City Farming, with Livestock

Sharon September 27th, 2009

In many ways, I’m a city girl.  I grew up in and around a number of small to large cities in the Northeast - I was born in East Hartford,  I spent my childhood playing in grubby and decaying mill cities like Lynn, MA and Waterbury, CT, and my early adulthood living in Boston.  Unlike a lot of rural dwellers, I don’t dislike cities - I rather enjoy them.  Every so often I pass by a decripit row house in Albany or visit my old haunts in Lowell, MA or friends in Newark or Queens, and think seriously about whether I could get my goats on the roof ;-) .  I don’t miss the traffic and pollution, but I do miss the funky culture, the diversity and the energies of city life at times.

Reading Novella Carpenter’s _Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_, I found myself a little jealous - sure, I’ve got 27 acres, but she has Buddhist monks across the street who help her recapture her escaped pigs.  Life is full of tradeoffs ;-)

More seriously, what I really liked about this book was its emphasis on urban animal agriculture - Carpenter has rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens and pigs during the course of the books.  And when she writes about eating from her garden and neighborhood for a month, she realizes something important - she’s suffering from a dearth of calorie crops.  It it weren’t for her meat production, she’d be starving.

This is the reality of urban farming today in much of the poor world - look around for statistics and you’ll see that most cities grow only a small portion of their staple starches - but often a shockingly large portion of their meat and vegetables.    For example, in 1981, Hong Kong had 5 million people and 1,060 km2, and was using 10% of that land to produce 45% of the fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city, according to I. Wade’s essay “Fertile Cities.”

I use Hong Kong as an example of what is possible because it is an extremely densely populated city, has extremely high property values, and a comparatively affluent population, so it is a pretty good comparative to a city like New York City.  In 2002, the city had 6.3 million people in it, and had seen much of its good land developed (for example, between 1981 and 2000, all rice farming, even on the outer islands, ceased) but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and farming 20% of the fish consumed within the city.  The animals were raised for the most part on 160,000 *tons* annually of food waste were being recycled into meat and egg production.

Now this should not be mistaken for a claim that the cities will feed themselves - they won’t.  There is no question that only small cities surrounded by rural land will probably ever feed themselves - and cities that have no waterways or well maintained rail lines may not do well in the coming decades.  But the production of vegetables and meat in cities is also not a trivial thing - and livestock production in cities is particularly important because as Carpenter found, animal proteins can compensate for shortages of available starches if supplies are delayed or costs rise, and they can provide an improvement in nutrition over the typical poor world diet, which includes grains and vegetables only.  

Yes, I know that it is perfectly possible to be a healthy vegan, and would never argue otherwise - but most of the world’s vegans-by-choice do not come from the poorest places in the world, nor do most poor-near vegans have access to the high quality proteins shipped from a distance that American vegans do now.  This is not a criticism of anyone’s choice, but I believe that cities that maximize localized calorie production will have to do so with animal agriculture, including meat production, and that in more difficult situations, comparatively fewer Americans may choose to voluntarily restrict their protein sources.

 Moreover, in cities that are importing grains and other foods, meat animals can be raised on food that would otherwise be wasted.  Carpenter raises her pigs, rabbits and poultry entirely on dumpster dived food that she scavenges for them.  Aaron Newton, my partner in _A Nation of Farmers_ raises his chickens, in the small city of Concord, NC, almost entirely on scraps.  While urban poultry raising has gotten trendy, most urban farmers are still raising their poultry on expensive grains that could be fed to people - but have an ample supply of food scraps at nearby houses and restaurants that could fill the same needs with lower impact.  This is much harder to do in less-dense settings - we’ve tried several times to work out a good system for transporting food scraps, without the use of additional oil, to our poultry, but haven’t found something wholly satisfactory (although my husband is negotiating with the SUNY cafeteria right now, so that might change) - we simply don’t have a lot of restaurants out here.  But for city dwellers, this is a no-brainer.

