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Environmental Health Questions Over Backyard Farming

Backyard Farming: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

Backyard Farming: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

The growth in urban backyard farming raises a variety of environmental health concerns, says a spokesperson for the Alameda County Vector Control service.

When contacted by Action Alameda News, Daniel Wilson, the Community Relations Coordinator for Alameda County Vector Control Services, said that he was unaware of proposed changes to City of Alameda municipal code that would better facilitate the keeping of backyard farm animals such as chickens, rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats. He later confirmed that an environmental health supervisor was likewise unaware before our request for comment. The City of Alameda is hosting a public meeting on the topic tonight.

His comments on the issue may dampen enthusiasm for a practice that is enjoying growing interest in Alameda and neighboring cities.

By telephone and by e-mail, Mr. Wilson confirmed that expanded urban animal husbandry raises a host of questions and issues, for example, “Food for these farm animals needs to be handled carefully so they do not become food for pests, such as rats, mice, raccoons, skunks or opossums. And male goats stink.”

Treating Waste
He also told Action Alameda News, that, “there is a certainty that vector problems arise unless standards are in place to require daily removal of animal wastes. Over time, small yards will have a saturation of urine from farm animals, and this may also add to a smell and fly problem. There can be questions regarding how wastes are cleaned — washing into street gutters, when they should go into the sanitary sewer.”

A county standards document for the keeping of animals in residential zones of unincorporated areas of Alameda County says that for horses, bovines, sheep and goats, “manure must be removed daily from corral, stable, paddock or other holding areas. Manure must be removed from the premises immediately to an approved disposal site or stored until removal in fly-tight containers, cans or holding boxes. There must be at least weekly removal from the containers to an approved disposal site.”

Waste collection regulations, or guidance, may need to change to accommodate backyard animals. A flyer from Alameda County Industries, the waste collection firm that serves Alameda, says nothing about farm animal waste, but does say that pet feces are not welcome in the green compost bins. Backyard composting may be a solution, if the pile can keep up with waste production.

Butchering animals, like pigs or rabbits, may present a problem too, Wilson said. “The issue of slaughtering animals must be addressed, as to where, who and how. And what about people that don’t want an animal slaughtered on the other side of their fence, for whatever reason?”

Vegetarians, animal rights activists and families with young children may object to being in such close proximity to butchering. Rancho Feeding of Petaluma is by many accounts the last slaughterhouse in the animal-friendly Bay area. For many people, their only experience with the production of finished meat products is selecting a plastic-wrapped cut from the supermarket cooler.

Even something as seemingly innocent as keeping bees for the production of honey is potentially problematic. Wilson told the story of an automotive dealership in Albany that complained about soot from Richmond refineries soiling the finish on new cars on the lot. It turned out that the lot was directly in the flight path of swarms of honey bees, which tend to honor a consistent route between their hives and foraging areas. Bee droppings are waxy, and can be voluminous with several large swarms.

And there are state regulations that govern the production and sale of finished products, such as honey or meat.

Ultimately, Wilson said, it’s up to municipalities to set their own regulations, but they should be clear cut. The county is available as a technical resource to help develop the rules, he said.

Contacted by e-mail, Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen said that the City of Alameda plans to pull the county health department into the process.

The public meeting is tonight at the main Alameda library, at 6:30 p.m.

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