Oprah keeps chickens, so why can’t we? The urban farming movement in Canada

Shine On

Last month, media maven Oprah Winfrey took to Twitter to show the world that she knows where her food comes from. A tweeted photo shows a blissful Oprah standing in front of a dazzling Maui landscape, displaying a basket full of eggs.

The caption: "Look what I just gathered. Chickens are workin',"

It’s hardly a surprise that a woman worth an estimated $2.7 billion should have her own flock of chickens.

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Yet Oprah isn’t the only one that likes fresh eggs for breakfast. There are thousands of Canadian city dwellers who believe that everyone should have the right to own a few egg producing chickens. The problem is that in many Canadian cities, keeping backyard hens is illegal.

The issue of urban hen farming is becoming a hot topic as more Canadians seek economic, ethical and environmental alternatives to industrialized food practices. Just as more urbanites are taking an interest in growing their own fruits and vegetables, there is also a renewed interest in keeping urban hens.

Paul Hughes is one of the people leading the charge.

A self proclaimed "food fighter" and founder of chicken raising club CLUCK, Hughes has been fighting a Calgary bylaw that prohibits “possessing and keeping livestock” within the city limits.

“I cannot buy an industrial egg anymore, I just know too much,” says Hughes. “I can have six pitbulls or 150 pigeons in Calgary, but I can’t have one egg producing hen.”

He argued in court this past spring that being able to raise your own food by keeping chickens is a charter right. Hughes lost his case, but it is now being appealed, and he predicts the battle could drag on for years.

Those who oppose urban coops, like the national Egg Farmers of Canada association, say the coops pose health risks, like salmonella or avian flu.

However, Hughes claims there are no documented cases of either of these disease originating from a backyard coop.

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The rules about keeping hens vary by municipality, and many cities have amended bylaws in recent years to make keeping hens legal. You can raise urban hens in many big cities including Victoria, Vancouver, Brampton, Guelph, and Whitehorse, but not Toronto, Calgary or Winnipeg, reports Maclean's.

Hughes laments the fact that each municipality decides the rules.

“There are literally thousands of people fighting to keep hens, in all of these municipalities,” says Hughes. “This is not a small movement.”

Many like Hughes see keeping hens as a food security and food justice issue. At the core of the argument is the belief that it is the right of every individual — not just the Oprahs of the world -- to have access to good, healthy food.

Keeping hens is certainly one way to access cheap healthy food. A single hen will run you about $10-$25 dollars, requires only a square meter of land, and can produce about 300 eggs a year.

Urban hen farmers say they are clean, quiet and self-sufficient. They also argue that backyard coops are more ethical than commercial operations that may jam thousands of hens into cramped, lightless spaces.

“We see our hens as pets — they have names,” says Hughes, who says this is true of many of the urban coop keepers he knows. "They’re perfect for the urban environment -- pets with benefits."