If you live in Austin, Texas, the city will pay you to get chickens.
That’s right. Whereas in the past, cities often banned urban chickens, our nation has now crossed a threshold in which a city will pay residents to keep chickens.
The program is an effort to reduce waste in the city. And, while chickens will gladly eat your food scraps, weeds, bugs, and even mice or lizards if they can catch them, they don’t perform many waste-reduction duties that a good compost pile won’t do.
They’re just a lot cuter and friendlier than your average compost pile. And, of course, compost piles don’t lay eggs.
Unlike a large poultry operation with thousands of chickens in a confined space, backyard chickens don’t smell. A flock of five chickens in a tidy coop with ample bedding has no odor.
I just completed my master’s thesis about urban backyard chickens. Needless to say, I’ve visited many backyards and visited many flocks of urban chickens. In nearly all cases, the chickens were considered pets.
Unfortunately, none of the people I interviewed saved money by keeping chickens. Eggs are so cheap that saving money by raising them yourself is nearly impossible. But they all enjoyed having chickens, so they were getting benefits beyond just eggs.
Nearly all were gardeners, for example, and chickens produce an invaluable source of fertilizer: manure. Gardeners who aren’t fortunate enough to own chickens have to buy it by the bag at the store. Its effect on plants is practically magical.
One of the people I interviewed told me she got chickens after her husband joked that they should. She thought, “Chickens don’t belong in the city!” and began researching chickens online to show her husband what a ridiculous idea it was.
Only, the more she looked into it, the more she changed her mind.
Until the past decade, many city governments also thought chickens didn’t belong in the city. The laws have changed one by one, generally allowing residents to keep a small number of the animals.
Madison, Wisconsin, for example, allows only four. Seattle allows eight. San Diego allows five, unless residents can provide a sufficiently large enough space to keep more. And most cities ban roosters.
But Austin is unique in actually encouraging people to keep the birds.
Their stance makes sense. Taxpayers spend a lot of money disposing of waste in landfills. If it’s cheaper to taxpayers to incentivize families to keep chickens and divert their food waste from the landfill, then why not?
Perhaps Austin will take our country into a new era, one in which chickens are not just kept in the city by the quirky few. Imagine how much waste would stay out of the landfill if chickens became as common as dogs and cats. That day will not come soon, but I hope to see it in my lifetime.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.