There is a man in the Disrict of Columbia who gets paid about $20,000 a year to advise people on the keeping of livestock. His credentials are impressive. The child of farmer, he boasts a B.S. in animal science and a M.S. in vocational agriculture.
His name is Al Wilkins. His office is located deep in the bowels of an old precinct building on Nicholson Street. He is part of the District of Columbia Cooperative Extension Service and he is the animal technology division.
Wilkins scarely looks the part. He is young, black and a careful dresser, wearing sharply pressed off-white pants and an olive shirt.
He leans eagerly across his desk as he talks about his favorite subjiect - animal husbandry. He has abiding fascination and respect for animals.
Trouble is, Wilkins hasn't seena chicken in the two years he's been in Washington. He doesn't even know of one here, much less a sheep, goat or cow. So he spends his time teaching school children now to take care of their gerbils. This distress him, because he has a dream. He wants every ghetto kid to have a chicken. And he says it's possible.
That may be debatable. But, subject to a few restrictions. It is perfectly legal to keep a chicken in Washington. There are, moreover, no restrictions on keeping a goat. You can't keep more than four adult goats, but with milk production of up to twenty-five quarts a day, a collection like that would propel you right into the ranks of the most serious farmsteaders - ranks that appear to be swelling, nationally, and spreading, locally, toward the city.
There are people all around and inside the Beltway who are raising sheep, goats, chickens and even cattle in their backyards. They are ordinary people with ordinary nine-to-five jobs and what they are doing is not illegal.
Most were in the vanguard of the back-to-the-land garden movement of less than a decade ago - a movement characterized by the WIN gardens of the Ford administration - and took the step of raising their own livestock as a logical extension. They call themselves homesteaders, using the word not in its literal sense but bringing a generic dimension to it.They are people who have consciously made the commitment to gain control over their lives and work toward self-sufficiency.
This is a time in which vast agri-business farms are shrinking and the percentage of part-time farmers is growing. It is a time of run-away grocery bills, food aditive scares and a growing disgruntlement among the nation's farmers. A logical outgrowth of these developments is the boom in urban farmsteading.
Bearing witness to the boom are the soaring subscription numbers of specialized magazines like Organic Gardening and Farming, and Countryside and Small Stock Journal. Locally, a new magazine, Country, hit the newstands last month with its first issue. Country's initial press run came to 60,000 and Washington editor Walter Nickalin is optimistic about its success, based on exhaustive demographic polls.
Organic Gardening reports a rise in circulation from 300,000 seven years ago to a hefty 1.8 million today. The specialty magazine, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, has been growing in circulation for eight years and today boasts a readership of 35,000. Even Rabbitry, a new magazine whose readership is limited to those really serious about the subject, was launched with a nationwide first press run of 5000.
Countryside editor Jerry Belanger estimates that ninety-five per cent of his readership comes from people who hold a job and homestead on the side. A homesteader will tell you that he homesteads and works his job on the side. Regardless, for most homesteaders, there must be another source of income, and that requires, in the vast majority of cases, close proximity to an urban environment. Some, like General Motors heir Stewart Mott, for several years a chicken-farmer on his Manhattan rooftop, have found ways of adding a rural flavour to an essentially urban existence. Others are buying the American dream of a house in the burbs and two cars in the garage - and then adding a new dimension.
Zoning and health officials and county agents in these parts report a noticeable increase in the number of queries in the last couple of years on the keeping of livestock.
But people aren't just talking husbandry or just reading about it. They are doing it. They are checking health and zoning ordinances before taking the plunge. They are battling restrictive ordinances for the right to raise their own food. Some are losing these battles, but some are winning favorable legal interpretations or forcing their legislators to take a fresh look at the restrictions.
Area laws vary (see separate listing for details) and it's a good general rule to check out the ordinances and confer with neighbors before you do anything. In the District there are restrictions on fowl, but all other livestock come under pet laws. In Montgomery County, the laws are very generous, allowing livestock in more than a half-dozen zones, all the way from 9000 square feet to two acres or more so long as the stock is kept at least 100 feet from the next dwelling. Most of the restrictions in the metropolitan area are not based on the amount of land you have, but on how far from your neighbor you must keep the animal. Ironically, the area's most rural close-in country - Fairfax - has the most stringent restriction, a requirement that livestock-keepers have a minimum of two acres of land.
People have taken up the art of homesteading for many reasons, but through their reasons runs a common thread, a yearning for independence and control over their lives. Most of them are living out a fantasy entertained since childhood, the fulfilment of a bucolic dream of growing, making and creating.
Pat and David Johnson (not their real names) live within sight of the Beltway. Their neighborhood is typically suburban, their house a handsome contemporary. Like their neighbors, and thousands of people around and in Washington, they rise at 6:30 every morning to ready themselves for work.
