The 100-yard diet

Pub date April 8, 2008
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Locavorism — the practice of eating only or mostly food raised with a 100-mile distance — has been a hot trend the past couple of years. It’s a concept that makes a lot of sense — even organic food grown hundred or thousands of miles away can hardly be considered sustainable once you figure in the resources used to ship it.

But a committed breed of urban farmers is challenging even the 100-mile definition of local food. These folks are cultivating their own cornucopia in their backyards and community garden plots, pruning their own fruit trees, raising their own chickens….

Hold on a minute. Chickens? In the city?

It’s true. Not only is it possible to raise your own small brood (four or less) in San Francisco, but it’s less labor intensive and materially more rewarding than caring for your household pets. Do you need to take a chicken out for walks? No. Does your Chihuahua lay eggs? No.

And you can expect to reap more than just eggs from your new feathered friends. As Walter Parenteau of the Panhandle puts it, "Chickens fill an important spot in the cycle of a sustainable backyard." From their nitrogen-rich manure (an excellent catalyst for compost) to their enthusiasm for pest control, chickens earn their keep — even without the dozen eggs a week you’ll get from each pair of first-year layers.

A major issue for raising chickens in your backyard is space. In San Francisco, the city’s Department of Public Health requires that chicken coops be situated at least 20 feet from all buildings — which rules out keeping chickens on your patio or in your living room. Chickens also need space to thrive in: their run should ideally provide a minimum of four square feet per chicken and include a predator-proof covering of chicken wire or nonmetallic "poultry netting," which also will prevent escapees (contrary to popular belief, chickens can fly, albeit clumsily and infrequently).

A fully enclosed chicken coop built of sturdier materials — plywood or bamboo — is also necessary. Interior nesting boxes should be about one square big foot — just large enough for one chicken. For cleanliness and insulation, a thick layer of straw or hay should be scattered over all the surfaces and changed every couple of months. The old, excrement-laden material can then be composted immediately.

The other main consideration for urban chickens is protection from predators.

"We never saw raccoons in our garden until they discovered we had chickens," says Walter, a San Francisco chicken farmer. "But when they did, we saw them in there every night for three weeks." The unwelcome visitors’ persistence finally paid off when the coop was left unlocked, and the coons made off with one of two hens.

Brian W., who raised chickens for 10 years in the Bayview District, also cites hawks as a major threat to chickens living in uncovered runs, and says that rats are attracted to unclean or unsupervised coops.

"You have to think hard about how you’re going to shelter your chickens from predators," agrees Paul Glowaski, who teaches workshops on raising urban poultry at SF’s Garden for the Environment. "You might need to get creative with your space."

These considerations aside, city-dwelling chicken farmers remain overwhelmingly positive about their experiences. Inexpensive to feed (kitchen scraps, garden snails, and cracked corn play the biggest dietary roles) and content, for the most part, with entertaining themselves, backyard birds provide a gentle gateway experience for novices to animal husbandry. They offer benefits to the ecology of their environment, and help restore a connection to the food production chain. Chickens are the missing link to perfecting what Novella Carpenter of Oakland calls "the 100-yard diet." Even as a hobby, raising chickens can impart an irresistible element of eco-chic to their respective owners.

"At the end of the day, you get to be the ‘guy with chickens in his backyard,’ " Walter says. "And that can be a lot of fun."