June 24, 2010

CLUCK: Urban farms increase in Montgomery County

Mark Parisi, who spent his boyhood on a Connecticut farm, thought it made perfect sense to put two pigs in his suburban Takoma Park back yard and raise them to become pork chops. But not everyone in the neighborhood was thrilled to see the porkers rolling around in the dirt. Soon, someone squealed, and the authorities came calling. But when they arrived, time and again, they found nothing amiss on Parisi's small plot of land. It turns out that pigs, chickens, goats and the occasional rooster are perfectly legal in Montgomery County and many other Washington suburbs. That puts the buttoned-down, Blackberry-obsessed region, partly by accident, partly by design, on the leading edge of a national "grow your own" movement that has evolved well beyond organic vegetables.

"Yes, some of my friends think I am crazy," said Parisi, who works in sales for a construction firm, uses a Blackberry and is the proud owner of 350-pound Myrtle and the more svelte Merrill, who last weighed in at 150 pounds. Parisi said his affinity for farm animals is akin to someone who might have a passion for $300 shoes. "Everyone has their own definition of 'crazy,' " he said.

Parisi is hardly alone in raising suburban livestock. Around the Beltway, where farmland has given way to suburbia in the past four decades, the rules of the roost range. In the Washington area, the District alone has an outright ban on farm animals, but suburbs such as Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax allow pigs, chickens, goats and other livestock under certain conditions.

It's clear that farm animals are dwelling amidst the swimming pools, soccer fields and shopping centers. Across the country, many communities are loosening rules banning backyard livestock. The popularity of such small-scale farming is also evident in new, glossy magazines such as Urban Farm; Chickens; and Hogs. In many jurisdictions, there also has been an uptick in complaints about suburban farm animals.

That's the case in Montgomery County, where two years ago the zoning office received only six calls about farm animals in residential neighborhoods. In fiscal year 2009, there were 11. So far, this fiscal year, which ends June 30, there have been 24 -- from chickens in Bethesda to goats in Derwood. Most of the animal owners aren't doing anything illegal, such as creating too much ruckus or spilling manure into nearby streams, said Susan Scala-Demby, Montgomery's zoning manager. In Montgomery officials say that as long as no animal cruelty or nuisance is involved, it's all in how you house backyard livestock.

Free-range pigs in Montgomery? Not a problem. Even a cow with no barn could be considered in compliance. But if Parisi builds a pen for the pigs, he would be breaking the law because his yard is too small to site the pen far enough from neighbors' houses.

But if Parisi builds a pen for the pigs, he would be breaking the law because his yard is too small to site the pen far enough from neighbors' houses. Parisi's pigs arrived separately several months ago after Parisi went looking for them on Craigslist. First came Myrtle, a "rescue pig," who was living in unpleasant conditions in Baltimore, Parisi said. Despite his devotion to Myrtle ("I tended to her every need," he said), he thought Myrtle might prefer a porcine pal.

"Pigs are social animals," Parisi said. "When they are alone, they tend to get in trouble. They can develop psychoses."

Pigs on parade

Parisi's neighbors in Takoma Park, a laid-back community sometimes nicknamed "Berkeley East" for its self-imposed ban on nuclear weapons and its granola sensibilities, are divided on the propriety of pigs. One neighbor, a vegetarian who asked not to be named for the sake of neighborhood peace, said he was worried about the pigs' potential to become someone's supper. Neighbors may also have been put off by Parisi's turfless and muddy pig plot, or by visits from Myrtle and Merrill, who on two occasions burrowed under the fence to check out life on the other side.

"No one was hurt," said Parisi.

Shawnee and Paul Spitler, Parisi's next-door neighbors, lured the pigs back to Parisi's yard during one escape attempt by tempting them with carrots and old bread. Shawnee Spitler said she has no quarrel with Parisi and has been happy that the couple's sons, Ansel, 4 and Pascal, 2, have seen animals close up. Other neighbors are not as forgiving. But repeat visits from county zoning inspectors, animal control officers and police over the past several months found nothing wrong. Their logs noted Parisi had minimized the odor. Parisi estimates he routinely cleaned up about five pounds of pig manure daily, using an anti-ammonia compound -- organic, he said -- to keep down the smell.

"Who knew?" said Jerry Ryan, who lives a few doors down from the pigs, and whose wife, Mary Ann, a lawyer, has been researching the county's law. "Pigs must have a strong lobby."

A fowl trend?

Parisi, who arrived in the Washington area in 1998 to attend college at American University, comes from a long line of livestock owners. He grew up on a farm in Branford, Conn., where his parents had horses and other animals. His uncle kept 200 pigs in the city limits of New Haven before he went to war in Korea. Parisi had hoped to get his pigs butchered in Mount Airy and then smoke the meat in a backyard smokehouse, a plan he abandoned mid-construction because he could not comply with required setbacks. Now he hopes to use Merrill as a breeder. Myrtle, whom Parisi thought was a female, turned out to be a castrated male, so his future is a little murky.

Parisi also keeps six chickens in a coop inside his garage. Parisi cools his indoor chickens with a fan in the hot months, and collects a couple of eggs per day. He'd like to have them in the backyard with the pigs, but again, he bumped up against the setback rules. It's unfortunate, he says, because chickens are a symbiotic bug patrol for pigs, feasting on pests that pigs tend to attract. Elsewhere in Takoma Park, chicken ownership is on the rise. A group of families is organizing a chicken co-op, and will have joint custody of several laying hens. Down the street from Parisi, Steve and Heather DeCaluwe are raising chickens in a backyard coop that they said meets county standards.

The four DeCaluwe chickens produce about two dozen eggs each week, which the couple often gives to neighbors. The chickens spend their ample free time roaming the couple's lush vegetable garden.

"If they lay, they will cluck a little bit, if they are hungry they will cluck a little bit, but other than that they are pretty quiet," said Heather DeCaluwe.

Valerie Taylor, who led a successful pro-chicken movement last year in a Cincinnati suburb coincidentally named Montgomery, said chickens can be less obtrusive than a barking dog.

"They poop less than dogs do, they create less smell than dogs. I can almost guarantee if your neighbor has a dog, you know it," she said.

Traveling pigs

In Takoma Park, some of Parisi's neighbors have created an extensive pig paper trail at county offices. In one response, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) noted that Parisi was not violating the law. And despite county plans to revise its entire zoning law, there are no plans to redo the section on livestock.

"The zoning ordinance permits agricultural uses in most residential zones," Leggett's letter noted.

But Parisi, who said he "doesn't want a war," is giving up. After a four-hour standoff with recalcitrant Myrtle and Merrill one recent weekend, he loaded them into a truck and carted them to his parents' house in Connecticut, where they are spending the summer. Parisi's mother already has grown particularly partial to Myrtle, probably giving the pig a pass on becoming pork chops. Meanwhile, Parisi is pondering purchasing new digs for the pigs. He's looking for a small farm where they can roam and root. And he's thinking, once there, he could get more live-in livestock.

PICTURE: Mark Parisi keeps chickens and pigs at his home in Takoma Park. In suburban areas such as Montgomery County, it is not against the law to keep livestock. SOURCE: Washington Post

No comments: