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G-Sync: Let's Break Some Laws & Eggs Together

Spring is a season of hope and this year Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen suggests we emerge from winter's grip and attempt some bold moves. Inspired by City Hall's recent move to repeal a few pesky outdated ordiances that have run their course, he says it's time to shake off a few more this week.
Recently, our city attorney has brought certain ordinances to light that are almost comical in our present time. Many have even asked, "What were they thinking?" Some laws are outrageous, such as going to jail for overdue library books, while others, like the prohibition on riding, driving or leading horses, ponies or mules on our city sidewalks, provoke laughter these days.

In the spirit of civic spring cleaning, these ordinances got me thinking about the necessity of waiting until a law is dusty and unused on the shelf to change the way we live in our present city. It might be fun to read the recent headlines about repealing an ordinance prohibiting the telling of fortunes (or even pretending to tell fortunes) for hire, gain, or reward, but really, why should we wait years before we repeal laws that need to be changed today?

So, armed with a bit of knowledge and a new form of activism, I decided to tackle city hall on a few items.

My first stop was the city attorney office of Catherine Mish. She is Grand Rapids' chief legal counsel. Mish has been very busy not only digging up these old ordinances, but has been pretty successful in getting these in front of our commissioners. Once presented with these jaw-dropping rules, the commissioners have quickly dismantled them as they were presented.

I felt confident in my mission, but I quickly learned that if I intended to fight city hall, I would need my running shoes as I traveled from department to department.

When I arrived at the clerk's office, I felt I was in the right place. One of the staffers recognized me right away even as I tried to be discrete, attired in black – the official uniform choice for covert activity.   

"Oh, no, what are you up to Tommy?" A woman had popped her head up from her cubicle to catch me engaged with an unsuspecting co-worker.  

I quickly shared that I was on a research mission for an editorial on civic engagement in relation to two local ordinances: the banning of open fire pits and urban chickens.

After I laid my playing hand on the counter, various workers began to jump in with opinions ranging from "my next door neighbor would totally turn me in for a fire pit" to "I used to live on a farm and chickens stink." I knew this would not be easy but would be worth the challenge. As I left the room, we were all laughing from the added spin I contributed to the ordinances.

With printout in hand from the clerk and a list of phone numbers, I began making a few phone calls. Eventually I landed at two information-rich places. My first stop would be the Grand Rapids Fire Department (GRFD), and my second was a store just over the city border where I knew they were proudly celebrating Chick Days – Plainfield Avenue's Family Farm & Home.

After being buzzed into the GRFD main office at station one, I began my line of questions. I was seeking anything, from a loophole in the law to reasons why this was a concern of the fire department.

Immediately, I stumped the first person I spoke to about open fire pits in the urban yard. Lisa Acosta of GRFD's Prevention and Billing, following protocol, quickly kicked me up the chain of command to Captain Dan VanderHyde.

Captain VanderHyde and I set out to review the ordinance document together. What we found, in the interest of keeping it brief and free from the formality of the original legal speak, is that the only fire pits that are approved for outdoor use in the city are those fires that are created for the sole purpose of cooking food.

It is a fact that many who have purchased impressive outdoor cast iron fire pits have come to enjoy the warm glow only when they have cracked this code. Many unsuspecting folks who visit the city often find themselves asking their host about the sole package of hot dogs and shiny grill grate that sit close to the host. Psst: the only way you can avoid the fine is to quickly toss the grate on the roaring fire as your guests assist in getting the weenies out of their hermetically sealed packaging. And voila: you're using your fire pit to cook food. (Wink.)

The GRFD Captain, like the clerk at city hall, was not only aware of my position here at Rapid Growth, but he had also heard about the loophole used among many urbanites since the passage of the ordinance just a little over a decade ago.

According to Acosta, whom I spoke with prior to the captain, the flame must be extinguished immediately after the hot dogs are done cooking. I was thinking that my hot dog defense might be finally lost, when Captain VanderHyde tossed a bone on the fire to potentially save me.

"Now, if you were smoking meat…" said VanderHyde. He slowed down on the word "smoking" just long enough for my mind to wander into another direction..

I thought to myself, "Why not address root matters and just get rid of the ordinance?" Then it hit me. This ordinance as written is not filed under the category I expected to find such a law.

"Am I correct as I read the language, that this ordinance is not authored as a fire hazard," I asked, "but is in fact written as a city nuisance?"

Bingo! A new foothold emerged in my mind. I felt like a young law clerk in a bad Tom Cruise movie.This explained why I had heard that folks getting busted for an outdoor fire pit would be issued a first time warning instead of a fine. Suddenly, the possibility of dismantling this rule became a little more likely.

My detective work for the day was not yet done, however: a new urban hen policy would take a bit more effort. So I decided to explore a different direction based on a conversation I had in the clerk's office. One member of this office shared that a city inspector once visited a house with the doors to the kitchen cabinets dismantled so that the homeowner's hens could roost in them. This novel approach created a twist on the all-too-popular concept of farm-to-table food delivery that some affluent folks are willing to pay a hefty price to enjoy today, and I wondered if it could be a solution.

