Photos courtesy of Steven Slaughter
The first thing Steven Slaughter does every morning is feed the
chickens in his coop.
What makes this unusual is that the chickens and the coop are in his backyard in Andersonville, a densely populated neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.
“My wife was reluctant at first, but has really come to love having chickens,” says Slaughter, who holds the title of the first ever Chicago resident to start a chicken farm in an urban neighborhood.
Slaughter was able to do this because chicken farming is actually legal in Chicago—despite a 2007 proposal in the City Council to outlaw it.
Slaughter’s unusual hobby began as an effort "to figure out how to connect our children to nature through gardening in the city," he says. He was first introduced to the concept of chicken farming when he saw children from a 4-H Club farm raising them in Wisconsin. That set off a bell in his head, he says, and not long after, he began to research urban chicken farming.
He got the help and know-how he needed for his new endeavor from the Angelic Organics Learning Center, a nonprofit educational organization established in Chicago in 1999. The center, at 6400 S. Kimbark Ave., is the urban partner of the Angelic Organics Farm in downstate Caledonia, Ill., nationally recognized as a model for community supported agriculture.
This family-owned farm, which began growing organically in 1990, today provides produce for more than 1, 400 families who buy direct from the farm, and is one of the largest community supported agriculture farms in the country. The farm founded its Chicago center in 1999 to connect farmers and urban residents seeking to rebuild a healthy local food system, its executive director says.
“The idea for the Learning Center was born of the marriage of rural and urban,” executive director Tom Spaulding writes on the center’s Web site. “We saw the possibility of the farm—as a community resource, a rich cultural connecting place, and a source of inspiration and practical learning—serving as a partnership of farmers and urban residents.”
The center soon began teaching urban residents about chicken farming. In most cities, it is legal to keep a small flock of chickens, which are easy to care for, and have minimal space requirements that make the endeavor possible even in the smallest city yards, writes Alex Perroti of FoodFirst.org. The idea soon caught on. According to Perroti, one 30-person workshop on basic backyard chicken care held recently by the Center sold out within 48 hours.
“We 've tried to help our kids to connect with nature and some of the elements of rural living,” says Slaughter. “I’ve been the instigator on most of these projects. My 11-year-old daughter—and to a lesser extent, my younger boys—loves being the ‘chicken girl’ at her school.”
Not everyone is sold on the concept, however. Critics, such as 18th Ward Ald. Lona Lane, argue that raising fowl in the city increases the potential for the spread of disease, rats and raccoons, and cite the noise and smell as unwanted nuisances for neighbors.
Lane, who introduced a failed measure to outlaw it in December 2007, also worried about the potential for illegal slaughter of chickens on residential property. According to Chicago’s Municipal Code, keeping roosters or chickens for slaughter is illegal, but keeping them as pets or to produce eggs is legal.
“The stench and the smell from their feathers and their bodies—and they are not clean. Their debris and their waste are creating more rodents than there already are in neighborhoods,” Lane told the Chicago Tribune at the time.
But despite the opposition, Slaughter believes that chicken farming is a wonderful and intriguing concept, and says he sees it starting to catch on.
“We have a friend only a couple blocks away who now has chickens too,” he says.