Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The incredible edible egg debate is now on Arlington’s menu of public-policy forks in the road.

Culinary gags aside, there exists a suburban urban-farming movement to mimic such towns as Portland (Ore.), Seattle and Baltimore and allow Arlingtonians to raise chickens on egg farms alongside their carports and barbecues.

The bid to loosen an early-‘60s restriction was hatched last year by some greeny health boosters who formed the Arlington Egg Project. They’ve gathered 1,000-plus signatures in support.

In early January, the county board welcomed their idea as one possibility in a larger initiative that might include rooftop gardens and land exchanges. A task force will be named in March, and a full report expected in a year.

One of the ringleaders is Ed Fendley, the onetime school board chairman who recently took a new job at the Environmental Protection Agency. The idea of backyard chickens, he told me, first attracted him when he saw it while stationed for the Foreign Service in Java, Indonesia.

The advantage is that there is “nothing more fresh than eggs from your own back yard, like growing vegetables,” he said. “And the backyard farmer can control what the hen is consuming.” He sees “health risks associated with industrial-scale agriculture and long distribution chains. The greater the distance and time from production to table,” Fendley added, the greater the risks. “Industrial agriculture is one of the leading causes of degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Foes of home-made eggs worry about sanitation and the scarcity of lots large enough for proper pens. They fear odor and noise (though advocates stress that the real noise comes from roosters, which would be prohibited).

I wondered whether professional egg-producers would resent competition from dilettantes. I ran it by Mitch Head, an Atlanta-based spokesman for the United Egg Producers, whose members deliver 88 percent of U.S. eggs.

“The egg industry is not threatened” by urban farming, he said, mentioning that its 250 million egg-laying hens produce 77 billion eggs a year. But it has some “general concerns.”

“The biggest unknown is that it might be a way for bird flu to spread,” he said. Without netting or proper enclosures, backyard hens have contact with migratory birds. Most commercial operations are indoors, in barns, or screened off, he said. The health threat changes by season and region.

Animal welfare is another concern. “Most commercial egg farms employ veterinarians,” Head said. “When average people experience problems, their chicken can become despoiled quickly. It’s not like taking care of a cat or a gerbil.”

Thirdly, “the eggs you buy in a grocery store do not have growth hormones or antibiotics,” he said. All are local, and go to market within 24 hours after they’re laid.

The ordinance that would need changing requires a setback. It states that “livestock or poultry shall be kept in a building, structure or yard for the raising, housing or sale thereof which shall be located no less than one hundred (100) feet from any street or lot line; provided, further, that poultry shall not be allowed to roam at large.”

Fendley plans a good “Arlington-style” discussion on best practices for responsible chicken raising and new regulation. Though his movement appeals mostly to the seriously committed, it’s promoting a comedy night and film titled “Mad City Chickens”, Feb. 16 at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com