"I would never recommend bringing chickens in the home," says Family Farm & Home's Brandon Beukema. He raises hens on his farm when he is not working at this north end store. "When you invite a hen to roost in your home environment, you are inviting all sorts of interesting bacteria into your living space."

I was quickly reminded by him that these animals are not domesticated, or, in layman's terms, not potty trained. The house is the last place you want to place these egg machines.

Beukema walked me through the process of what it would take to set up my own little urban ranch. Chickens would require a very small footprint compared to the demands of other animals. He even helped me calculate how many chickens I would need to satisfy my family's needs.

Inventing a family of three, who were seeking to enjoy eggs within a meal every other day, it was determined that my family would need just three or four hens to produce as many as 28 eggs a week.

As I listened to Beukema talk about the qualities of these very quiet omelet makers, I could not help but be won over by the gentleness of these creatures. You have to pick the right ones, because not all chickens are created equal, but the right creatures serve up something truly remarkable and beautiful at the same time.

For example, selecting a chick like an Isa Brown or a Rhode Island Red will produce a very reliable line of brown eggs daily, while the Araucanas Ameraucana strain will light up your urban farm imaginations, as this breed produces white, pink, blue, brown and green eggs.

"The Araucanas are referred to as the Easter Egger," says Beukema. "But avoid the Guinea hens, who produce very few eggs but act as the watchdogs of the coop should a disturbance ensue. They are loud but they serve a purpose to signal us when there is trouble in the roost."

I was warned to not freak out about the cost to get started, which can be as much as $380. This ready-to-farm cost includes the chicks, feed, self-watering containers, a fence and a beautiful, spacious hutch complete with an easy-to-access cleaning rack and a roosting box addition. To ensure that predators do not penetrate the hutch, you will want to enclose your space with additional chicken wire.

"It might seem like a lot at the start, but it really is a wise investment," says Beukema. "Once you have made the commitment to raise chickens, the cost for what you want to do in creating access to fresh farm eggs, which are amazing to taste compared to those in the stores, you are looking at spending only $15 every three months for a new bag of feed."

Beukema assured me that, while there are those who complain about the smell, the best way to ensure this was not the case would be by following a strict cleansing of your hutch area every three months. Every three months! That is certainly doable, since once you have cleared the poop out of the coop, you can dump this energy booster in your urban compost bin to really start a new circle of life with the addition of your hens' waste.

A nagging question remained: What happens after a hen stops laying? Beukema offered a very noble concept.

A hen will only produce eggs for about three or four years, so you could slaughter them, but their meat is not that tasty. Beukema also took a more humane twist, saying, "Or you could just let them live out the last few months of their life within the pen."

As urban farming becomes more popular, it is interesting to see many cities returning to these historic practices as an alternative to mass production. It's a move that can be healthy for our families as well as for the planet.

In addition, when smart, future-focused policies in the urban center are enacted, not only does the urban farming movement create jobs, but it can also be a source of true sustainability – a concept word tossed around in board rooms but rarely seen in action.

In France, more than one sixteenth of the land within the city limits of Paris was set aside for agriculture purposes, resulting in not only a truly sustainable year-round delivery of food but also in extra bounty that was exported to England. And that was possible in the mid-1800s. Just imagine what we could accomplish today with all our advances.

And those who are fearful of the possibility of avian diseases should be placing their focus more on the large (and increasingly hard to penetrate with a media badge) corporate big box farming facilities, which have produced far more fertile opportunities for infections to cross over than a small farm.  

"When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem," according to a 2006 report by GRAIN – a small international nonprofit organization working to support small farmers and social movements struggling for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

More than three years have passed since our commission voted on (and narrowly defeated) the urban hen ordinance. I was drawn to revisit the issue here in G-Sync after a photo walk through a SE neighborhood. I discovered a faded sign on the side of an old brick storefront advertising that this Division Avenue shop carried supplies to serve those raising hens in our region.

Looking at that faded sign, I wondered if maybe the ability to raise our own food or the permission to build a warm glowing fire in our own backyards are issues that deserve to be considered anew.

They say you have to break a few (backyard fresh) eggs to make an omelet (over a backyard fire pit). Maybe it is time to become serious and revisit the reality on the ground, with many families enjoying farm fresh eggs produced in our city (via their illegal farms) as well as those late-night, non-food-serving fire pits filled with neighbors and friends.

We are on a roll to dismantle outdated and silly laws. Maybe with a little nudge from others, our Grand Rapids commission will get this right. Let's hope that a fresh look at these two matters occurs soon so we can finally join other urban centers far and near, many of whom have figured it out and are now literally touching our city's border. It's time for a revote, my fellow Grand Rapidians.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

We are featuring two weeks' worth of events, including our spring break guide, in G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!


Editor's Note: If you would like to know more about the food justice-focused Urban Laying Hens group of West Michigan, please consider reading about their efforts on Facebook. For those seeking to impact change or simply raise your voice on the urban hens, backyard open fire pit ordinance, or any matter concerning the city of Grand Rapids, please visit the city's site here. The Chick Days sale at Family Farm & Home ends on April 6.
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