At long last, it appears that urban chickens may be on their way to Iowa City. On Nov. 27, an amendment to the Iowa City zoning code that would allow chicken-keeping at single-family homes passed second consideration, 5-2. The amendment must pass one additional vote before being enacted; the third vote is scheduled for Dec. 4.
If the ordinance does indeed pass, it will mark the end of a protracted battle over backyard chickens that has spawned one of the most absurd debates in recent memory and one of the greatest acronyms of all time (I-CLUCK, look it up).
When the first wave of chickens arrives, Iowa City will not be transformed into a third-world barnyard hellscape or an ironically grubby free-range utopia. Neither the doomsday prophesies of chicken opponents nor the dewy-eyed dreams of would-be egg farmers will come to pass, largely because of the regulations that will accompany the legalization of urban chicken-keeping.
The ordinance as currently written would require chickens to be penned in the backyards of detached, single-family homes and kept inside coops from dusk until dawn. Owners could keep no more than four hens (no roosters under any circumstances) nor could they slaughter their hens. Sales of backyard eggs and/or chicken-related products would be prohibited. Proper feces disposal would be required weekly.
Despite these onerous restrictions (which would require major big-government oversight and neighborhood vigilantism), there are some who still believe that urban chicken-keeping would be the death knell for our 21st century lifestyle.
The most common and least substantive anti-chicken refrain goes like this: “Chickens are farm animals. Iowa City is a city, not a farm. Check and mate.” This line of reasoning posits that urban chickens would turn Iowa City into a dusty third-world village where chickens run wild in the streets. In Cedar Rapids, a city more than twice the size of Iowa City where urban chickens have been legal since 2010, a total of 54 chicken-keeping permits have been issued. Hardly a drastic transformation.
Then there is the “chicken-as-nuisance” argument. Chickens, this theory goes, are loud, filthy creatures that will create public disturbances left and right. Only roosters (which would not be allowed) are loud, hens make no more noise than, say, a dog. Chickens cared for in accordance with city regulations would be no more likely to carry or spread disease than the feral cats that already roam the streets of Iowa City. If that thought doesn’t comfort you, consider the 2011 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada which found there is no evidence within the existing literature to suggest that urban chicken-farming poses any outsized health risks.
More egg-headed chicken-haters might argue that urban chicken-keeping has a deleterious effect on real estate value. If this were the case, then it would stand to reason that property values in Cedar Rapids and Ames—another town where chicken-keeping is legal—would have fallen as a result of our feathered friends. Property values did not fall in either city, nor did they fall when chickens were allowed to settle in Portland, Seattle or New York.
As with any other potential cause of public annoyance—pets, car stereos, unkempt lawns—chickens only become a drag on society when the rules are violated. The regulations in place ensure that chickens will not be allowed to adversely impact their neighbors lest the owners of said chickens be subject to punishment from the city.
But the rules that prevent the decay of urban society also limit the potential benefits of chicken farming in Iowa City. The city will prevent chicken farmers from profiting from egg sales, meaning that urban chicken farmers will have to profit through self-improvement.
The affirmative case made by proponents of urban chickens generally centers around the health benefits of homegrown eggs. Organic, cage-free eggs may tend to have higher nutritional value than factory-farmed eggs, but there is no scientifically credible reason to believe that homegrown eggs are better for one’s health than organic, cage-free eggs that can be purchased at most grocery stores.
Given the inconclusive research, it seems that those itching for backyard eggs could derive the same health benefits from giving up Egg-land’s Best in favor of a four-dollar dozen of top-of-the-line supermarket eggs.
For those unwilling to shell out the big bucks for a carton of eggs, keeping backyard chickens is not an economically viable alternative. For a family buying two dozen eggs per month, that’s going to run about $100 annually. Those looking to set up their own little chicken farm will have to cough up $100 up front and $75 every year after the first to maintain their chicken permit. Add in the start-up cost of building the required chicken coop and the day-to-day costs of feeding and caring for a few birds and the cost of keeping chickens has quickly outgrown the cost of high-end eggs. (Remember, chicken farmers aren’t allowed to sell any of their wares to recoup their investment.)
The health benefits and the potential economic benefits of urban chicken-keeping are, as we’ve seen, negligible. This is why there are only 54 people farming chickens in Cedar Rapids; it just doesn’t make economic sense. Given this fact, it seems as though the folks in Iowa City who would like to raise chickens want to do so either for novelty’s sake or to satisfy a profound love of animals.
Either way, economic disincentives will keep the number of chickens and the problems they cause low while also ensuring that only those who are deeply dedicated to chicken farming actually decide to buy and care for the birds.
Ultimately, the impact of urban chicken farming in Iowa City will be virtually non-existent. The town won’t change; the health of its inhabitants won’t change. In fact, the only real beneficiaries of urban chicken-keeping in Iowa City are the chickens, who stand to be plucked from a life of egg-producing slavery and raised instead in the comfort of an Iowa backyard.
Maybe that’s enough.
Skaaren Cossé is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Finance and International Studies.
Zach Tilly is an undergraduate studying Journalism and Political Science. He also writes for The Daily Iowan and the Washington Post‘s swing-state blog, The 12.