The Trouble with ‘Civilized’ Living

City living irritates me. There are so many rules, regulations, and restrictions in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘health’. I tend to think a lot of the limitations have much more to do with preserving some notion of civility and with a cultural effort to keep our lives distanced from what nourishes and sustains us.

Prickly pear cactus and corn fill a local city front yard on the 'poor' side of town.

Prickly pear cactus and corn fill a local city front yard on the ‘poor’ side of town.

Why can’t we have a rooster, for instance? Or goats? Why can’t we sell the food we grow at a little stand out by the road, or walk the ten minutes to the local farmers market (where you can buy produce grown several hundred miles away) and sell it there?

Sure, roosters are noisy—as we discovered when we accidentally raised two of them—but so is the neighbor’s incessantly barking dog, and so are the numerous celebrations at the rental party hall down the block (yes, really).

Maybe I should stop complaining and just be grateful there’s no HOA to report to in our neighborhood, no law against front yard food, and that we can indeed keep a few chickens legally. We can keep bees legally here too, in theory, and in practice no one has complained.

The reality is that city rules around food production and animal husbandry vary radically between communities. Several of the larger cities around us (San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley) do allow goats, as do multiple other cities around the US. San Francisco allows roosters, too, but they’re in the minority on that one. Seattle, WA allows urban farmers to sell their produce.

Other towns around us categorically prohibit bees or chickens, or create restrictions that make it logistically impossible for most residents. For example, in our town of mostly small suburban lots, one can keep two goats for every one-acre parcel of land. In other local towns, beehives must be kept a minimum of 200 yards from any dwelling, including that of the beekeeper.

Aside from serving a party-pooper capacity—Really? I can’t pursue every theoretically possible edible adventure in my backyard?!!!—limitations on urban gardeners and farmers restrict the degree to which we can create self-sufficient food systems in cities. If there’s no rooster, there aren’t going to be any chicks, and every new round of birds will require a trip to the feed store or an arrangement with more rural chicken-breeding friends. Likewise, I haven’t heard of any US cities that allow the keeping of unneutered male goats.

In cities where beekeeping is allowed, restricting apiaries to just one or two hives makes bee breeding and selection efforts more challenging. High rates of winter die-offs often result in small-scale backyard beekeepers losing all of their hives in a given season. When these beekeepers resort to purchasing spring bee packages from non-locally adapted and genetically homogenous sources, costs rise, sustainability plummets, and the quality of local bee stock is compromised for everyone—there’s no controlling which drones my queens mate with.

City swarming. Honey bee swarms make a dramatic sight, but the bees are actually quite docile while swarming. With bellies full of food, a queen to keep warm, and a new home to find and democratically agree upon, their focus is far from attacking humans. Urban beekeepers can also take steps to limit colony swarming.

City swarming. Honey bee swarms make a dramatic sight, but the bees are actually quite docile at this time. With bellies full of food, a queen to keep warm, and a new home to find and democratically agree upon, their focus is far from attacking humans. Urban beekeepers can also take steps to limit colony swarming.

Prohibitions on selling food produced in areas zoned residential (this is true almost across the board) restrict a community’s capacity to access truly locally grown food and put the kibosh on urban farmers’ entrepreneurial aspirations.

While many of us resentfully play by the rules, others go underground—keeping bees or poultry on the sly. Members of our beekeepers guild have had lengthy discussions about how best to camouflage beehives, and these same beekeepers fret every spring about the possibility that their colonies will swarm into neighbors’ yards.

If playing by the rules or breaking them doesn’t appeal, there is always the (at least theoretical) option of moving to a more rural clime. But that, too, has its barriers and its insult. First there is the financial cost of relocating, and then the reality that work is often harder to come by and pays less the further one goes from metropolitan areas. And, finally, there’s the fact that we shouldn’t have to give up the place we call home just to be able to grow food and raise animals.

Kelly and I go back and forth about our ideal location. Even as we dream of greener and more wide-open pastures elsewhere, we continue to invest time and heart in this rented city lot. There is something to be said for the diversity of urban communities, as well as for conspicuously growing food in places where lawns and tidy flowerbeds are the standard.

There’s also something to be said for taking an active role in changing city ordinances that impinge on food production and agroecosystem sustainability. A group of our beekeeping friends are working with local city governments to create more informed and bee-friendly ordinances. Maybe one of these days we’ll find the time and internal reserves to go lobby for goats and roosters.

8 Responses to The Trouble with ‘Civilized’ Living

  1. This is a great post. Even as cities around the country are starting to be more open to urban farming there is still a long ways to go.

