Mooo-ving on In: Raising Backyard Chickens and Other Urban Livestock

Chickens, rabbits, goats and even cows are finding their way into our urban backyards. Add small livestock breeds to become even more food secure.

backyard chickens

Raising animals in cities and suburbs helps make the best possible use of underutilized resources.

Photo by Stuart Bla

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In the face of ecological and economic crises, living more simply, cost-effectively and gracefully may be the most urgent project of all. Making Home (New Society Publishers, 2012) by Sharon Astyk demonstrates that the new good life is within reach, exploring how to save money and use fewer resources in every aspect of our lives, all while preserving more for future generations.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Making Home.

Despite the emergence of backyard chickens, I think most of us think of “livestock” as something that belongs on farms, that lives way out in the country. That’s a comparatively recent point of view — both the US and Canada have long traditions of urban livestock raising. In fact, raising animals in cities and suburbs can help us make the best possible use of underutilized resources, including lawns, marginal weeds and food scraps. More of us need to bring small animals into our lives.

Meat, milk and eggs are problematic in our society because of ethical considerations — most of them are raised in factory-farm conditions, usually by feeding animals grain that could be used for human consumption. If we take as basic premises that we should and must eat less meat, eat only meat raised ethically and also, in order to feed a hungry world, raise our animal products with little or no grain suitable for human consumption, it becomes clear that pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodible, rocky or wet in the countryside and raising meat, egg and dairy animals in cities on a small scale on food wastes are the two best options.

Many city dwellers grow gardens, and it would be wrong to understate their importance — they  provide caloric and nutritional benefits, allow people access to high-value, high-flavor foods they might not be able to afford, and can provide some calorically dense vegetables and even a few grains like sweet potatoes, potatoes, popcorn, etc. We know that urban gardening can make an enormous difference in a city — for example in Paris in the nineteenth century, 3,600 acres of garden plots produced 100,000 tons of vegetables, more than the city itself could consume. In 1944, US Victory gardens produced as much produce as all the country’s produce farms combined — half the nation’s total. So yes, as part of an urban aggregate, your five raised beds make a huge difference.

But add livestock and the picture of urban food security gets much richer. Those weeds growing in the vacant lots can be eaten by miniature goats or rabbits — cut an armful as you walk by. Those gardens require manures, and most urbanites lack a place for safe composting of human waste, so rabbit and poultry manures are essential to sustainable gardening.

Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and pick up a big bucketful of stale bread and salad leaves for the bunnies, or the leftovers from the takeout Chinese place for the chickens (why Novella Carpenter and her partner never actually made arrangements for places to save food for  them rather than dumpster diving was one thing I couldn’t figure out). And then turn that into nutritious people food, adding fat and dense protein to your diet. In the process you can reduce your dependency on feedlots, not just for yourself but also for your carnivorous pets.

Bees can sit on a balcony, rabbits on a back porch. Chickens are content in small backyards, and as carpenter proves, you can even raise pigs there, although she does get some complaints about the smell toward the end (she notes that in 1943, London had 4,000 pig-raising clubs, with 105,000 pigs kept within the city limits). Guinea pigs, quails and pigeons and fish in tanks can also supplement the protein needs of urban dwellers. Given the amount of imported dairy, I’d also suggest considering very small goats for milk and meat.

Cities will never be wholly sustainable by themselves — but neither will most rural areas, which will continue to rely on cities for the manufacture of goods, from cloth to tools, and as import and transport centers for items from around the world. We may relocalize, but it would be foolish to imagine that all trade and all cities will disappear.

What cities must be, if they are to have a future, is as food self-sufficient as possible, part of a larger project of wide food access. We will find ways, over the long term, to transport dry goods like grains into many cities — that doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions or, much more important, poverty, but there will be reciprocal relations between cities and the countryside. Vegetables and animal products are another thing altogether — they often require refrigeration, and without refrigerated trucking or train transport, those things are likely to become less available, or more expensive and more out of reach for many.

Moreover, we cannot permit food to be wasted on the present scale — that’s why we need eggs, eat and milk that can be raised on food scraps in urban centers. Our own livestock breeding projects focus on small-scale livestock for densely populated areas — small goats, angora and meat rabbits, chickens with good foraging ability, even small sheep. Not all of these will be suitable to the most densely populated areas, nor do I expect my farm to be definitive on the subject. But if you can take the girl out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the girl — and that’s a good thing. We need urban agriculture, and ties between city girls and country girls (and boys, of course) that help both places.

Want to learn more about becoming self-sufficient? Read 25 Best Plants to Grow in the Veggie Garden to add nutrient-rich crops to your annual harvest.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, published by New Society Publishers, 2012.