Meat is problematic on our society because of ethical considerations - most of it is raised in factory farmed conditions - and also because it is often raised by feeding animals grain that could be used for human consumption.  If we take as basic premises that we should and must eat less meat, eat only meat raised ethically and also, in order to feed a hungry world, raise our animal products with little or no grain suitable for human consumption, it becomes clear that pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodable, rocky or wet in the countryside, and raising meat, egg and dairy animals in cities on a small scale on food wastes are probably the two best possible options for raising animal products in our world. 

Many city dwellers grow gardens, and it would be wrong to understate their importance - they provide caloric and nutritional benefits, allow people access to high value, nutritionally necessary and high-flavor foods they might not be able to afford, can provide some calorically dense vegetable and a few grain crops like sweet potatoes, potatoes, popcorn, etc….   We know that urban gardening can make an enormous difference in a city - for example in Paris in the 19th century 3600 acres of garden plots produced 100,000 tons of vegetables, more than the city itself could consume.  In 1944, US Victory gardens produced as much produce as all US produce farms combined - half the nation’s total.  So yes, your five raised beds, as part of an urban aggregate make a huge difference.

But add in livestock raising and the picture of urban food security gets much richer - those weeds growing the vacant lots can be eaten by miniature goats or rabbits - cut an armful as you walk by.  Those gardens require manures, and most urbanites lack a place for safe composting of human waste, so rabbit and poultry manures are essential to a sustainable garden.  Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and pick up a big bucket full of stale bread and salad leaves for the bunnies, or the leftovers from the takeout chinese place (why Carpenter and her partner never actually make arrangements for places to save food for them rather than dumpster diving was one thing I couldn’t figure out) to the chickens.  And then turn that into nutritious people food, adding fat and dense protein to your diet.  Moreover, they can reduce dependency on feedlots, not just for urban dwellers, but for their carnivorous pets.

Bees can sit on a balcony, rabbits on a back porch.  Chickens are content in small backyards and as Carpenter proves, you can even raise pigs there, although she does get some complaints about the smell towards the end - she does  observes that in 1943, London had 4,000 pig raising clubs in the city limits, with 105,000 pigs kept within the city limits.  Guinea pigs and quail, pigeons and fish in tanks can also supplement urban dwellers protein needs.  Given the amount of imported dairy, I’d also suggest the consideration of very small goats for milk and meat.

Cities will never be wholly sustainably by themselves - but neither will most rural areas, which will continue to rely on cities for the manufacture of goods from cloth to tools, and as import and transport centers from around the world.  We may relocalize, but it would be foolish to imagine that all trade and all cities will disappear.  What cities must be, if they are to have a future, is *as* food self-sufficient as possible, and they must be part of a larger project of wide food access.  We will find ways, over the long term, to transport dry goods like grains into many cities - that doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions, or much more important, poverty - but there will be reciprocal relations between cities and countryside.  But vegetables and animal products are another thing altogether - they often require refrigeration, and without refrigerated trucking or train transport, those things are likely to become less available - or more expensive and more out of reach of many.

Moreover, we cannot permit the wasting of food in the scale that we presently do to continue - that’s why we need eggs, meat and milk that can be raised on food scraps in urban centers. 

Our own livestock breeding projects will focus on small scale livestock for densely populated areas - small goats, angora and meat rabbits, chickens with good foraging ability, even small sheep.  Not all of these will be suitable to the most densely populated areas, nor do I expect my farm to be definitive on the subject.  But if you can take the girl out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the girl - and that’s a good thing.  We need urban agriculture, and ties between city girls and country girls (and boys, of course) that help both places raise all the food they can, as ethically and wisely as they can.


25 Responses to “City Farming, with Livestock”

  1. Kate-Bon 27 Sep 2023 at 11:03 am

    Great article. Glad to see you mention rabbits. They are very easy to care for in smaller spaces and the meat is quite good.

  2. Patrickon 27 Sep 2023 at 12:24 pm

    I’m skeptical of how good a chicken one might raise just on scrapts, for the portion of their diet demand grains, sure, but I think you need some pasture rotation in the mix. I bet local neighborhoods could arrange something with park land or whatnot, the chickens get nutritious grass feed and the park gets trimmed and re-fertilized, it seems win win. Of course zoning and safety regulations may prohibit that, which is why I encourage people to leave the USA.

  3. Sharonon 27 Sep 2023 at 1:42 pm

    Why would you assume that all scraps are grain based, Patrick? Carpenter, for example, gets most of her scraps from chinatown, picking up asian greens from behind the chinese grocery store. Cutting grass and weeds for the poultry isn’t that difficult either. Chickens don’t need grass - they need *greens*.


  4. Heatheron 27 Sep 2023 at 3:39 pm

    My chickens get a wide variety. They are in a chicken tractor, so they can be transported around the yard or garden as needed. Much of the time they are in the yard eating weeds and grass. Now they are in the garden eating weeds and garden scraps. They also get whatever leftovers we have and finally supplemented with chicken feed. You really can’t get more varied than that. For the suburban gardener, I think that chicken tractors are the way to go.

  5. Tracion 27 Sep 2023 at 8:08 pm

    We have a 3 acre farm, where we raise chickens, a Jersey milk cow and a pair of Tamworth pigs. My husband is the General Manager of a restaurant and brings home two 5 gallon buckets of food waste each day which we use to feed our pigs. They also get excess milk from our cow and pumpkins which we grow.

    On a recent business trip my husband attended a conference where a buffet dinner was served, all he could talk about was the food waste generated. Once you *know* you can’t go back. Even his employees are bothered on my husband’s days off when the food scraps go into the trash.

    We are going to have to change the way we think about growing food and soon. Some of my Weston Price Foundation friends hold their nose about feeding scraps to our animals. They would much prefer I used organic grains. Wasting resources is just not on their radar…yet.

    Thanks for the post, Sharon.

    Vancouver, WA

  6. Abbieon 27 Sep 2023 at 9:09 pm

    I worry about zoning. On our 2 acre lot, I wouldn’t be allowed to have pigs. How can people have them in the city?

    Sounds like we need a big change in politics before it is legally possible in cities.

  7. Susanon 27 Sep 2023 at 10:44 pm

    There are optoins for urban livestock which would suit almost anyone, as you say, Sharon. Not mentioned here are quails - most of our local councils consider them as pet birds. These can be kept in a small cage, have little smell and even lay eggs. Guinea Pigs can also be eaten and kept almost anywhere.

  8. Lori Scotton 27 Sep 2023 at 11:37 pm

    Here’s a scrap for chooks big picture. If you’re lucky you can buy or grow organic vegetables. I aim to buy these only once a week or once a fortnight.

    Trim all veges on the things you don’t eat. I won’t pay for power to fridge things I don’t eat. Cut off the outside leaves of cabbages, celery tops and bottoms, broccoli stalks etc.

    If you scrub your veges before cooking, keep the peelings from hard veges like potatoes and carrots and inside onion skins.

    Get all these scraps and boil them into a great vege stock. Strain and get all the mushy vege bits and mix with some cheap pollard or bran to make vege porridge which the chooks do very well on.

    Use your vege stock for soups for yourself or flavour it with garlic and ginger and add cream for a creamed vege soup. Serve over a knob of butter, sprinkled with chopped herbs.

    Everyone eats! Now take this idea and refine it so it works for all of you and your stock……

  9. sonrisaon 27 Sep 2023 at 11:59 pm

    I’ve gone by risa here before, to avoid confusion between risa b and myself I’ll go by sonrisa.

