Why have hens in your backyard?

I spent my earliest years growing up in the north end of Winnipeg on Alfred Ave. My memories of that time are of a rich and vital neighbourhood life. We lived next door to Mrs. Lomow’s grocery store, which in addition to stocking fresh produce, seemed to a young boy to be a centre of community.

It was in fact one of three corner groceries within a two-block area. Around the corner was the local fish market, and a block away on Aberdeen the kosher butcher shop. Our synagogue was a few short blocks away on Magnus, one of many in the area.

Also on Magnus lived Mrs. Freeman, the neighbourhood chicken lady. I recall looking forward to visiting her backyard with my mom or dad, where I could see the coop and we would pick up our eggs.

On Saturday afternoon we could walk to a thriving Selkirk Avenue and my brother and I might attend the Saturday matinee at the Palace or State theatres.

Also on Saturdays we might walk a bit farther to the North Main Farmers Market which seemed to my young eyes a feast of colours and a delight to the senses. The market was open for much of the year and local farmers, many of whom came from the market gardens of Henderson Highway along the river, sold their beans or root vegetables on the site of the current Mount Carmel Clinic. California Fruit on the corner of Euclid and Main would be thronged with people, and I vaguely remember chicken being sold for meat hanging from stalls.

All of that is gone now, and with it the rich community life that enclosed it. We have gained something; those of us who have the means can walk into a giant supermarket brimming with produce from all over the world and have an abundance of choices of food products.

But we have also lost something — that more direct connection to our food.

Many people throughout North America are discovering that they want to regain that connection, a sense that they have some power in choosing where their food will come from.

Local food movements and urban agriculture are making a comeback everywhere as more people reach out for an authentic connection to the food that they eat, whether that is through growing and producing their own, or preserving fruit and vegetables for the winter, or through knowing the farmer or fisher who has provided the bounty we take for granted.

But taking our food for granted is less seen as a given but rather very fragile. The global food system with its reliance on oil and pesticides, large monocropping and ease of shipping foods thousands of miles may become problematic with the advent of climate change, expensive oil and financial uncertainty.

So, that to me is a way to understand the current interest in urban chickens, and, for those of us who are old enough to recall the 1940s and early 1950s, it’s not something unknown.

A decision by the city to permit urban hens ought to be seen in the context of a renewed urban agriculture and its importance to a sustainable Winnipeg.

And that decision should be based on evidence that others will be offering today. I believe that it is persuasive.

Now, because seeing it is so much more powerful, I want to show a five-minute video on urban chickens in Portland, Oregon, a city recognized by many as a leader in creating livable, sustainable urban community. It can be found on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC0yB3LjM0E.

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