David goes to the bathroom to wash and shave in preparation for a day at a nearby college where he is a counselor. The two Johnson children are still asleep, and Pat pulls on an old pair of slacks and sweater and goes to the kitchen.
It is the beginning of an ordinary day for what appears to be an ordinary family. But Pat Johnson is not geting breakfast ready in that early light of dawn. She is sanitizing stainless steel buckets and filling plastic pails with grain. She is getting ready for the morning chores of tending her livestock.
Every morning Pat and David Johnson share in the feeding and watering of their more than a dozen goats, fifty-odd laying hens, dozen rabbits and thirty-odd broiler chickens. While Pat milks the four milking does, David brings water down from the house, just a short distance away on their one-and-a-quarter-acre lot. He checks the animals that don't get fed until night, and it it is kidding time (from January through June) he feeds warm milk to as many as six or eight kids at a time.
The nighttime routine is similar, but the Johnsons also have the help, then, of four-year-old Peter, who has mastered the art of milking.
It is a routine that, no matter how time-consuming, the Johnsons welcome.
"I don't want to be forced to put my trust in some huge, anonymous company out there over which I have no control," David Johnson expalined. "I always wanted control over what I eat. It's a matter of survival. It's knowing that my family is now equipped with the knowledge that will allow them to survive in any event."
The daily chores take about an hour each morning and night. David said. Saturday mornings are set aside for thorough cleaning of the barn and chicken and rabbit cages. Manure is dumped into the fertile garden, fresh bedding is put down, and for a few days, the barn has the freshest, sweetest scent about it. Saturday afternoons, the Johnsons pick up any grain or supplies they need - the animals consume an average of 400 pounds of bagged feed a week - and once a month they go out to a farm to get a pick-up load of hay - about thirty bales. While January to June is kidding time, May to October is the show circuit. This year they entered their goats in eight of the ten area shows and their basement room walls are lined with more than 100 ribbons from the eight years they've been showing.
The Johnsons' daily routine is one they taught themselves and it is one that expanded over the last half-dozen years as their homestead has grown. The emphasis of their lives has also shifted. From the initial impetus behind the move toward a new lifestyle - David grew up in cities and Pat on a Southern crop farm - evolved a philosophy that excompasses their entire environment. The focus is no longer on job and salary but rather on their lives outside David's job. It has had a unifying effect not only on the fractions of their lives, but also on their relationship with each other and their young children.
This homesteading, or whatever you want to call it," David said, "for us it's become a vehicle for learning about nutrition, about the environment, about humans. It's a vehicle for travel. We are studying alternative methods. We are no longer taking what is handed to us as the only way.
"Doing something totally with your body instead of your head." David Johnson said."There's something very quieting about physical labor - just moving a manure pile or cleaning a barn."
Others speak of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from immediately and graphically seeing the returns of their labor, and of the quieting effect it has on the soul.
"You can see both ends of the food chain clearly," Sandra Kennerly said of her homesteading efforts. "We love to sit down at a dinner knowing that everything on that table came from our own land, our own labor."
The Kennerlys, who live in southern Fairfax County near Interstate 95, have delegated the responsibility of the animals they raise in their five-acre subdivision lot to their three children. Twelve-year-old Laura must get up at 6:30 a.m. to feed and milk her goat, strain the milk and sanitize the cleaning equipment before getting ready for school. Her brother David, 10, grabs a quick bite of breakfast before going out to feed the two horses, three of the dozen sheep (the other nine are out on pasture), the four geese and three ducks. When the weather gets really bad, Sandra Kennerly says she'll take over her children's chores. By then, too, it will be time for lambing, so she must make a daily and thorough check of the nine bred ewes who will be ready to lamb starting in January. Scott, 9, gets into the act in the afternoons, when he tends to the nine pregnant ewes. David Sr. built all the outbuildings for this project and put up all the fencing, which he also maintains. The Kennerlys buy grain every two weeks and, because they have storage space and share pasture with a neighbor, they only have to get hay for the winter.
Neither Pat Johnson nor Sandra Kennerly have fulltime jobs like their husbands, so they are able to take on a greater role in the maintenance of the homestead.But Wilma Hitt works a full-time job, as does her husband, and she still manages her homestead in Springfield. It has changed her life.
For Wilma Hitt 1969 was a bad year. With three children on the threshold of adulthood, a father who was dying and a mother whose encroaching old age prevented her from understanding her actions, Wilma Hitt had her hands full.
When things got so bad she thought she wasn't going to make it, she'd go out to the small barn in back of her house in Springfield and lean against the warm flank of a goat as tears of frustration and sorrow overwhelmed her. The goat would gently nicker and nuzzle her as Wilma pulled hot, rushing streams of milk from her udder.
"It certainly was cheaper than paying $50 an hour for a psychiatrist," Wilma chuckled recently.