    I was also raised in cities. I was born and raised in Honolulu with a few years spent in the L.A. area. I now live on a quarter of an acre completely surrounded by thousands of acres of public land in the rockies. When we found this place we had just paid off 60 acres of pristine mountain forest. Unfortunatly, it was not ready to live on and we didn’t have the money to make it livable. It was extremely isolated and we wouldn’t be able to do anything in the winter. So we decided to sell all our livestock and our little house in small town and spend a year or two in the city working our butts off. We started looking for a house, and found this strange little place about an hour drive from the city. Within a year we decided to sell our 60 acres to pay this 1/4 acre off (we really love it). The experience we had gained on our 1/16 acre “urban homestead” and our 1/2 acre small town lot made us confidant that we could produce a lot of what we need on this tiny piece of land.

    We have wonderful resources available to us right now that will make it easier to adapt in the city. Access to unusual animals from all over the world. Simple and not so simple technologies (I prefer the simple). And most importantly access to knowledge. You can pick the brain of someone on the other side of the world, how cool is that!

    For example, we raise pygmy goats from Africa for meat, milk, cashmere, and tallow (for soap and candles). Japanese quail provide eggs, meat, and feathers. Our angora rabbits (originating in Turkey)were sold when we moved but we’ll be getting them again for wool. At some point we’d like to get kuni kuni pigs from New Zealand which would be used for meat and lard.

    I use my solar oven year round, even in January it will get to 350f. I built a tiny passive solar greenhouse to help heat the house, but it also provides us with year round produce. The only other form of heat our house has is a wood stove and it only gets used as needed December to March. We’re also working on a savonius wind genny. We get killer wind here.

    Knowledge is my favorite. A while back my husband made a little program that went through weather data from around the world and came up with a list of places with similar weather and climate as our own. He handed me the list and I went to work researching crops, livestock, etc. (btw, Tibet happened to be on that list). So much info at our fingertips, but I guess most people don’t get giddy reading research papers like I do. LOL!

    These days they have miniature and pole fruit trees that can grow in pots (I had them In the city and loved them). Potatoes can be grown in towers and sacks. Systems for growing black soldier fly larva for poultry feed. Wall gardens. Aquaponics. Rocket stoves. Cob ovens. The possibilities are so exiting!

    I guess I’m getting a little carried away.LOL!

  10. Jenon 28 Sep 2023 at 8:57 am

    Thanks for the book rec! We are beginning our little urban farm on 1 acre and will have chickens and bees this spring and after the gardens/trees are established, we plan on adding dwarf goats. We live in an urban neighborhood that was once considered RD so we have no restrictions at all. My goal is to provide 80-90% of what we eat and trade for the rest as well as buy grains. I really need to take your GD class!

  11. Wendyon 28 Sep 2023 at 9:40 am

    I think you make some interesting points about how difficult it would be to maintain a vegan diet in the face of limited resources. I’ve thought about the same kinds of things myself, but have been unable to express them quite so succinctly as you do. In the face of a lower energy future, I worry about the people I know who’ve taken a moral stand against eating certain kinds of foods and I wonder how they will manage to stay healthy when those things are no longer available.

    As a locavore and a suburban homesteader, I know how difficult it is to maintain a well-rounded diet when I’ve limited my choices, but if I’m facing a future where certain things may be unavailable to me because of limited transportation, I can’t go wrong by learning what can be grown where I live … and learning to grow as much of it myself as possible. Animal products are an integral part of my family’s healthy diet, and we raise rabbits, chickens and ducks on our quarter acre.

  12. Anion 28 Sep 2023 at 10:07 am

    Where I live- or rather, nearby more urban areas, there have been several recent uproars resulting in fines and legal rulings over people raising chickens. One is a large composting operation with a lot of free-ranging chickens, but the other is a relatively small- 100 birds perhaps at peak- operation. The neighbors were upset over the crowing of her roosters and the state is upset over manure managment- so she has been fined a good deal of money.

    So even where I live, in a ag oriented state, unless you are in a rural area with no close neighbors, many people seem to want their agriculture out of sight.