    I think these laws originated after WWII when people were moving to the suburbs and didn’t want reminders of the rural lives they were living behind. City people in the past kept chickens, pigs, goats, a milk cow sometimes and of course they gardened. But over time we’ve become so culturally disconnected from food that those things seemed dirty or undesireable. Hopefully that attitude is changing (thanks to people like you!)

    Even out here in the country we are restricted by laws that may have been well-intended when enacted, but now hurt sustainable local economies, such as laws prohibiting the sale of raw milk, meat processed on-farm or requiring government-inspected kitchens. Here in Virginia we’re trying to get a law passed that would eliminate those restrictions and there is a proposed constitutional amendment to do so as well. Industrial ag is opposing the laws of course (they threaten its monopoly) but I see the winds of change stirring.

    One final thought–Augustine said an unjust law is no law at all. Just saying… 🙂

    • Thanks, Bill, always good to hear from you here. I am intrigued by the cultural origins of these laws. My grandmother’s last living cousin, a lovely spirited woman born in 1919, remembers having a milk cow near the heart of Oakland, CA, in the early ’20s. I’m sure you’re right that many of the laws originated around WWII, as did so many farm-unfriendly practices. At the same time, some of the towns around us have only recently enacted laws against keeping honey bees, and our own little city outlawed roosters just a few years ago. Perhaps the boom in recent years of urban food production efforts has inspired some of the unfortunate laws now on the books. I doubt, for example, there were as many people in my town interested in keeping roosters 30 years ago as there might be today.

      At any rate, I hope you’re right that winds of change are stirring.

  2. Excellent post, I share in and agree with your frustrations.
    I’m at least zoned to allow roosters, but that doesn’t stop neighbors from complaining! I’ve decided keeping the peace is better than pushing buttons so any accident roo gets turned into soup.
    I get so frustrated every time I read or hear about climate reports, environmental reports, etc., and while there are some big major issues, many could be fixed with the simple fact of ALLOW US TO GROW AND PRODUCE OUR OWN FOOD!!! At least your not in an HOA and can hang dry your clothes! Can you believe thats against the law in so many places?

    • I envy you your rooster zoning, while sharing your hesitation to piss the neighbors off. We just got our first complaint from neighbors of one of our hive hosts, and we’re bending over backwards to try to keep everyone happy. Yikes! So many of the laws, and just general public opinion, serve as barriers rather than encouragement to make our lives more sustainable. I’m often tempted to pick up and move to the middle of nowhere.

  3. Having just caught up on these posts I was interested to note your hands are tied by the same bureaucratic petty officialdom as we in the UK. Our allotment association was recently asked if we would care to sell excess produce at a local farmers market but having looked into Trading Standards rules, public liability insurance and every other kind of obstacle thrown in the way of anyone with a hint of gumption we had to decline.

    Last night I watched a fascinating documentary about the history of an area of London I was raised in where only 30 years ago someone was keeping goats, a pig, chickens (including roosters) and even a pony in a large rear garden without complaint from neighbours or officialdom and I did wonder who cloned all these grey men and women in their grey suits who now wander far and wide with clipboards under one arm telling us all what we can and can’t do. Progress? I think not!

    • I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. As i watch our town rapidly gentrifying, I wonder what new limitations are to come. It makes me so mad how little common sense seems to go into many of the rules and regulations. Are there areas in the UK where rules are more friendly toward food growers/producers? I’ve done some research these past few months, and there are a few cities can find in the US where gardeners are literally able to sell produce in front of their own home. Tempting to pick up and move to Seattle, Washington. A new CA law in the past few years does make it easier to sell some prepared foods in “cottage industries,” but fresh produce is generally out.

  4. We now have what most refer to as a nanny state. We’re told it’s all for our own good and the “establishment” is only protecting us…. as if we can’t take care of ourselves! Most rules governing what farmers can grow or the public can sell come from Brussels (EU parliament) and when they decide cucumbers can only be sold if they don’t have a curve or dairy farmers have to pour milk down the drains because this year Poland (or France, or Denmark!) gets to produce it and we have to import, then so be it. You can imagine then that me trying to sell a few eggs outside my property or homemade jam at a local fayre would bring a ton of bureaucracy down on my head so no Sarah, we’re no better off in that regard because common sense has gone out the window. I’d probably have to move to a remote Scottish community in the hopes officialdom never came knocking so far north except we now have satellite tracking so wouldn’t get away with that either. Big brother eh!

    • Too bad! I wonder how things will/won’t change in this domain over the coming decades. If I had more time, I might dive into some grassroots organizing around these issues.

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