastes.  We collect all of the organic waste (except meat) in a small bucket on the kitchen counter.  It goes out to a compost pile to turn into organic matter, which goes on the garden to grow more food.  In Mother Nature, there is no waste!

Some of the food “waste,” like old tomatoes, go to our hens, which turn that “waste” into fresh eggs.  Have you ever had a fresh egg?  It tastes different than the industrial version.

There are other ways to turn waste into food.  The ashes from the wood stove (waste) go onto the garden to grow more food.   Wood ash has potassium (potash), an essential nutrient for plants.

And how about recycling old newspapers and cardboard by using it as a mulch on the garden?   Non-glossy newsprint is safe and prevents weed growth, builds organic matter, and provides a great home for worms that turn leaves and garden residues into fertilizer.

The newspaper is covered with hay and then watered down.  We do this every fall to get the garden ready for planting in the spring.  We try not to rototill at all, since this kills the worms which help feed the garden.

3. Support Biological Diversity

And the third rule…… well, the first two don’t work well without biological diversity.  A monoculture, either a 1000 acre corn farm or your front lawn violates Mother Nature’s rules.  And the best way to mix things up in the garden is to make sure you have both plants and animals!   Animals…… really?

Well, yes.  Animals in the garden are needed to recycle nutrients.  Here are our “meat chickens” feeding (and pooping) in the old strawberry patch. 

Chickens are one of the easiest animal to include in your garden.  We raise 25 broilers each summer.  They are around for about 8 weeks and then “into the freezer.”  Lots of communities are working to change their zoning rules to encourage backyard chickens and hens for food self-sufficiency.

There is one backyard animal that is even easier than chickens….. that’s bees.  We harvest about 8 quarts of honey each year from our bee hive.

Oh sure, you say…. I can’t do that!  Well, its not all that difficult and there are lots of your neighbors who have already joined the “homegrown revolution!”

But if you are not ready for chickens and bees….. well, then start with worms.  Yup, that’s right.  They can help recycle kitchen wastes all winter long.

This little “worm condominium” supports a few thousand worms that quietly eat food waste, producing lovely potting soil.  And the hens love to have a few worms as a snack during the winter when the ground is frozen and they can’t scratch up their own bugs.  Try it!

The food waste goes in and the worms do the rest.  Its called vermiculture farming (worm) and its simple!

How are you obeying Mother Nature’s rules?  Post your ideas in the comments box below!

But I don’t want to “obey” the rules

There is a part of me that rebels when I hear the word “obey” or “obedience”.   But lets look more closely at that word “obey.”  It comes from the Latin “obedire“, which is to hear or listen.  Perhaps that is what it means to “obey” Mother Nature’s rules, simply to listen deeply.

I remember my first Permaculture course, when we we told to go out and sit in a garden and observe quietly.  I was surprised by the difference between this garden brimming with biological diversity (birds, bees and bugs) and my own which was productive but sterile.

When I sit and listen to Mother Nature’s “voice” I seem to become part of something much bigger than myself.  I can feel the energy of the earth and I feel at peace.   And yes, I try to obey the rules.

After all, these ecological rules have evolved over 4.5 billion years of evolutionary trial and error (or perhaps divine intent) on this planet.  Our own human cleverness isn’t working so well and seems to have gotten us into quite a mess.  Maybe we can learn something by listening to Mother Nature!

How do you live by these three ecological rules?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!

One of my great pleasures and privileges as a teacher and adviser at the University of Massachusetts is that I am surrounded by bright and passionate students who ask difficult questions.  While many of the questions relate to “how do I graduate” and “how do I find a job”….  often the questions are “deeper.”   This is a true story….

climateSo a student shows up in my office asking the big question… “why bother?”  You know, like “… why bother try to make a difference in this world when everything looks so bleak?

This student wanted to know how I maintain a sense of hope when we are facing so many global challenges!

Good question!

Rather than launching into my usual rap (which I stole from Michael Pollan’s near-classic essay, “Why Bother”), I chose to tell them about a novel I had read recently “about secrets, treachery and the arrival of peak oil” (according to the book jacket).  Prelude by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced adventure and espionage story set in the context of “the end of cheap energy” and while a bit simplistic, the book keeps your attention.

Continue reading Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!