    Seems to me that people have to learn how to raise livestock in such a way to minimize odors, flies, etc but also to accept that ag shouldn’t always happen somewhere else with only the wrapped package showing up at your house. Animals poop, make noise, etc and to not accept that nearby while consuming animal products is the ultimate in hypocrisy.

  13. Jillon 28 Sep 2023 at 11:18 am

    A number of cities are changing zoning laws. I live near Flint, MI. Flint is experience near-record level unemployment and is seeing the largest mass exodus of people from and urban area since New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. The city knows things need to change and there are many (many!) vaccant lots and abandoned properties. There is a huge push for urban farming and live stock. They are in the process of changing zoning laws and to make the city able to feed those who are left. (not an easy task in an area that was so completely industrialized)

    As the reality changes, cities and townships will make allowance and adjustments if the people push for it.

    *We live in a small town on 2 acres. We are only allowed 5 pets total. Chickens and rabbits are considered pets since children keep them for 4-H programs. We have a dog and 5 chickens and plans for meat chickens in the spring. the neighbors don’t mind because our birds are quiet. Oh, and we give away eggs, produce from our garden and baked goods. :) We would like 2 little goats, but until zoning changes or more people push for it there isn’t much we can do.

    ~Jill in michigan

  14. Crunchy Chickenon 28 Sep 2023 at 3:28 pm

    I second (or third?) the potatoes as something that is high calorie and can be grown in smaller spaces.

    But, my main question though is, are pot bellied pigs tasty? Just sayin… We are allowed chickens, goats, bees, and pot bellies in Seattle. Maybe coupled with rabbits, the laws here are such that having a full-on urban farm is possible.

  15. Someone You Knowon 28 Sep 2023 at 9:38 pm

    Mrs. Sharon Astyk,

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful post!

  16. Judithon 28 Sep 2023 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing all the interesting critter experiences and learnings.

    We now can have chickens in the downtown area of the feisty metropolis of Cotati, CA (pop ~7,500)! We (our cohousing community) had a little flock of about 8 a few years ago, but had to give them away when a neighbor complained that they were “illegal” to keep on our property as it was zoned “downtown commercial”. Never mind that there are feral chickens who reside at the Walgreen’s (and have been seen crossing the road at a busy intersection *in the crosswalk*!) The winds have shifted, so to speak. Now, if we could only get locally-raised chicks!

  17. Apple Jack Creekon 28 Sep 2023 at 10:39 pm

    Like Wendy, I ran into the challenge of eating locally and being vegetarian … and opted to include meat in my diet again, since I couldn’t make a local diet work otherwise. Where we live, it’s just about impossible (not totally so, but it would be really risky) to manage a year-round vegetarian diet. If you have long winters (pastures and gardens are all done here by now, and the earliest you’re likely to harvest much from a garden is July, and that’s with season extension techniques), so unless you have really overwhelming reasons not to eat meat, you’re better off including some of it in your diet to get through the winter with some protein in your diet.

    Even in the country, livestock that work well on small chunks of land, and make efficient use of pasture and scraps are really important. I currently have some of my sheep in the garden as the ‘cleanup crew’ - they eat down all the leftover bits, leave fertilizer behind, and I don’t have to haul away all the leftover vines and leaves (and weeds, I’ll be honest).

    City Chickens are “under review” in the ‘big city nearby’ right now … I sure hope that sanity prevails and more cities change their zoning laws to allow more ‘city ag’. It just makes sense.

  18. Julien Peter Benneyon 29 Sep 2023 at 1:52 am

    Very familiar point abotu meat, but I am definitely willing to give you some trust.

    It is true that in economic terms “pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodable, rocky or wet in the countryside” (what about the enormous pastoral estates in Australia the size of many US states that are economically the most efficient farms on earth) is very efficient. If you understand Tim Flannery you will see that Australia is so ecologically different from Eurasia or North America or New Zealand that the very idea of sustainable farming becomes almost an oxymoron: Australia has only to the tiniest extent undergone the thirty million years of soil enrichment that has made the present-day soils of the high northern latitudes, New Zealand and South America’s Southern Cone the msot fertile in the Earth’s history.

