AUSTIN — Just a block from the Austin Town Hall Cultural Center, at the corner of Waller and Race avenues, sits a half-acre grassy area that is home to some of the most peculiar kids in the neighborhood. No, not kids as in schoolchildren.
On this plot of land lives a herd of eight kids (farm talk for cute, fluffy baby goats) and six mama goats who produce milk for the city’s only goat dairy, GlennArt Farm.
The farm has been in Austin since 2011 when it started with just two does. It has since grown to support the community by providing healthy food and urban agriculture education for an area with a rich cultural history of farming and food cultivation.
But with an ordinance moving through City Council that would put in place more strict regulations, fines and fees for urban farmers and residents that keep chickens, goats, pigs and other livestock, the very existence of the idyllic GlennArt goats is threatened.
The legislation, which sponsor Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) hopes to pass by the end of the year, would ban roosters from the city, limit the number of animals that residents can own and require permits and community input from neighbors hoping to keep the animals.
Lopez said he wants his proposed rule to empower communities to have greater control over the types of animals allowed in their neighborhoods.
“This ordinance gives communities a voice and a vehicle to make their own collective decisions,” Lopez said. “Some communities may want only chickens. Some may want goats but not pigs. That is a choice for people to make within their own communities.”
Lopez drafted the proposed ordinance after a series of incidents related to farm animals, like the rescue of 114 chickens being illegally kept in an Englewood garage. He hopes the tighter regulations would prevent animals from becoming a nuisance to neighbors who don’t want potentially loud and smelly animals next door, while also supporting the welfare of the animals by preventing cockfighting, animal abandonment and other forms of neglect.
But GlennArt farm owners David and Carolyn Ioder think the ordinance would have grave unintended consequences for urban farmers on the West Side who are already working to educate residents about livestock cultivation to improve animal welfare in the city.
“It would shut us down,” Carolyn Ioder said.
“We can’t economically or paperwork-wise manage it. It’s just too much for me to deal with. It’s hard enough meeting the standards of the state health department, it’s hard enough meeting the standards of animal welfare certification.”
According to Carolyn Ioder, the goats have been happily welcomed into the neighborhood, and residents of the area enjoy living near a farm because many folks in the city are otherwise cut off from nature. GlennArt also offers goat yoga at the Austin farm and at the Garfield Park Conservatory during the warmer months.
“It interrupts the reality of young people who don’t have any experience with animals,” Ioder said.
By allowing people to interact with the animals, the farm is able to offer a service to the neighborhood in agricultural education: The farm opens its gates to schoolchildren throughout the year visiting for field trips, where the (human) kids get to meet the (goat) kids, interact with the farm’s chickens and learn about practices for cultivating food, feeding habits of goats, composting and dairy farming.
GlennArt also does free visits to local daycare centers in the area so young children can get exposed to the animals. Ioder hopes if the farm is not restricted by the new ordinance then GlennArt can continue to expand its educational opportunities by developing an interactive curriculum for youth groups, schools and camps.
Urban agriculture has a special place in the city’s West Side, and the neighborhood expressed its intention to expand on local food cultivation practices in the Austin Quality of Life Plan, which included strategies for preserving and improving on the gardens and farms in the area.
Ioder said the importance of farming on the West Side is not only because of a lack of equitable access to food. It also stems from the agrarian food practices and culture of farming that were brought to Chicago by families descended from slaves when they relocated to the city during the Great Migration.
“Many people on the West Side, older generation lives here and they remember growing up in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee,” Ioder said. “And it’s an opportunity for them to bring their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see our animals and tell stories.”
By learning about the livestock cultivation at GlennArt and other farms on the West Side, the animals provide a vivid opportunity for people to connect with their roots in a way they otherwise would never have the chance to do by learning about the agricultural lifestyles employed by their ancestors for the production of food.
But with the fees, fines and red tape the ordinance would impose, the farm wouldn’t be able to offer any of those experiences to the neighborhood, the farmers fear. The rule would require a permit costing $25 for each animal on the property, and to get the permit, owners would have to contact each neighbor within 500 feet of the property for approval, which Ioder said is too high a bureaucratic burden.
