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Between the Lines: Chicken Scratch

Urban agricultural initiative or fowl tax?

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

While working in the garden the other night, listening to my chickens going through the vocal routines they perform every evening as they go off to bed, I felt blessed that I live in rural Franklin County, in a town where neither neighbors nor town politicos have felt the need to regulate and tax my modest backyard operation.

A few days earlier, I’d met a young man who lives in Dedham, a once-rural suburb about 20 minutes from Boston. Now in his early 20s, he’d grown up as many people do these days: knowing next to nothing about where his food comes from. To fill in the gaps in his education, he decided to plant some crops and raise some chickens. So he bought a home in Dedham, fenced in his yard, dug himself a big vegetable garden and bought a small chicken coop and run. Then he went looking for chickens.

He wanted more, but he settled for six hens, conforming to rules imposed by Dedham’s Board of Health. “Even if they let me have more, I couldn’t afford it,” he told me. “For six chickens in Dedham, you need a $50 annual permit. Depending on the size and location of your property, you can have more, but then it’s $100 a year.” Given the expense of housing and feeding chickens, even the $50 fee made him question whether it’s worth it.

Dedham, of course, isn’t the only municipality in the state with such rules on the books. In fact, last month Somerville became the first city in the Commonwealth to adopt a comprehensive policy to address the rising interest in backyard food production, including regulations on gardening, raising chickens, keeping bees and other agricultural endeavors. Communities like Cambridge and Boston are right on Somerville’s heels. And while proponents of these so-called “Urban Agricultural Initiatives” insist that the policies are designed to promote public involvement in small-scale, sustainable food production, the steep annual fees on raising chickens or ducks or bees will, in the long run, deter residents from trying to raise some of their own food.

Locally, a number of communities have chicken ordinances on the books. The issue has come up in some contentious ways in Holyoke and Northampton, among other places, but so far, the region’s tax-happiest communities have managed to steer clear of imposing fees on backyard chicken growers. Sadly, the political winds that blow from Cambridge and Boston often carry bad ideas to the Pioneer Valley.

Small-space food production should be truly encouraged by local government, not tightly regulated and taxed. Politicians and consituents who view raising backyard chickens as atavistic and a nuisance should pay more attention to where their own food comes from.•

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