Local food. Food security. The 100 mile diet. However you call it, it is one of the biggest trends in food culture right now and now people are moving beyond gardens and raising chickens in their backyard.
I know several people who raise chickens in their backyards and from what I could gather, there’s several dozen people in town who do so. The problem is that it’s not exactly legal, according to city bylaws, so most of the people I spoke to preferred to remain anonymous.
I went and visited one family at their home in downtown Revelstoke. Three chickens were clucking around a coop in the backyard.
“They’re the most efficient organism I’ve ever seen,” said the wife. “They eat kitchen waste, they produce protein and their own waste is amazing for the garden.”
She let the chickens out of the coop to run around in the backyard. They set about scampering around the yard, picking away at the grass and other detritus. I couldn’t tell if there was any discernible pattern to their wanderings. I’ve heard the expression, ‘Running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off’ but I don’t think you have to cut off a chicken’s head to have it run around like crazy.
I asked what they liked about having chickens. “I think the key is we know where the food is coming from,” said the husband. “We know the quality of the eggs because we look after these chickens and I think it’s a good example for our children but also for people who live in the neighbourhood.”
They got the chickens from a factory farm in Edmonton. They were less than a week old, came immunized and sexed and cost $1.50 each.
“They’re so beautiful and they’re so cute. We treat them as pets,” said the wife. “To me they’re just the most efficient thing I’ve ever seen. They’re a pet, they take up very little room, they’re beautiful and they produce not just food, but protein.”
The one person who could speak on the record was Bob Melnyk. He’s been raising his chickens on his property in Southside since the 1970s, when his family farm was still outside of city limits. When the city expanded in the early-1980s, his chickens were grandfathered in and permitted.
Melnyk lives on a quiet corner of Southside next to the Illecillewaet Greenbelt. His family operated a farm on the land for close to 50 years until it was inundated by BC Hydro. I met him in front of his house and asked if he could show me his chicken coop. “Coop?” he replied. “I have a barn. I don’t mess around.”
Melnyk has a lot to say about chickens, knowledge discerned from 35 years raising them in his backyard. He’s regarded as the chicken guru in Revelstoke. He doesn’t think much of their intelligence (“They have three brain cells and function with two,” he quipped.) but is amazed at their efficiency and ability to keep his yard clean.
“You will be amazed about how much compostable material they will eat,” he said.
Chickens will lay one egg a day but they need about 14 hours of light to do so. In winter it’s suggested you leave a light in their coop so they get the light they need, otherwise they won’t lay. Chickens only lay eggs for the first few years of their life and many people kill them once they stop producing. Melnyk, however, keeps his around until they die. “It’s a retirement home for old hens here,” he said. “They’re groundskeepers. They earn their keep.”
Fortunately for backyard chicken raisers, the City of Revelstoke is looking at making chickens legal as part of the upcoming land use bylaw. “It would probably be in single-family, urbanized areas so they’re easier to manage,” said John Guenther, the director of planning.
I learned of one person who got ratted out for their backyard chickens. She got her chickens from Melnyk about two years ago. “I think when I was out of town the yard got a little messy and I imagine the neighbours were just concerned,” the woman told me. She wasn’t fined but after a few months during which she gave her chickens to a neighbour, she brought them back and didn’t receive any more complaints.
Melnyk thinks backyard chickens are not a problem as long as people are sensible about it.
“Like anything people get involved in, I don’t care what it is, with a bit of common sense and respect for your neighbours, most things are not problems.”
As for the bear issue, everyone I spoke to said bears haven’t been an issue. Melnyk told me he’d had bears come into his yard but they never went after the chickens. ”I’ve lost more chickens to damn dogs and I’ve never lost a bird to a bear, ever.”
I asked Melnyk what advice he had for prospective chicken farmers. He said people just need to realize it’s small daily commitment and chickens need a little care every day.
While I was visiting the family downtown, one of the neighbours dropped by. She was asked what she thought about chickens as neighbours.
“I like them way better than cats or dogs as neighbours,” she said. “You get to look after them and get eggs when people go away.”