Sharing my comment on SFGate

Posted by Kitty Sharkey , Friday, May 13, 2011 11:49 AM

Once in a while, I decide to make a comment on a post that isn't owned by a fellow urban homesteader.  Today is one of those days.  I spent the morning reading this article, and the 178 comments that had been made to it by folks of all walks of life. 

SFGate - Oakland urban farming prompts plan to redo rules

And so I've decided to share my response here for those of you that may not have the time or desire to shift through the comments for hours on end.  Even without reading the article and comments, you can get the idea about some of the complaints made by reading my response below.  Guess I need to get ready for the snappy responses from those whose only purpose in life seems to be to criticize others concerning affairs of which they have no direct experience or expertise.

I’ve spent the last hour or so reading through all the comments to this article with a mixture of amusement and annoyance.  Full disclosure first.  Not only do I raise fruits and vegetables, but I also have goats, chickens, ducks, quail, rabbits, and honeybees.  They provide me with milk, eggs, honey, and yes, meat.  All of this fits into the backyard of my standard city lot within a regular residential area.  If you drove down my street, you would have no idea what lies behind my fence.  Unless of course you’re one of my neighbors who greet me as I walk my goats the same way others walk their dogs.

As an urban homesteader living in Oakland, I’d like to address a few issues that have been raised by those that have replied to this article in a negative manner concerning livestock in the city. 

1)       NOISE - Yes indeed, livestock does make noise.  My goats bleat to greet me much the same way a dog may bark excitedly when their owner comes home.  My chickens (no roosters!) cluck quietly as they forage around the yard and proudly (loudly) announce the news to the world each time they lay an egg.  The ducks quack in excitement when I clean their “pond” (claw foot bathtub) or give them some feeder fish.  Note: I drain the water into my orchard to provide wonderful fertilizer for my fruit trees.  FACT:  None of my neighbors have ever complained about noise, or anything else for that matter.  The dogs barking in the neighborhood are much much louder than any noise that comes out of my yard.  And it goes on at all hours of the day and night while my animals are all tucked in and sleeping quietly.  Add in the cars cruising down the street with the boom-boom-boom base up so loud that I can feel the vibration, and I’ll take the happy sounds in my barnyard any day.

2)       SMELL – Animals poop.  No surprise there.  It’s a fact of life.  Dogs, cats, and parakeets poop too.  We all do.  The difference is that the poop from my animals is used onsite as compost to enrich my soil rather than going into the garbage can and ultimately into a landfill.  Chicken and Duck poop (I just love using the word poop rather than manure) are considered hot manures and need to be composted before use.  I have three compost bins on site for that purpose.  But added into the bin along with the poop is the straw and wood shavings used for bedding.  Composting requires four things:  Greens, Browns, Water, and Air.  When done correctly, there is no smell.  Rabbit and Goat poop are considered cold manures.  Both can be applied directly to your garden without further ageing in the compost bin. 

While on the subject of smell and compost, let me explain the concept of deep litter, also known as a manure pack.  In my goat shed, I practice this technique.  Rather than mucking out the pen every few weeks, I just keep piling on more bedding.  “Oh, that must REALLY smell!!!” you’re saying to yourself.  But the fact is it doesn’t.  Well, actually it does smell.  It smells like hay.  It doesn’t smell like manure or urine.  Why?  Because it’s composting in place.  Any poop is covered with new bedding straw every day, morning and night.  Any urine drains into (not through) the deep bedding.  The hay absorbs it and retains the valuable nitrogen inherent in urine.  Animals housed in this manner are healthier than those that are housed on concrete.  Note that my goats are not confined to the shed.  They go in and out as they please.  But that deep litter provides them with a very soft place to sleep.  And the composting action creates heat which keeps them snuggly and warm at night.

3)       RODENTS and other pests – Yes, food attracts rats, mice, skunks, possums, and raccoons, all residents of every neighborhood in every city in America.  If left out, dog and cat food will attract them just as fast as goat, rabbit or chicken food.  The trick isn’t to control them through poisonous bait that one of the animals might accidentally get into, but rather by keeping ALL food in sealed bins.  It’s not enough to put them inside a shed.  Oh no!  Critters are crafty!  Good quality bins with a screw on sealed lid aren’t cheap ($50 each).  But unless you keep all food locked inside your house, they are a necessity.  Heck, some folks even have mice in their house without owning any pets, but I’m not going to go there.

4)       FLIES - Poop attracts and provides a breeding ground for flies and other unsavory insects.  Dog poop on a lawn or cat poop in a garden (grrrrr!!!) attracts just as many flies as livestock poop in a barnyard.  The answer?  Chickens and ducks.  They spend all day scratching around the yard, spreading any manure that might happen to fall on the ground until it is unrecognizable and reduced to dirt.  While doing so, they enjoy a smorgasbord of flies, fly larvae, worms, and all manner of little bugs that inhabit rich healthy soil.

