Z Urban Farmer: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Driveway?

By Kelly MacConomy

Green acres is the place to be. Farm living is the life indeed. Land spreading out so far and wide. But if you don’t want to keep Manhattan or get that countryside and adore the stores, perhaps Alexandria is where you’d rather stay? These days locavore food trends are all the rage. Farmers markets and food share/co-ops are popping up all over Alexandria and the DMV. Restaurants tout locally sourced dairy products, meat, fish, oysters, produce and herbs. Even beer and wine proudly claim to be local and authentic.

A question frequently asked to City Hall is whether or not certain farm animals are permitted within the Port City limits. Fresh eggs from organically, and vegetarian-fed, free range chickens prove to be a hot commodity. Dreams of that grand greenhouse or cottage-chic “she shed” have been upstaged by visions of chicken co-op-Mahals that even Martha Stewart would envy.

Here are the Alexandria City regulations regarding farm animals as pets: Title 5 Chapter 7 Section 2 Keeping Fowl: it shall be unlawful for any person to keep or allow to be kept within the City, within 200 feet of an residence or dwelling not occupied by such person, any fowl. Fowl for the purposes of this coop code refers to chickens, hens, roosters, ducks, geese, pigeons or any domesticated barnyard bird. So that’s a yes on peacocks! Roosters are not prohibited but there is a noise ordinance which applies to frequent and prolonged sound disturbances. Palais de poulet permits are not required.

The equine companion is a must for every urban cowboy or girl. Courtesy photo.

If the stunning classic car collection doesn’t make you careen onto the bike lane traveling down King Street toward Old Town, you may do a double take on catching a glimpse of the horses and free range chickens crossing the driveway at the stately home of Jeff Yates, who passed away earlier this year. The City does permit livestock, providing the property consists of a minimum of one and half acres for up to two head of livestock and their immature offspring, with an additional half acre for each additional head. A head means one individual animal. Livestock, according to City Code, includes horses, ponies, mules, burros, cows, bulls, steers, calves, heifers, sheep and goats. So much for a home baby goat yoga studio. The Code does make an exception for traveling livestock working special events and for business purposes.

Alexandria history demonstrates that the City from its earliest days was a thriving farming community, as much an economic boon as to Port City as its storied seaport commerce. Livestock were a common street sight in daily life well into the 20th Century. Colonial map depictions and plat descriptions illustrate sheep grazing from the river to beyond Shuter’s Hill all the way to what is now the Fairfax line. A number of the historic farm houses remain including two in Seminary Valley alone, where livestock roamed among the apple orchards.

Oral history narratives from the Office of Historic Alexandria speak to the past during days of segregation when people of color were not permitted in City pools. The Potomac River offered a respite from the sweltering summer heat and humidity of the city for both human relaxation and the casual urban cattle driver. In 1999, giving an interview to Mitch Weinshenk, Helen Miller, whose father made deliveries via horse and wagon, reminisced about coming out of the expansive Potomac swimming hole having to dodge a herd of cattle. “Can you imagine? You’re a kid and you’re in the water and here comes about a dozen cows coming down there to drink the water in our swimming pool, which was the river!”

Ms. Miller described the demise of the vestiges of farming in the area of North Old Town near the former Alexandria Canal, which was a diaspora nexus of the African American community known as Cross Canal. “Cross the Canal where all this expensive stuff is now was the dump, a carnival ground back up this way, hogs, chickens, cows and the city dump.” Urban renewal, yuppification, and gentrification have taken most of the story out of this rich local history and herstory: more like urban deprivation than regeneration.

From Alexandria to Los Angeles, thousands of Americans are raising chickens in their backyards. Courtesy photo.

The urban farmer of today can be as lawyerly as Oliver Douglas, also known as Eddie Albert, and as lovely as Lisa Douglas, aka Eva Gabor. Alex Batt-Crawford, wife of Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, has an apiary in her modest Aspen Street backyard, collecting honey for the enjoyment of family and friends. For now, honey takes on the subtle notes and essences culled from the terroir of the floral extractions available to the hive. Season and climate contribute to variations of taste and texture just like wine, beer and malt whiskeys. Something tells us that a Port City blend is just around the corner.