New York City Backyards Welcome Chickens and Bees

New York City Farmers Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times Ruth Harrigan’s modest backyard in Douglaston, Queens, is a testament to efficient use of space, packed with an ambitious vegetable garden, a drum to collect rainwater, a compost heap, a picnic table and a well-loved swing set. And then there are the four chickens and a rabbit named Sugar Daddy.

“I named Marigold,” Ms. Harrigan’s 6-year-old daughter Riley announced, clutching the caramel-colored bird to her chest one recent morning. Marigold and the other hens, Oreo, Eggy and Red, share a cedar and pine coop. It was a sweltering day, but the birds were busy roaming the 1,200-square-foot garden, clucking and pecking at the ground, liberating the lettuce and kale of bugs.

“Even a small little patch, it’s more than enough for a family of six,” said Ms. Harrigan, 49, who lives with her husband, Matthew, 51, and their four children in a three-bedroom house in this leafy neighborhood of Tudor-style houses with tidy lawns.

Ms. Harrigan is among a growing number of New Yorkers who are turning their personal plots into micro farms. In a metropolis where “back to the land” does not usually apply as a descriptor, New Yorkers are raising hens for eggs, rabbits for meat and bees for honey. They have turned tiny slivers of open space into productive vegetable gardens that often also capture rainwater and compost waste.

Robert McMinn, an urban homesteader in New York City, worked to be sure his neighbors and landlords were happy with his chickens.

Video Credit By Sofia Perpetua on Publish Date July 25, 2014. Image CreditÁngel Franco/The New York Times

These residents are depending on their own yards for sustenance, embracing an ethos that calls for local, sustainable agriculture to lessen impact upon the environment. But for many, the real reason is far less lofty: They find it endlessly entertaining.

However, finding a landlord willing to accept a brood of hens or a hive of honeybees can prove challenging in a city where even a garden-variety house cat can be a lease-breaker. This decidedly un-urban hobby can also rankle neighbors who do not welcome livestock at close quarters.

A seller might worry that his neighbor’s preferred hobby could deter potential buyers. “When you’re selling a property, the wider the audience, the higher the probability of getting a higher price,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “For every person that loves the chicken coop and the garden, there are people who are neutral to it or who think there’s got to be vermin or some other negative.”

Supporters of urban farming, however, see these agricultural projects as an asset to properties and neighborhoods, creating pockets of green in a city of concrete. Some brokers say that a well-maintained urban farm can add to a property’s value.

“Chicken coops, if they’re kept up and aesthetically pleasing, should be fine for buyers,” said Peggy Aguayo, a broker with Halstead Property. “Look at Martha Stewart, she collects name-brand chickens. If Martha Stewart can do it, anyone can do it.” Vegetable gardens, she added, tend to enhance a property’s value.

Lily Kesselman’s yard in the South Bronx is a definite eye-catcher. “People are really attracted to our yard,” she said. “We have fruit trees, we have food. Looking out, our yard is a nice little bright light out there.”

Two years ago, Ms. Kesselman’s husband, Donald Dunn, drove to a Connecticut farm to retrieve four pullets. In anticipation of their arrival, he had built a small cedar-shingle coop in their 672-square-foot backyard.

“It was so much fun,” said Mr. Dunn, a lawyer. “It was such a relaxing change of pace.”

When Mr. Dunn, 40, moved six years ago with Ms. Kesselman into the three-story brick-front rowhouse on a gritty street in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, the backyard was mostly paved with concrete. But Mr. Dunn, who as a child toiled in his mother’s garden in Youngstown, Ohio, wanted a plot of his own. He rented a jackhammer and spent two days uprooting concrete. While neighboring lots remain paved, the couple’s has apple trees, a vegetable garden, compost bins and the chicken coop.

“We weren’t thinking about property values,” said Ms. Kesselman, 42. “We were thinking about food.”

For Ms. Kesselman, a photographer, gardening is an extension of the community work she does in Mott Haven, a neighborhood with scant open space. Four years ago, Ms. Kesselman convinced her community garden to raise chickens. With a grant from Just Food, a nonprofit group that supports urban agriculture, the garden now has a coop with a dozen hens, cared for by 14 volunteers who receive eggs in exchange for their work. Ms. Kesselman also teaches classes on raising chickens and is a founder of the South Bronx Farmers Market.

There is no data tracking how many New Yorkers are tilling the earth — but it’s clear which way the wind is blowing. Last year, 5,000 New Yorkers attended educational workshops led by the New York City Compost Project, a program created in 1993. More than 250 honeybee hives are registered with the city, but beekeepers like Andrew Coté, the founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association, suspect the real number is higher. His association has 480 members, up from 25 in 2007.