Concerning points 3 and 4 above, I have welcomed not one, but two officers from the Vector Control department of the City of Oakland into my backyard.  I have to say that they were extremely impressed with all the control systems I have in place to prevent any vector issues such as rats, mice, flies, etc. Needless to say, I passed the inspections with flying colors.  Score = A + +

5)       ANIMAL WELFARE – I am an animal lover.  Always have been.  Always will be.  But I also eat meat.  People often ask me how I can eat an animal that I raised myself, one that I named, loved, petted and cared for.  And I explain that this is exactly the reason that I can.  I know how they lived, that they enjoyed their life and were allowed to express their true nature.  I know what they ate and that they weren’t pumped up with antibiotics and hormones.  I have cared for and nourished them in the same way that they will care for and nourish me.  Then I ask how can they eat meat they buy in the grocery store?  Do they want to know how they are raised and slaughtered?  Or how many antibiotics were added to their food and water because it is necessary due to the unsanitary / unsavory conditions they are forced to live in?  No, I’m not going to go into details here.  Our lovely internet can provide more than enough fodder for that feast.  Let me just say that every time I do cull one of my animals for food that it is done quickly and humanely, with the utmost care and respect for the animal.  To borrow a line from Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm, “Animals on my farm have a wonderful life, and just one bad day.”  But here, even the bad day isn’t quite so bad after all.

The fact is my animals are spoiled.  I love them all dearly and give them the absolute best care possible.  I have also had a visit from an Animal Control officer from the City of Oakland.  She really enjoyed her visit and was very impressed.  All the animals were healthy and happy.  Everything was clean and in order (NO advanced warning = NO special preparation).  Everyone had more than adequate housing, food, water, and enrichment opportunities.  Needless to say, she was very impressed.  Again, my score = A + +

6)       URBAN FARMING – Does it belong in the city?  And if so, should it be regulated?  Yes and yes.  The city of Oakland is working on re-writing the municipal code section concerning urban agriculture, including livestock.  I recently invited three people from the Oakland Planning Department to come over and see what is possible in the city.  Yes, I said INVITED.  They were here for about an hour and a half.  We walked throughout the barnyard reviewing each species, their housing and food requirements, the automatic watering systems, and any potential health issues for both the animals as well as humans.  We talked about manure management, vector control, and permaculture.  I asked if it appeared I had a fly problem.  One of them noted that they had more flies in their yard and didn’t even own pets.  I asked them to take a good whiff inside the goat shed, at the rabbitry, and above the compost bin.  Any bad odor?  None.  Do all the animals seem happy?  Yes.  Does it seem over crowded?  Not at all.  And then I asked them to, without counting mind you, throw out a figure.  How many animals did they think I had in the barnyard?  The consensus was about 2 dozen.  The truth?  If you include everyone, the baby chicks and rabbit kits, and the two uber cute baby goats, I have 44 animals in my barnyard.  They were amazed.  And they could see how, with proper planning, urban farming smack dab in the middle of the city in a normal old neighborhood can work, and work well.

We talked about the neighbors and my interaction with them.  I explained how my homestead has really built a sense of community within the neighborhood.  Kids come over to play with my animals.  I give neighbors excess produce and eggs.  I even have a neighbor that I give compost to for her garden.  All at no charge, mind you.  I have neighbors that come over and willingly volunteer their time to help with chores, or to feed them should I have need to be away for a day or two.  My goats have gone to elementary schools, fairs, and community events.  And they also are trained therapy animals.

In the end, they asked me if I considered what I have here as a closed system.  The answer is yes, with the exception of animal feed which I must purchase as I don’t have enough room to grow it.  The animals provide food for me as well as others.  They provide fertilizer for my garden and orchard.  They help till the soil and control flies and other pests.  And they provide hours of non-stop amusement and comfort.  I’d rather have a goat than a dog any day.  They are extremely intelligent and provide the same companionship as a dog.  But they also give me milk and fertilize my garden. 

I love my life.  It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.  But as long as I take all the necessary steps to be a good neighbor and responsible urban homesteader, there should be no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to continue with the lifestyle I’ve chosen.  I welcome regulations that will help define the factors necessary and provide guidance for responsible urban farming while preserving good neighbor relations, responsible environmental practices, and animal welfare.  Working WITH the city rather than complaining about it will go a long way in shaping the world we live in.  Opening my gate and allowing others to observe and experience the joy that comes from owning livestock and running a small farm in the city insures that I stay on good terms with my neighbors and the city authorities alike.  A simple visit quickly wipes away all concerns about the issues I’ve outlined above.

5 Response to "Sharing my comment on SFGate"

Gene Says:

Great response. I saw the article, but didn't sift through the comments, as there's usually a very low signal to noise ratio on SFGate.

Mary Says:

Well said, and great information for those who don't know about homesteading. We do the same process with our chicken poop that you do with your goat's poop (I too enjoy using the word poop). We pile additional leaf litter on top of the poop that falls out of thier coop, and whenever I need the brown material to cover the green material in our compost system, I rake out the leaf litter combined with the chicken poop, and boom, nitrogen-enriched brown matter. And isn't all that animal poop great for the compost!! Makes those temperatures soar. Great posting and I'm happy to have found your blog.

Dana Says:

Well written! I certainly didn't notice any smell in your yard during the Bay-Friendly Garden Tour this past Sunday. Especially considering you have 44 animals. Wow! And I can't wait for the strawberry pyramid tutorial. You could post it on, too.

Dana in the Upper Dimond

Esperanza Says:

Wow! Great job Kitty. Thank you for your post.