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Urban Farming: Raising Chickens, Bees and Crops in Somerville

Urban agriculture fans voiced support for a proposed ordinance that would allow farming in Somerville.

Khrysti Smyth, who lives near Porter Square, has eight chickens in her back yard. They live in a chicken coop she built herself, and she raises them for the eggs.

"I have a huge waiting list, just amongst my friends, of people who want eggs, locally grown eggs," Smyth told the Somerville Planning Board and the Somerville Board of Aldermen's land use committee Thursday night.

Chickens are becoming her life's work, she said, joking that "I've sort of become a chicken concierge" because she provides chicken-raising advice to others in Somerville and around Boston. (She blogs at thechickeness.blogspot.com.)

Smyth spoke at a public hearing about a proposed zoning ordinance that would allow urban farming in Somerville. Yes, Somerville: the most densely populated city in New England.

People are doing it—farming in Somerville

"There is a huge demand for this," Smyth told the board members Thursday. After the meeting, Smyth said she didn't know how many people are raising chickens in the city. "I'm in the process of trying to figure that out … there's easily a couple dozen coops in town," she said. At least two others who spoke at the hearing also talked about raising chickens in Somerville.

Smyth is one of a growing number of people who are interested in raising animals and produce in city environments like Somerville. Asked what the neighbors think, and she said it's important to be "very proactive" with them about her chicken habits, and they don't really mind (especially since she got rid of a rooster and swore never to get another.) Some urban chicken raisers, not necessarily in Somerville but in other urban settings, are more secretive about their poultry. "You can actually buy a chicken coop that's designed to look like a trash can," Smyth said.

It's not just chickens; it's also bees

Michael Graney talked about beekeeping, and said there's a lot more beekeeping happening around the Boston area than people think. He's been doing it since 1997, he told the city officials.

People tend to cringe when they hear about it, Graney said, but "bee keeping is a very gentle craft that doesn't get in the way of people's lives."

Jumping on a growing trend

For every would-be chicken and bee farmer in Somerville, there may be handfuls more who want to grow vegetables and fruits.

recently built the city's first urban farm on South Street, according to Chris Mancini, executive director of the organization.

Jessie Banhazl, of Green City Growers, a Somerville company that installs and maintains urban farms in the Boston area, said the proposed ordinance would be good for business. Her company is building a rooftop culinary garden on top of in Davis Square, for instance, and the more food the city can produce for itself, the more people she can hire. With the ordinance "we are also creating jobs," she said.

Mayor supports idea

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone spoke in favor of the ordinance, which is still being drafted. With it, Somerville would become "a national leader in urban farming as well as access to healthy foods," he said.

On a visit to Chicago, he saw that "large scale urban agriculture [like hydroponics and aquaponics] can be implemented in densely settled communities."

"We have an existing culture of food enthusiasts" and "we are poised for further greatness with this urban agriculture ordinance," he said.

The ordinance

George Proakis, director of planning with the city, spoke about urban farming initiatives in places like Milwaukee and Chicago. He said there's a policy gap when it comes to urban farming in Somerville. For instance, chickens are legally considered pets. ("Usually what it comes down to is the city doesn't want to hear about it," Smyth said of the reaction people get from most local governments when they say they want to raise chickens. "Somerville is very open to it," she added.)

The ordinance would address home agriculture, such as commercial roof and yard gardens, community farming, farming on municipal land, commercial agriculture, beekeeping and backyard poultry raising, he said.

The ordinance, alone, would not govern the specific regulations urban farmers would follow. Application forms and official guidelines would take care of that, Proakis said. Clearly, such regulations would need to address issues of health, food security and neighborhood harmony, among other things.

Somerville aldermen William White and Tony Lafuente expressed some concern about possible rodent problems and issues with contaminated soil. Proakis said guidelines would address those issues.

A garden is not a farm

Proakis also assured board members the ordinance is not intended to turn people's vegetable gardens into farms requiring government oversight. Rather, the ordinance would be aimed at people who raise food for commercial purposes.

jennifer D. May 18, 2012 at 12:39 PM
this is fantastic! I want chickens!
jennifer D. May 18, 2012 at 12:39 PM
this is fantastic! I want chickens! And bees too!
Pauline Lim May 18, 2012 at 01:24 PM
This truly would make Somerville an even greater city to live in!
Somerville Home Owner May 18, 2012 at 02:31 PM
A garden is not a farm, agreed. But when you start including animals, it turns into a small farm. Explain to me why we want this, and how this is good for Somerville? Somerville already needs to step up its policies and enforcement on property maintenance (a LOT), and we're talking about people being allowed to raise chickens, etc? Also, just because it is locally grown doesn't make it healthy or healthier. I like living in Somerville, but why would you want to eat a chicken or eggs produced by a chicken raised in Somerville? Somerville is not exactly pollutant free. I think it is much healthier to buy from farms that are far from urban environments.
Jeanne May 18, 2012 at 05:31 PM
I love the idea of raising chickens and can't wait to get started!!!
Seb May 18, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Raising backyard chickens is great. Fresh eggs and a lot of fun. I have a portable chicken coop I can move around they garden. http://portable-chickencoop.com
matthew May 21, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I am all for this. I would love to have a few hens in the backyard poking about and giving fresh eggs for myself, my family and friends. They hardly make any noise and from what I hear are easier to care for than a dog is. Looking forward to being able to have them here in Somerville.
nancy August 16, 2012 at 03:55 PM
I would have tend to agree with "somerville home owner" on this issue. I believe it would be hard for the city to make sure that conditions in growing chickens would be difficult at best. I would not want to see a chicken coop in every yard and this issue seems to being going in that direction. I think it may be a good idea but I also think that more research needs to be done on the areas and soil testing and health issues of by products of growing chickens within a city that is densley populated.

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