Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bringing it all backyard

Urban planners are revising their thinking about the future design of many major U.S. cities. Since 1950, eight of the nation's ten largest cities have lost at least 20 percent of their populations. Detroit and Cleveland have lost more than 50 percent of their residents during that period. Instead of trying to lure people back, some planners are proposing radical land use changes that include major roles for urban agriculture.

On a smaller scale, the economic recession and increasing incidences of produce and meat recalls has triggered renewed interest in backyard and community gardens in both suburbs and cities. It started with veggies, but now includes small livestock. (GW)

Bringing the barnyard to the backyard

Egg safety worries, taste preference driving more in Mass. to raise chickens

By Peter Schworm and Sydney Lupkin
Boston Globe
September 8, 2010

They lose sleep to crack-of-dawn cackles. They catch grief from neighbors who assumed the block was a chicken-free zone.

But with a large recall of potentially tainted eggs raising concerns about food-borne illness, the growing number of people who raise their own chickens believe they are sitting pretty, with a steady supply of homegrown eggs they contend are safer, tastier, and more natural than their factory-farm counterparts.

“There’s something very wonderful and earthy about picking up a warm egg and going inside and cooking it for breakfast,’’ said Debbie Lewis of Brookline, who owns a flock of chickens. And homegrown eggs have far more flavor than their commercial cousins, she said.

For those who swear by farm-fresh food, last month’s national recall confirms their fears about the safety of mass-produced agriculture, and raises questions about the treatment of the animals involved. Those worries, along with a back-to-basics ethos that has taken hold in recent years, are prompting Massachusetts residents to raise chickens themselves, even in thickly settled suburbs.

“It’s a little way for people to have a little control over what they eat,’’ said Carolyn Plourde, who has eight chickens in her Lexington backyard. She says the eggs taste better, and chalks up the difference to the chickens’ cage-free lifestyle.

“When they’re out free-ranging, they’re getting insects, getting all different seeds and weeds,’’ she said. “You are what you eat.’’

Although there are no official data on chicken ownership or the number of communities where it is allowed, poultry farmers and chicken owners say the practice has become more popular in the past few years. This summer, a nonprofit organic farming group held five workshops across the state on the topic and said it had to turn people away.

“I’m amazed at how many houses keep popping up with chickens in the backyard,’’ said Peter Merrill, head farmer of Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, which has 200 laying hens. On a tour of the neighborhood near the farm recently, Merrill pointed out roughly 10 homes with backyard coops. He estimated that the average owner has about five chickens.

Boston does not allow residents to own chickens. But nearby communities — including Brookline, Belmont, Lexington, and Newton — permit them with strict guidelines, and residents in other towns have lobbied officials to lift restrictions against chickens.

But most owners live in more rural areas, such as the Pioneer Valley, where a group of chicken owners has grown to 375 members in just two years.

“I think there’s a deeper desire to connect to our food,’’ said Meg Taylor of Northampton, who founded the group and who has 20 hens. “This egg recall is a perfect example of why backyard farming makes sense. You know how the chickens are being raised.’’

That concern also has more customers choosing small farms that sell organic or free-range eggs, which they believe are safer and natural.

“I think a lot of people are turning to organic, locally grown food out of concern for food safety,’’ said Ben Grosscup, who coordinates education events for the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “For consumers who are buying eggs from local farmers, there’s a sense of trust in that choice. You have that face-to-face connection.’’

The recalled eggs are linked to almost 1,500 reported illnesses since May 1, though health officials say there have been no illnesses in Massachusetts connected to the salmonella outbreak. No further recalls are expected, but Congress is looking into what caused the contamination.

Whether homegrown eggs are indeed safer remains hotly contested.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked a rise in salmonella infections to centralized production, and say that infections can spread quickly in large flocks. Most studies show that eggs from caged hens are more likely to carry salmonella.

But commercial egg producers assert that eggs from caged hens are safer than the free-range variety because the birds are kept away from their waste and in smaller groups, typically six to eight birds to a cage. Commercial farms are regularly inspected and must comply with rigorous safety standards, said Mitch Head, a spokesman for United Egg Producers, a trade group.

At The Country Hen, a commercial egg farm in Hubbardston that has 80,000 laying hens, general manager Bob Beauregard said voluntary tests for salmonella have never come back positive.

“We produce and process all our own eggs,’’ he said. “We’re exclusively organic, and our standards are strict.’’

Salmonella bacteria is found in the intestinal tracts of birds and may be found inside eggs of infected hens. It is destroyed by heat.

Debates over safety aside, hen owners say farm-raised eggs are fresher and more flavorful. They are also firmer, making them stand up on the plate.

“Our hens are free range, on a natural diet,’’ said Kathleen Geary, a shareholder at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre. “So these eggs are just a different food.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at


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