|Photo courtesy of O’Fallon, MO Residents for Urban Poultry|
The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is currently representing several homesteaders in court that are trying to protect their rights to grow food for their families. Here is another account of someone fighting the powers that be for the right to grow food for his family.
“If he wants farm fresh eggs, he can drive out to a farm and get them. They [chickens] are loud, they stink, and people here in O’Fallon just don’t want these animals.” That is what O’Fallon, Missouri Mayor Bill Hennessey said to a reporter in a recent interview. Those words still bother me today as much as if they were spoken two seconds ago, not two months ago. Those words should strike us all with a visceral fear of the general ignorance on which many cities just like mine, operate and suppress food freedom. Those words however, to my true disappointment, sum up my fight with the City Council of O’Fallon, Missouri.
In July of 2014, I told my wife, Jamie, that I was going to get four or five hens for the backyard. I had been, up to that point, driving out to the farm I work on to get our eggs and thought, “Why drive when I could easily keep a few hens in my backyard? Why should I waste the gas and time driving thirty minutes one way to get eggs when I could just carry my table scraps out my back door and carry eggs in?” Jamie, being the level-headed one in the family, said, “You better check to see if it’s okay with the city before you go and get any birds.” Now you have to understand that when I got out of the Navy, I was in San Diego, CA, a city that has 1.5 million people living in it, yet the folks there can keep backyard poultry. Armed with that knowledge, I told my wife that she was being silly because if it was allowed in a large city like San Diego, then of course it would be allowed in O’Fallon, MO, whose population is a little over 80,000. Boy was I wrong!
When I was told that keeping poultry within city limits wasn’t allowed, I started going to City Council meetings. I spouted backyard chicken facts and tried to educate and dispel fear as best as I could. I brought my family along, my wife and two kids, Marely (5) and Stoick (3). At first it seemed as if we were making some headway: the City Council drafted a proposed ordinance, which made it to its first reading and was voted on. To my great pleasure, it passed 9-1 in favor of advancing to the next step, which meant that the good people of my town were now just one vote away from having the right to keep backyard poultry. We were one vote away from teaching my children that clean food should be a right and that we can change the system if we just try.
Two weeks later at the second reading of the ordinance, the City Council voted whether or not to make the ordinance law. To my total disbelief, City Council voted 7-2 against urban poultry. City Council had gone from a 9-1 vote in favor of the proposed ordinance to allow the limited keeping of backyard poultry in O’Fallon to a 7-2 vote to kill the proposed ordinance, only two weeks later.
How? Why? A thousand questions went through my mind. How could they do this? Who were they to tell me I didn’t have the right to feed my kids from a source of our choosing especially if that source was in my own backyard? Who were they to force anyone in O’Fallon to either buy chlorine-washed, shipped-from-who-knows-where, factory-farm, grocery-store eggs or waste time and gas to drive to a farm? So I resolved not to give up.
I called the councilmembers asking why they voted no, trying to get answers. Some of the councilmembers never returned my calls. The answers that did come bothered me more than anticipated. The biggest reason for the change of heart for most of the City Council was O’Fallon’s homeowner associations (HOAs). I was told that most of the councilmembers were either approached at HOA meetings or received calls from HOA trustees and were told to vote no. I was told that councilmembers had an obligation to vote with their constituency and that their last vote represented that obligation. I rebutted that with, “why did it matter what the HOAs wanted considering they wouldn’t be affected by the passing of a city law since they had covenants (rules for living in that subdivision) against poultry to begin with?” No answers and blank stares were all I received. Finally I was told that at the end of the day, they’d had to vote against the ordinance and that I could bring this back up next year for consideration.
I was angry and frustrated. How could I look into my kids’ eyes and explain to them that democracy didn’t work? That the deck was stacked against us and that people were choosing fear and uneducated bias over facts and truth. How could I possibly explain how these men and women had the power to stop their dad from feeding them fresh eggs? We as a culture spend so much time casting fathers as providers and protectors, but when I tried to be that provider, I was shot down. To me this is truly intellectual schizophrenia, so I chose to not explain the inexplicable to my children. This fight had just started, and it was time to teach my children a valuable lesson, on not graciously accepting defeat, but how to stay calm and stand strong even in the face of mind boggling obtuseness.
I started petitioning, continued to speak at council meetings, was interviewed for the newspapers as well as Fox 2 News, and started a Facebook page (O’Fallon, MO Residents for Urban Poultry) to gather support for backyard birds. Weeks passed and even with the news and petition, things really started to slow down. It was looking as if I would have to wait until next year to readdress this issue to the City Council. Then three weeks ago, a full blown miracle happened: A man living in an HOA subdivision was caught with five hens in his backyard. Not only was this hardened criminal keeping poultry illegally but, to my joy, he lived a block down the road from Councilman Jim Pepper. I went to the very next council meeting and asked Councilman Pepper if he was the one who had turned in his neighbor. “No” came his swift answer. Without a pause I said, “Of course you didn’t, sir. You had no idea they [chickens] were even there.”
Four days later, I found myself sitting in my living room with Jim Pepper. He was telling me he was willing to draft a new ordinance and readdress the issue of backyard poultry here in O’Fallon. He says he now thinks that poultry should be allowed in O’Fallon and that he is willing to help me in my fight as long as we find a way of making things beneficial to both the HOAs and folks like me. I have had people tell me that he could be saying this just to get me to back off. That could be, but I choose to believe in the better nature of the human spirit. I choose the positive over negative. I choose to think that facts and education have won the day and that fear and ignorance have just lost the battle here in my small yet wonderful town.
As of right now, there hasn’t been a true victory for backyard poultry here in O’Fallon, but I caught my daughter looking out the window yesterday, just looking at the empty backyard. When I asked her what she was looking at, she turned to me and said with a big smile on her face, “Our chickens’ home.” For now her smile is victory enough for me, but the fight for fowl freedom continues in O’Fallon, Missouri.
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