Game of Chicken

Arlington Revisits Backyard Barnyards

Arlington Revisits Backyard Barnyards.

By Sally Traynham


The alarm clock rings, headlines blare from WTOP’s Mike Moss, coffee awakens the day and hens walk out of a coop in the neighbor’s backyard. This could be Arlington.

In January, Arlington County Board’s new vice chair, Walter Tejada, announced his focus for the year: creating sustainable and affordable food options, including the possibility of changing zoning ordinances allowing backyard chickens. Currently, Arlington’s code states that residents can raise poultry on residential property only if the hen house is located 100 feet from the lot-line in each direction. In densely packed Arlington, very few residential lots offer this much space.

With growing interest in locally sourced food, Tejada’s declaration is not the first push towards raising chickens in residential backyards. The Arlington Egg Project, a resident-led advocacy group founded by Ed Fendley, formed last spring to promote conversations about the benefits of backyard hens, as well as dispelling myths: Roosters—not hens—create the infamous crow.

Additionally, the Committee of One Hundred, Arlington’s almost 60-year-old community forum, hosted a meeting earlier this year to discuss the issue. Board Chair Lincoln Cummings recognized the movement as a way for people “to get back to the Earth.”

With the popularity of farmers markets and Michelle Obama’s famed White House garden, backyard chicken raising would be the natural next step. There is now a stronger desire to understand where food comes from, culminating in the rise of canning, roof-top gardens, and now, urban animal husbandry.

Penny Gerber raised hens in her northeast Washington, D.C., backyard for just over a year and credits feelings of nostalgia for the movement’s recent popularity.

While currently on hiatus from chicken raising (the chicks faced an unfortunate run-in with foxes), Gerber continues collecting egg cartons for her next batch of fowl.

However, questions accompany this idealistic approach. Among the top concerns are rodent infestation, cleanliness, smell, noise and decreased property values, explains Tejada. Contrary to the majority of support for Gerber’s flock, one neighbor expressed concerns about her children’s interaction with the chickens and potential health risks.

To begin addressing questions surrounding possible ordinance changes, Tejada intends to create a task force of citizens and county staff to gather information about promising practices in sustainable urban agriculture and how to support, grow and successfully integrate these efforts with the community’s values. While Tejada expects to launch this task force this month, it will likely take about a year to gather sufficient data. Until then, open forums may act as an informative launching point.

Arlington is not alone in its endeavor. Support for backyard hens thrives within neighboring counties, including Alexandria and Fairfax County, which also have similar zoning restrictions as those in Arlington. In tune with the Arlington Egg Project, community residents in these counties actively voice their support in hope that further discussion will equate to progress in re-zoning. A look at other urban areas, such as D.C.’s current policy on backyard chickens, might be helpful in determining Arlington’s future: In the District, in order to legally raise chickens, residents must apply for a permit, which includes gaining neighbors’ approval and passing an inspection.

For all of those hoping that zoning laws will change, keep gathering those egg cartons. As Fendley fondly stares at his circa 1918 USDA poster espousing the virtues of citizen farmers—“Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens”—perhaps Arlington will revive this historic American tradition.


3 Insider Tips on Raising Backyard Chickens

Acquiring a feathered friend is fairly simple. Van Deventer suggests purchasing chicks through a hatchery online ( and or buying them from a local farm as “pullets” (adult chickens that are ready to lay eggs) by talking with an egg purveyor at farmers markets.

Chickens are gentle creatures that can be great companions—name them, play with them, hold them—Gerber recommends, calling her backyard chickens “reality TV.”

Egg size varies depending on breed. However, Haskins notes newly laying chickens will hatch smaller eggs, but will increase within two months to about two ounces. Most chickens lay one egg per day. But according to Van Deventer, as seasons change, so will the chicken’s cycle: In summer’s extreme heat and winter’s shorter days, they may lay fewer eggs.

From experts Elizabeth Van Deventer, of Davis Creek Farm (Lovingston); Penny Gerber, backyard chicken farmer (the District); and Mary Haskins, of Haskins Family Farm (Middletown).


(March 2012)