City residents redefine farming with chicken coops, bees


Photo by Aaron Dobler

Jana Thompson keeps bees and chickens on her property in Central Northside’s  Mexican War Streets. Thompson led a discussion about urban farming March 7 at the Carnegie Library-Allegheny.

By Aaron Dobler

Jana Thompson, an urban farming advocate and Mexican War Streets resident, led a discussion about raising chickens, bees and goats within city limits on March 7 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Allegheny in Central Northside. Discussion topics included proposed changes to the Urban Agriculture Zoning Code and how to build and maintain a secure coop.

The Planning Commission will be discussing the amendments to the zoning code related to urban agriculture at a hearing on March 24 at 2:00 p.m. at 200 Ross Street. The hearing is open to the public.

If passed, the proposed new Urban Agriculture Zoning Code would allow residents with a total property of 2,000 square feet, which includes most properties in the Mexican War Streets, to have up to five chickens or ducks. This is up from three chickens or ducks under the existing code.

Beehives are still two hives per 2,000 square feet, and they must be placed at least 10 feet from any neighboring property line. Hives are permitted in side yards, backyards and rooftops as long as specific height and flyway requirements are met.

“The big change is that on a 2,000-square-foot lot, you are allowed to have two miniature goats,” Thompson said.

The proposed code stipulates that residents are permitted exactly two dehorned, adult female or neutered male goats. No single miniature goats are allowed, and goats and poultry cannot be kept on the same 2,000-square-foot property.

For each additional 1,000 square feet of property, residents are permitted an additional chicken or duck. At 10,000 square feet, poultry and goats are permitted on the same property.

Properties must be kept clean and odor-free, and feed must be kept inside in a rodent-proof container. Also, roosters are not permitted.

People are required to submit an over-the-counter permit request and to obtain permission for these activities through the City of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Division. Under the existing code, the cost of the permit is $275, but the proposed code would lower it to $70.

Residents will also need to obtain zoning and occupancy permits and provide a site plan that includes locations of coops and hives to prove that they are within setback requirements.

Thompson feels that the cost is still too high, but recognizes that it is a way for the city to ensure that the animals are being kept legally.

“We had tried to do it more like a dog license,” she said, “where you pay $10 every year, and they could send you a little tag and you could nail it to your coop.”

Thompson describes herself as a standard-bearer for operating within the system because she managed to do it legally in the Mexican War Streets without receiving complaints from her neighbors.

“Everybody was very supportive,” she said.

Legal and bureaucratic threats are the first obstacles someone looking to get into urban farming will encounter, but they will not be the last.

In regards to predators, chickens, eggs and feed are all fair game to raccoons, dogs and hawks. Thompson has not had much trouble with predators, but the rubber seal around the outer-door of her coop has been gnawed on, she said.

“You’re going to have a lot of predator pressure because everyone wants to eat your birds,” Thompson said. “Thinking like a predator and being prepared to defend them is your biggest responsibility.”

Thompson explained that there are primarily two kinds of coops: standard and tractor.

Standard coops resemble a small shed or dog house. They provide the best security but take up the most space and are permanent fixtures.

The alternative is the “chicken tractor,” which consists of an enclosed portion and a wire portion. Its lightweight design allows the coop to be dragged to different locations in the yard.

“Those chickens are like a tractor. They will chew everything up. They will destroy any living thing, flora or fauna, inside that area and turn it into a brown patch of dirt,” Thompson said.

This kind of coop requires more space, provides less security and requires more skill on the part of the keeper to ensure that the coop is moved to ideal locations and is always up to code.

Besides getting together in person to discuss matters of urban farming, community members come together to offer advice and support each other online and on social media. For people starting out, Thompson said that anything related to coop design, food issues, breed choices and medical problems can be found in online communities where experienced urban farmers are available to answer questions.

But there are some issues that the farmer has to decide for him or herself before acquiring any animals. Unlike dogs and cats, chickens have not been elevated to pet status, so they have different legal requirements and play different roles in family life.

Some people keep them solely for food, but for others the chickens become a member of the family. For most people, the chickens will fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

Chickens have a pre-set amount of eggs that they can lay and deciding what to do with the chicken after that time can be difficult for some people.

“It’s perfectly fine to keep it as a pet,” Thompson said. “It’s very important that you decide what you want to do, and it’s okay to change your mind.”

Reasons for keeping chickens in the city varies from farmer to farmer.

Jana Thompson keeps them for the fertilizer. Chicken manure helps to complete the nitrogen carbon cycle in her garden. For her, the eggs are just a bonus.

Cindy Berkowitz lives on the Northside and shares a coop with a friend. They split the cost, the labor and the eggs.

“We do it for eggs,” Berkowitz said. “The egg quality is fantastic. Mostly I do it so I know where my eggs are coming from. Mine are organic, and I can feed them what I want.”

Thompson also keeps bees on her property that help to pollinate a two-mile radius including Riverview Park, the South Side and Downtown. Locally, they help the community gardens on the Northside and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Food City Project.

“Because our bees are away from agriculture where all of the poisons are, our bees are healthier,” she said. “We are the bastion of safety. Urban bees are much healthier than agricultural bees.”

Thompson added: “This is an opportunity not just to eat eggs, but to remind yourself about where all of this other food comes from, and every time your neighbors hear your hens cackle, they are reminded of the realities of food, and that is a very good thing.”

IMG_0643Photo by Aaron Dobler

Jana Thompson of Central Northside stands by her chicken coop at her Mexican War Street’s home.

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