The ordinance would also allow residents to own no more than two four-legged livestock including swine, sheep and goats. Ioder said that would effectively put an end to her herd of 14 goats.
The fines for failing to adhere to the rules would cost her $500 per animal per day.
While the goats at GlennArts already meet the standards of the state health department and have animal welfare certifications, Lopez said the new ordinance would require GlennArt Farm to adhere to a new set of rules guided by the legislation.
“Despite their lofty goals they are still an urban dairy operation and should be licensed [and] regulated for the safety of the community as well as the health of the animals,” Lopez said in a statement.
However, no urban farm license currently exists for the city of Chicago, and the new ordinance would set the groundwork for determining how urban farms would be regulated.
Others who keep animals on the West Side would also be impacted by the ordinance. Cassie and Jimmy Vallarta keep a flock of 10 hens on a third of an acre at their home, styled as the Lakeshore Hill Farm in Austin. They keep the chickens because the flock produces an excellent source of food for their family of six.
But tending to chickens is expensive work and is only justifiable to the Vallartas if there are enough chickens to produce enough food to offset the costs of the coop, the fee and the fines that the ordinance would drop on animal owners.
With the proposed regulation limiting residents to only six chickens, Cassie Vallarta said it just wouldn’t be economically feasible to keep such a small flock. So if the ordinance passed, the family would have to get rid of all their chickens as long as they stay in the city.
“They’re there to feed my family. It economically and logistically doesn’t make any sense for my family to keep just [six] chickens under that ordinance. And so we would eat the chickens,” Vallarta said.
But a major reason why Vallarta decided to raise her family in the city of Chicago is because of the freedom they have over growing and raising their own food resources. Vallarta said it would be a tremendous loss of the richness her animals have brought to her and her children, and the capacity for animals, nature and sustainable food production to be a source of healing in their lives.
If the ordinance passes, they would seriously consider packing up their custom-built chicken coop and moving to a place where their hens would be more welcome, she said.
“It’s impossible. What’s so upsetting for us is it changes the culture of what we’re able to do,” Vallarta said.
Lopez responded to concerns on the economic viability of capping residents at only six hens, saying a flock of that size can produce a pretty large amount of food.
“Six chickens can produce on an unenhanced schedule can easily produce over 30 eggs a week – a quantity fairly high for most families,” he said.
The legislation would also restrict chicken coops to the backyard, forcing residents like Chris Koster, who keeps his chickens at the front of the plot adjacent to his home, to move the coop to a different place on his property.
“We bought this lot specifically because it had all this additional room for us,” said Koster, who lives just east of Douglas Park. “We always had an interest in gardening.”
Koster and his wife enjoy having the coop on display in the front yard because the neighbors love the chickens — even the rooster that would be banned, which Koster said has become like a neighborhood mascot.
“Our chickens are kind of more popular than we are because they’re on display in the neighborhood. So people walking across our side lot every day, there’s kids saying ‘hi’ to the chickens, people stare at them … . It’s a good way to meet your neighbors,” Koster said.
The flock is an important piece of his immediate area, partially because in the Latinx neighborhood where he lives, the chickens remind people of the homes they emigrated from years ago, Koster said. In this part of town, the crowing roosters and clucking hens are neighbors just like everybody else, and their familiar feathery faces contribute to the culture of the neighborhood and make the experience of living in Chicago a little bit richer for everyone.
The chickens are popular enough that Koster is confident if he solicited every neighbor within 500 feet of the coop, he’d have no issues getting everybody to sign on in support.
But still, he finds the red tape needless, especially considering the lack of community input solicited for changes that serve commercial interests in the neighborhood, he said. Koster lives just blocks away from the streets permanently closed to pedestrians to accommodate the Cinespace campus, which has caused heated backlash over the detours residents have to take to get to public transit stations.
“They want livestock owners to notify everyone within a 500-foot radius that they have livestock and that they can come in and voice their opinion and object to it,” Koster said. “But the city didn’t do the same thing to shut down a city street permanently. To me, it’s humorous actually.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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