Tracey Lea Frisch loves her pet chickens, which she keeps in her yard on the side of her house in the Hopecrest neighborhood in Morgantown.
“This is Pudding and Vanilla and Mr. Looster and Lucky and Star and Moonlight and that’s Roadrunner, and that’s Fluffy - the big one,” she said as she fed them grapes. “I have one broody; she’s pretending to have chicks. It’s not going to happen.”
But last fall, thirty of Frisch’s neighbors sued her, alleging that the chickens smelled bad, were noisy, ran wild and brought down property values. Locally, the chickens have become a sort of cultural phenomenon. They are now known as the “Hopecrest Chickens” - some dedicated community members have even created a Facebook page and a Youtube channel on their behalf. Fun aside, the issues brought up in the case represented a larger discussion about growing vegetables and fruits and raising livestock in cities, a practice known as urban agriculture.
More cities in the U.S. are experimenting with urban agriculture, by growing crops on roofs or indoors with the help of LED lighting. Rick Snuffer, the state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, said that the USDA’s push for urban agriculture isn’t only fueled by aesthetic and environmental concerns, but by a sustainable one too. As the country’s population grows, there’s less land on which to grow food to feed them.
“There are six million dollars in food that has to be brought into West Virginia every year that could be grown here in West Virginia,” he said. “It’s imported from other states or countries. And, that’s one of the things the Commissioner of Agriculture is very concerned about - how can we create more of those crops at home?”
Yet urban agriculture is rare in West Virginia, and in Morgantown, a proposed urban agriculture ordinance combined with the Hopecrest Chicken lawsuit has sparked a prolonged debate between neighbors about who can garden what and where. The ordinance first entered the public’s eye in April 2015, and was modeled after an urban agriculture ordinance passed in Charleston.
“It was viewed as an opportunity to put land into productive use that was otherwise sitting vacant, and to encourage home gardeners and others to practice some of their own food production,” said Jim Kotcon, a professor of plant pathology at West Virginia University who also serves on the Morgantown Municipal Green Team. He helped draft the original version of the ordinance. “Given the long-running desire for fresh vegetables and fruits, and the ability to promote local foods, it was viewed as a positive opportunity and many viewed it as such at that time.”
Then, a couple of months before the Hopecrest Chickens lawsuit was served, city council discussed a more restrictive draft of the ordinance. It would put tighter limits on how much livestock residents could own, possibly require permits to build structures like doghouses or trellises and restrict how close those structures could be to the neighbor’s yard. Though some gardeners believe that this ordinance discourages urban agriculture, others appreciate some restrictions.
“They haven’t mowed. They have not weeded at all,” said Kevin Downey, a longtime Morgantown resident, of his neighbor’s front yard. “You can see the watermelons has grown through there so you can’t get a lawn mower in there. The trellis - you can see it’s made out of pipes, metals, plastics, pieces of wood, pieces of anything. I don’t know, personally I don’t think it belongs in the front yard.”
Kotcon says the issue of who gets to garden what isn’t a petty one at all. On a global scale, being able to self-sustain is important to a country’s national security. On the backyard scale, he thinks gardening is a radical act, and being able to grow one’s own food especially resonates with young people.
“It is the fundamental right of each person to wrest a living from the land, free of any corporate control, working with nature to create their food and perhaps a surplus for sale and profit,” he said. “That is something inherently American.”
It’s unclear when Morgantown’s proposed ordinance will return to the city council agenda. But until then, some residents will continue doing what they love best - growing and eating the food they grow in their own backyards.