The city does not track how many New Yorkers keep hens (roosters are illegal), but those numbers may be growing, too. Just Food has 765 members in its City Chicken Meetup group for enthusiasts. In 2012, the meetup had 400 members.

“My wife’s aunt was keeping chickens in Canarsie 40 years ago, and there have been beekeepers in the city on and off forever,”  said Lenny Librizzi, the assistant director of the open space greening program for GrowNYC, a nonprofit organization, as well as a keeper of chickens and a grower of vegetables and mushrooms. “But there has definitely been an increase. I went to the feed store and they were out of organic feed for the week. The owner says, ‘I used to buy 10 bags at a time, and now I buy 100 at a time.’ ”

Some New Yorkers are not stopping at gathering eggs. They are raising meat for the table.

“We’re definitely desensitized to the fact that we’re eating meat from an animal. We just don’t want to think about it,” said Jacques Gautier, the chef and owner of the restaurant Palo Santo in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “That kind of bothered me.”

So, about six years ago, Mr. Gautier, 35, began breeding rabbits for food on the rooftop of his brownstone, which houses his home and restaurant. Mr. Gautier kept as many as 40 rabbits in the 1,200-square-foot space, which also had a vegetable and herb garden. The city health code does not limit the number of rabbits a resident can keep.

Mr. Gautier’s wife, Katie Dunn, who declined to give her age, and the couple’s older son Dash, now 2, frequently played with the bunnies.

“I really just enjoyed cuddling them,” Ms. Dunn said. Sometimes, she worried Dash might wonder what happened to his furry playmates, but he never seemed to notice. And sometimes she would lose her nerve. “I would tell Jacques, ‘I don’t think I could eat them again, they’re so cute,’ ” she said. “But then he would make the food and I couldn’t resist. They were delicious, I couldn’t help myself.”

The couple recently stopped raising rabbits and dismantled the garden in order to build a rooftop addition to add more living space for their family. While they had the rabbits, they gave large dinner parties with menus made up entirely of food cultivated on the roof.

Proponents of the homegrown describe the fruit of their labors as sublime. A freshly picked tomato is nothing like its pale, cellophane-wrapped counterpart. Fresh eggs, they say, have a darker yolk and a richer flavor than the supermarket kind. And the flavor of local honey varies as widely as the color, which can range from a light gold to a deep chocolate.

Neighbors, however, do not always share the next-door farmer’s enthusiasm. Mr. Gautier installed a fence on his roof to block the view of his rabbit hutches after a neighbor complained, and out of sight proved to be out of mind.

If bees do not have sufficient water, they can overwhelm the birdbath next door. And if a hive is not positioned properly, a neighbor could find his deck in the flight path of a honeybee colony. Chickens and their feed can attract rats, mice and raccoons. And a clucking hen can wander into a neighbor’s yard for a snack of petunias or a nap on the doormat.

“You might have a little area that’s really cute and adorable, but your neighbors have rats,” said Susie Coston, the national shelter director of Farm Sanctuary, which rescues chickens, among other animals. “Most people aren’t thinking about any of these things until everything goes to hell in a hand basket.”

Complaints in New York, though, remain low. Last year, 22 complaints about chickens and 11 complaints about beehives were reported to the city, far fewer than the 1,012 complaints the city received about dogs in the same time period.

In some cases, an established vegetable garden can be seen as an asset to a property.

In 2011, potential buyers of a three-bedroom co-op apartment on the top floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights often took notice of the chicken coop in the garden apartment below.

“It was very clean, it didn’t have an odor, it was very well contained,” recalled Vicki Negron, the Corcoran broker who handled the sale. The apartment sold for $1.4 million, $100,000 above the asking price.

If the property is large enough, a coop can fly under the radar.

2 thoughts on “New York City Backyards Welcome Chickens and Bees

  • July 26, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    I and my folks lived in Little Neck, right next door to Douglaston, Queens , NYC. Douglaston is mostly an affluent community. Thomas Merton in his book “Seven Story Mountain” talks about riding the LIRR into Douglaston and then walking cross the fields to his home in Douglaston before he joined the monastery.
    If we allowed such back farm animal stock in Port Orange, I think it would be one heck of a code enforcement struggle to keep some communities that I am thinking of from becoming health hazards and stink yards.

    • July 26, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Pat, the editor of this web site, let me tell you I love your horizontal script display of recent news and links to the articles. The guy who is going to help me get that same feature set up for my web site is up in Tenn. having fried squirrel brains and eggs for breakfast, but will be back on Wed. to set it up for me. Thanks Pat. I check that news briefing every hour or so for items that I might want to link to on my web site.


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