Today her routine begins early - at 5 a.m. Right now she is only milking one of her six goats. The feeding of the goats is first. She takes in boarders who are being bred to her buck and she keeps goats for friends on a barter system. The goats get fed, then the geese, peacock and a lone chicken. She used to have sheep, but right now they are all in her freezer. Then Wilma sees her husband off to work, and gets ready to leave for the day. During kidding time, Wilma comes home at lunchtime to check pregnant does and new kids and feed the young kids, who spend the first six weeks of their lives in a large box by her living room fireplace.
When Wilma comes home at 5:30 in the evening, the routine is similar - another milking, feeding and checking. Then dinner for her husband, and the Hitts are usually asleep by 9:30 at night.
Amanda Goudie fought City Hall and won.
Three years ago, all Goudie knew about chickens was that they lay eggs. When she started growing strawberries organically in the garden of her Arlington Ridge Road home, she learned that chickens also eat bugs that eat strawberries.
So Goudie bought eight hens to help keep her plants healthy and provide her with some eggs in the bargain. She thought it was a swell idea, but her neighbors didn't. They complained. And pretty soon Amanda Goudie was served with a citation from the zoning board.
That's when Amanda Goudie, who'd grown up in cities and had run Amanda's Coffee House in Georgetown for better than a decade, decided to take on Arlington County in a battle to keep her chickens. The case was in litigation for months while both sides petitioned and prepared their cases for an appearance in Arlington District Court. Goudie lucked out in getting a young alternated judge that day in early 1975. Goudie claimed right to privacy and the prosecutors cited the zoning ordinances. The final outcome had nothing to do with either. Five months after the hearing day, Judge Ken McFarlane Smith ruled that Goudie was not guilty on the grounds that the law, written in 1933, was never meant to prevent Arlington County residents from keeping chickens.
The opinion was complicated, but what it boiled down to was that Judge Smith may well have laid a foundation for building a movement to change the existing zoning ordinance. That movement has not manifested itself yet, according to county prosecutors, but the law has been tested since. Amanda Goudie got to keep her chickens and that was all she really wanted.
"All I really wanted was economic independence of a very minor kind," Goudie explained. Two heat attacks in the course of her legal turmoil forced Goudie to unload the chickens and she has her doubts about being able to maintain her organic garden next year. But she dared to make a stab at a lifestyle that was inconceivable before she introduced the concept to the residents of North Arlington. Whether or not it is cheaper to raise your own food is a matter of continous debate among serious farmsteaders. It may or may not be, depending on who you ask. But what is undisputed is that homesteading goes beyond the question of economics. In fact, saving money is often considered a happy windfall to all the other benefits - psychological and physiological - that go along with the lifestyle. This, perhaps, is what Amanda Goudie sought as much as anything else.
It doesn't have to be a matter of battling laws to alter your lifestyle and raise your own food. Although area health and zoning officials express a certain amount of dismay at the idea of widespread homesteading in urban and even suburban areas, county cooperative extension agents are nothing short of dreamy-eyed about it.
"I don't think it is inconceivable," Al Wilkins said of inner-city farmettes. "I want very much to see this happen."
Thomas Potter of the District's Bureau of Consumer Health Services, however, is unsympathetic.
"I want to state flat out," Potter said, "that we discourage people from doing this. I don't even like the idea of a person having more than one pet. There are health problems with animal droppings. People don't always take care of their animals."
Ordinances appear to vary widely according to who you talk to. But in the final analysis, the areas you really have to watch are health and zoning. Some cities also have separate city codes that might rule on livestock. One problem that has been tested unsuccessfully in court is the definition livestock versus pets. When does an animal stop being a pet and start being a farm animal?
In jurisdictions where the kind of animal is not specified, the definition is left up to ordinance enforcers. One official even implied that it was one thing to have a pet chicken, but another to have a chicken that lays an egg.
"What if a person had a chicken for a pet?" he was asked.
"That's fine," was the response, "but a chicken that produces eggs - well, then it becomes a farm animal, and that fits in under different laws."
A major rule of thumb is to keep communications open with your neighbors about your plans. Many area homesteaders have conceded that they couldn't do what they are doing without the cooperation of their neighbors, largely in helping with feeding when they want to go away for a few days.
Beyond checking out laws and neighbors, there's the actual keping of the animals, which is a matter of education. Al Wilkins, as well as county extension agents, are paid by taxpayers to rpovide information and education on these matters. Books, magazines, feed stores and other homesteaders are sources of information. All the surrounding counties have 4-H clubs, many of them with livestock clubs, which also help.
Whether what you want is to live out a childhood fantasy, sample a different lifestyle or just eat fresh eggs in the morning, it is possible in more places than you'd think. And, perhaps, even Al Wilkins' dream of a chicken in every neighborhood may some day be a reality.