    It is true that farming in densely populated cities is extremely economically inefficient and I imagine would be dependent upon enormous subsidies - it simply crowds out housing space. However, in cities in America, Canada and New Zealand - perhaps in parts of Africa and South America too - I imagine there exist definite prospects for further work in this field.

    I recently read an article at, which said that sprawling suburbs tend to be, vis-a-via other settlements, very heavily dependent upon the public sector for employment. It makes me think that growing food could be an option in such areas for people who want to avoid dependence upon the public sector. I even think there could be hopes for completely new types of communties in the long term.

  19. Sharonon 29 Sep 2023 at 7:17 am

    Re:Zoning - I think this is going to be a big hurdle, but there are already changes acomin’ in this regard - I’d encourage people to consider getting involved, even running zoning board. In rural areas across the country, some areas that have had encounters with exurban suburbanization are enacting “right to farm” laws - which basically say that suburbanites who move in next to farms can’t then complain because they are farms. Now obviously, urban dwellers will have to have more restrictions than rural ones in some cases, but I would love to see (and am going to write a post about this ASAP) the creation of urban “right to farm” laws to encourage city farming.

    Crunch - Pot bellied pigs are definitely edible and (I’m told) extremely tasty. They are small, and because they are an older, unimproved breed, have more fat to meat than the modern, leaner breeds (this is actually a plus if you are going to make sausage, or want lard for your pie crusts), but I’m told they are delicious. They were, ummm…not manifestly bred only to be pets, but are the quintessential urban (Vietnamese) livestock.

    Julian, I agree that another role for livestock is dryland grazing on prarie soils that need permanent grasslands to keep from blowing away - I wasn’t aiming to be comprehensive here, but should have mentioned this. The American and Canadian prairies should also be managed this way.


  20. Stephen Bon 29 Sep 2023 at 8:59 am

    Here’s an article detailing Orono, Maine changing its town bylaws to allow more backyard chickens, in tune with “national trend[s].”

    ‘No new news to Sharon’s patrons on this blog, except that it’s interesting to read the readers’ comments appended to the online newspaper story, especially in a state such as Maine that has such a strong, rural tradition…. People talking about allowing more chickens and hence less need for food stamps, and so on. Nothing against Casaubon’s Book readers, but it’s especially interesting to see what other folk out there are thinking, saying, and doing.

    (I’ve been looking at relocating to Maine myself.)

  21. deweyon 29 Sep 2023 at 9:53 am

    “quintessential urban Vietnamese livestock” - reminds me of seeing a caged cat on the back of a bike in Hanoi that did not appear to be for sale to the pet trade. AAGH! Instant (if temporary) vegetarianism.

  22. Wendyon 29 Sep 2023 at 12:40 pm

    Stephen B - you might be interested to know that Orono is actually pretty far behind the curve ball on this issue. Many of the larger towns in S. Maine have already passed ordinances allowing chickens within the city limits, and some, like the tourist town where I live, never had any such restrictions.

  23. JBon 29 Sep 2023 at 4:29 pm

    I feed my chickens kitchen scraps and garden plants (includes lots of greens), but also purchased feed because I worry that I would be giving the chickens the “right” nutrients to keep them healthy. When you feed animals just scraps, is this something you consider? If you collect scraps from a restaurant for instance - do you worry about what chemicals/additives/etc is in that food? I am intrigued by the possibilities!

  24. Dianeon 29 Sep 2023 at 6:12 pm

    Speaking of Vietnamese urban livestock, my Vietnamese boss (accounting!) in Denver raised pigeons for food. I never had a chance to taste them but doves were commonly reared in medieval Europe. Has anyone tried this?

  25. ejon 29 Sep 2023 at 10:46 pm

    Another gift of cold is time to read!
    Time to add to reading list…
    What happened to your ‘365 Books’ ?

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