Over the years, the chickens that Zach and Kathy Klecker raise in the backyard of their Faribault home have become more than just pets — they’re beloved members of the family, a favorite of their neighbors and nearly everyone they meet.
Kathy Klecker, who grew up on a farm, has raised chickens in the backyard of the home “on and off” since moving in more than 25 years ago. Over that time, Klecker has honed her chicken raising skills, maximizing the safety and comfort of the flock.
After a raccoon invaded the coop one day and killed the chickens, Kathy and her husband rebuilt with great care, ensuring that there would be no openings for vermin to exploit. Since then, the chickens have remained happy and healthy.
The Kleckers keep their chickens happy by feeding them a diet that includes not just fruits, vegetables and chicken food, but plenty of protein-heavy foods, including meat. Thanks to that, the flock of six chickens lays three to four eggs a day.
That’s plenty for the family to eat and give to friends and neighbors. Earlier this year, when egg prices went through the roof due as desperate customers prepared for COVID-19 by stockpiling essentials, the Kleckers were also to donate some eggs to those in need.
Klecker said that contrary to what might be common perception, domesticated chickens don’t just appreciate social interaction. Without enough, she says that their spirits drop, as does their egg production.
“They are more social than a dog,” Klecker said. “They will run to where you are to see you. You can’t expect to throw a chicken in a pen and have them lay eggs.”
The chickens are so popular that, thanks to early acclimation, they even get along well with the Kleckers’ 110-pound dog.
But after a city inspector recently discovered the flock, the Kleckers were told that they needed to get them off the property within 30 days, as Faribault does not have a permitting process in place for keeping the birds.
Fortunately, a family friend who lives out on a hobby farm is planning on taking the chickens. Klecker, though, said that the transition process isn’t likely to be easy for the flock. She said that the chickens have become highly domesticated creatures, protected from all threats — but country life poses many more challenges.
With some residents and councilors wanting to open things up, the topic of allowing backyard chickens has returned to Faribault’s government officials, but some of the council and the city’s business community are skeptical. Critics of a proposal to allow residents to keep backyard chickens have expressed fears that the policy just might lead to a spread of bird flu. That fear was particularly potent in 2017, when the council previously considered allowing chickens in city limits.
Differences of opinion
After aggressive efforts to contain the spread of the disease, several years have since gone by with no major outbreaks. In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found a virulent strain of avian flu in a South Carolina turkey plant — the first case in U.S. commercial poultry since 2017.
Still, given that one of the largest employers in town is the Jennie-O Poultry processing plant, some aren’t willing to take the risk. In 2017, Jennie-O’s opposition to the proposed ordinance that would have allowed chickens in city limits ended up a key factor in its demise.
Klecker, meanwhile, is highly skeptical that allowing residents to own backyard chickens would increase the risk of avian flu at all. She said that that Jennie-O’s location near the Straight River, a favorite landing spot for geese, likely poses a much greater threat of bird flu contamination.
Like many chicken owners, Klecker has studied how to keep her flock safe from a wide variety of threats, including avian flu. She believes that the vast majority of chicken owners can be trusted to act responsibly — just as her neighbors trust her.
Then there’s the logistical concerns. While some advocates of “chicken legalization” feel comfortable with a laissez-faire approach to regulation, others have advocated for a strong regulatory framework, which could require the devotion of some city resources.
Still, with interest in urban farming on the rise, more and more cities throughout the region have allowed homeowners to keep chickens. With no clear federal or state law guiding the establishment of a regulatory framework, cities have put together their own plans. That’s proven a challenge even in cities that don’t have a major poultry processing plant as one of their largest employers. Should Faribault find a way to minimize the risk of avian flu in a manner acceptable to all stakeholders, plenty of other issues would abound.
In 2017, when Faribault’s City Council overrode the recommendation of the Planning Commission not to allow chickens in city limits, city staff drew up a complex regulatory framework to ensure safety and peaceful coexistence.
In the area of biosecurity, staff recommended that backyard chicken owners be required to minimize the risk of any issues by adopting safety measures similar to those already used by commercial producers and processing plants. That would have meant requiring chicken owners to complete a course on the warning signs of bird disease and register with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. In addition, chickens would have needed to be contained at least 25 feet from nearby bodies of water.
In addition to concern about the risk of disease, debate extended to issues from how many chickens to allow in coop, to restrictions on the dimensions of each coop, to the amount of distance each coop is required to be from the nearest property line.
In St. Peter, discussions over a regulatory framework for regulating chickens ultimately split longtime city residents and newcomers, and in the end, a bare majority of the City Council from Mayor Chuck Zieman.
Zieman and two other council members ultimately objected to the final proposal, because it didn’t allow neighbors to provide input on permit applications. By adding such a provision, Zieman argued that property owners could proactively deal with potential concerns.
The majority of the Council rejected that argument, fearing that it would grant too much power to neighbors, enabling them to potentially push the city into denying a permit application based on concerns that might never materialize.
“The concern of the council at that time was balancing the want of a household to do something versus the rights to enjoy property of the neighbors,” said longtime City Administrator Todd Prafke.
Under the final version of the ordinance, only an initial inspection is required. With no annual inspection permit required, the regulatory framework laid out in the ordinance is enforced on a by-complaint basis.
Prafke said that with no periodic inspections required, it’s unclear exactly how many families are raising chickens, but the total number of permits issued by the city has been very low. Even at its peak, he estimates that no more than five to six families were raising urban chickens.
While St. Peter’s approach may seem relatively loose, cities like Northfield take an even more lax approach. While Rice County’s college city does have a limit of six chickens, there’s no permitting process at all.
If a complaint is lodged, City Planner Schmit is among a handful of staff who could be tasked with responding to it. Like Prafke, Schmit said concerns over the ordinance have been minimal. She said the only issue has typically arisen in cases where a coop in a public right of way.
“You have to make sure it’s at least five feet from the property line,” she said. “That’s the one issue we’ve had to work with property owners on.”
The state’s largest city has taken chicken legalization to another level. Under Minneapolis’s chicken ordinance, updated most recently in 2017, residents can keep up to 30 chickens on their lot under certain conditions.
Caroline Hairfield, the city’s director of animal care and control, said that the city’s regulation system has three tiers depending on the size of the coop. Coops with 0-6 chickens are the most lightly regulated, and those with 15-30 the most heavily regulated, with 7-14 in between.
Hairfield said that most chicken owners have 6 chickens or fewer. Under that regulatory tier, chicken owners don’t even have to get a license, though they are expected to notify their neighbors
Residents who want to apply to keep more than six chickens need to obtain a license and receive written permission from 80% of their neighbors. The fee is also higher, at $55 for 7-14 chickens and $80 for 15-30 chickens versus $30 for 0-6 chickens.
For their initial application, applicants must provide a site plan and undergo an inspection. The chicken housing structure must be behind the house, at least 20 feet away from neighboring residential use and screened from habitable buildings on neighboring properties.
Hairfield said the real cornerstone of the program is the education component. All chicken permit applicants are required to provide proof that they have completed an eligible course on how to properly care for chickens within a year of completion.
Thanks to the proactive focus on education, complaints have been kept to such a low level that the city scrapped its requirement for annual re-inspections, instead enforcing the ordinance on a by-complaint basis.
“The time it took and staff power it took to get yearly inspections done was a waste of time, to be honest,” Hairfield said. “We just don’t have a lot of problems because we educate people.”