An Intro To Urban Farming In Pittsburgh.
By: Colleen Shuda
Photos By: Robert John Photography & Donna Perrell
The desire to raise chickens may seem uncharacteristic for a girl who grew up in the concrete jungle of Philadelphia. From their dinosaur legs and talons to their timid clucks and delicious eggs, I’ve been enamored by these animals for years. I know what you’re thinking. Chickens? Really? But don’t you live in a city?
Most cities have strict zoning laws which regulate the keeping of farm animals and Pittsburgh was one of them. I didn’t care. I was ready to be a poultry outlaw… a fugitive farmer who was not going to let The Man get between me and my free-range, grass-fed, happy chickens producing farm fresh eggs. The process to request a permit for chickens was expensive and time-consuming, and did not seem to come with a high rate of success for applicants. I wasn’t going to let some red tape and paperwork scare me. My chickens and I would be just fine living in sin.
Then I started to hear talk of significant changes to Pittsburgh’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Code, which was followed by City Council’s approval in July 2015. My dream was suddenly becoming more plausible than ever, and legal, too!
Now that I am a home-owner in Pittsburgh, I am looking forward to coming clean and applying for a permit. Based on what I’ve heard from other chicken folks around the city, the process is much simpler, the staff are very helpful, and the chances of getting proper approval are much better. Although there is a flavor of excitement and scandal in my fugitive eggs, I expect my taste buds will be able to adjust quite nicely.
I’d love to hear from other city chicken parents! Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have questions, need advice, or if there’s something I forgot to mention.
“These eggs come from cage-free chickens! They must be happy chickens!” Not true.
Raising chickens has brought me to a much higher level of awareness when it comes to the living conditions of the animals that we eat. Beware of industry jargon meant to trick you into thinking the animals are treated better than they really are.
You’ll notice a common theme of what people refer to as, “access to the outdoors.” This is not nearly as glamorous as you wish it would be. There is little to define a required amount of time or quality of the outdoor space provided. These terms are purely a marketing strategy, and do not accurately represent the tortured lives that most chickens in the egg industry must live.
My advice? Shop local. See the explanations below to understand the industry lingo and shop smarter.
According to the USDA: “Eggs packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.”
According to the USDA: “Eggs packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages labeled as free-range must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”
According to the USDA: “Eggs marked with the USDA’s National Organic Program label come from uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.”
According to The Humane Society, “Ruminant animals are fed a diet solely comprised of grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed before they are weaned. These animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing. They must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season (defined as “the time period extending from the average date of the last frost in spring to the average date of the first frost in the fall in the local area of production”).” I guess a few months of grazing is better than none, but what about the rest of the year?
According to the USDA, “This term simply means that nothing was added to the egg. All eggs meet this criteria.”
Local or Locally Raised-
According to the USDA Grademarked Product Label Submission Checklist, “Shell eggs must originate from a source flock(s) located less than 400 miles from the processing facility or within the state in which the eggs originated from and were processed in.”
According to the Humane Society, “The animals must be kept in conditions that allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages and tethers are prohibited. Outdoor access is not required for poultry or pigs, but is required for other species. Poultry may have parts of their beaks removed without painkiller, though not after 10 days of age.”
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE RAISING CHICKENS:
DO YOUR RESEARCH
The internet can be a helpful, yet overwhelming and confusing companion on your journey to raise chickens. Don’t always trust the first source that you stumble upon. Join message boards, search for local groups on social media, subscribe to blogs. Find a few reliable sources that relate best to your situation. Other local chicken owners have been life savers during some of my hardest times.
Here are a few of my favorite resources:
- “Support backyard chickens and bees in Pittsburgh!” Facebook page
- “Backyard Chickens” Facebook page: www.backyardchickens.com and
PLAN A ROUTINE
It’s relatively easy to care for chickens, but you need to establish a routine that involves checking in on them a few times a day. You will need to let them out of the coop and collect the eggs every morning. At night, you need to make sure they are safe and secure back in their coop. Have a backup helper ready in case you are away or unexpectedly not able to be home.
PREP YOUR YARD, COOP, & MATERIALS
Your coop must be well ventilated, but secure from predators. Pittsburgh is not home to many animals you would consider dangerous to humans, but there are plenty of creatures that would love to eat your chickens, and their eggs. Raccoons, foxes, hawks, stray dogs, rats, and others will sneak their way in if possible. You can never be too careful!
Chickens require a balanced diet. I suggest a brand of feed that is specific to egg layers. You can give your ladies fruits and veggies as treats, but be sure to do this sparingly so they don’t begin to rely on this and therefore refuse their feed. Use good judgement when it comes to cleaning out your refrigerator. If you wouldn’t eat those moldy strawberries from last week, neither should they. Always do your research before feeding something new to your flock.
Chickens sometimes need calcium supplemented into their diet. Without the proper amount, you can get soft or deformed eggshells. Some people give their chickens access to oyster shell while others simply clean and grind up the old egg shells. I do a mix of both and leave a supply for the hens to graze as needed.
If you let your chickens free range, you’ll notice they will quickly dig out a spot in your yard for their dust baths. It’s one of my favorite things to watch and it never fails to make me giggle. If you can’t free range your chickens, be sure you create an area for their dust baths. With a quick online search, you’ll get a lot of useful tips on this!
THINK ABOUT WEATHER CONDITIONS
Chickens are very resilient birds, but you must be ready to care for them in every season. In winter, be sure they have access to an area that can offer shelter from the wind. Dehydration is not only a concern in the summer! If you don’t plan on having a heated waterer, be sure that you can change their water a few times throughout the day. In the summer, chickens should have access to plenty of shade and fresh water.
BE PREPARED FOR INJURIES & ILLNESS
It’s good to be proactive here. Make sure you have necessary items in case you face injury or illness in your flock. In addition to items you would find in a typical first aid kit (always do your research to make sure items are chicken safe!)
I’d suggest the following:
- Dog crate for separating sick/recuperating chicken from the flock.
- Vetericyn animal-safe wound and skin care spray.
- Hemorrhoid cream- this can help ease the swelling related to a prolapsed vent.
- Petroleum jelly- can prevent frostbite on feet, combs and wattles
BE PREPARED TO MAKE TOUGH DECISIONS
No one wants to think about losing an animal, but you have to be prepared in the event of a fatal injury or illness. Your typical vet may not be able to treat your chicken. I had a chicken (RIP Judith <3) with a fatal prolapsed vent only a few months into my chicken adventure. Even though we did all that we could prior to making the decision to euthanize her, it was extremely heartbreaking. If you become as attached to your chickens as I am, there will likely be tears and feelings of guilt. For me, the comfort came in knowing that she lived a pampered life and I did all that I could to save her.
I’m sure there are differing opinions on letting your animals die a natural death as opposed to a humane euthanasia. There are a lot of great resources on how to properly and humanely do this if the situation arises.
FROM CHICKEN OUTLAW TO LEGAL URBAN FARMER: UNDERSTANDING THE PITTSBURGH URBAN AGRICULTURE ZONING CODE
“Urban Agriculture (Accessory Use) With Animals” classification under “Urban Agriculture Zoning code” allows for the housing of chickens, ducks, goats and/or bees where there is a separate primary use. Up to five chickens or ducks are permitted with a minimum lot size of 2,000 sq ft, and an additional chicken or duck is permitted for each additional 1,000 sq ft. Exactly two miniature goats are permitted on lots 2,000 sq ft to 10,000 sq ft that do not also have chickens or ducks. Two full-size goats are permitted on lots over 10,000 sq ft.
WHAT IS THE APPLICATION PROCESS?
Applications begin at the Division of Zoning and Development Review, 200 Ross St, 3rd floor. The office hours are Monday-Friday 8 AM – 3 PM. Applicants must provide a scaled survey or site plan of the property, valid photo ID and check or money order payable to “Treasurer City of Pittsburgh.” Once Zoning approval is obtained, the applicant must finish the application process with the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE ON MY SITE PLAN?
The site plan must include:
• Property address and parcel number
• Name and contact information for property owner
• Entire lot, including dimensions
• Scale of drawing
• Existing structures, including fencing and sheds
• Location and height of any proposed accessory structures, including
storage sheds/containers, coops, hives and fencing
• Location and height of any proposed landscaping or fencing attributed
to a flyway
• Distance between accessory structures and neighboring properties
WHAT ARE THE FEES?
The fee for a Certificate of Occupancy is $70. While this fee will cover most residential accessory use applications, some structures may require additional review depending on the zone, size of the lot, size of the structures and conformity with the setback requirements. If the application includes structures that require additional review, such as Site Plan Review, additional fees may be assessed.
I AM INTERESTED IN KEEPING BEES, CHICKENS OR GOATS BUT MY PROPERTY IS LESS THAN 2,000 SQ FT. WHAT CAN I DO?
You may apply for a Variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustments. The Board will consider the specific circumstances of your property and determine whether or not to grant the variance. This process involves a hearing in front of the Board and can take approximately 4-5 months.