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Cover Story

Urban Livestock

3/31/2015

Greg Cabbot started his backyard garden in Johnston with just a few tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs back in 2006 because he wasn’t satisfied with the produce at local grocery stores. Living in the city all his life, he never had much experience with gardening. With the help of the Internet, he quickly became an expert.

“I started out with two small pots of basil and parsley and just one tomato and one cucumber plant,” said Cabbot, who owns about half an acre of land just a few miles west of 86th Street. “Now I’ve expanded the garden to include rhubarb, carrots, radishes and sweet corn. Oh, and the chicken coop.”

 

A cheep investment

That’s right, Cabbot has been raising chickens in his backyard for about three years now. He bought the chickens thinking that farm-fresh eggs would taste better, and he liked that he could have complete control over how they are raised.cover

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“This way, I figure I know exactly what they eat, how they’re treated,” Cabbot explained. “And you’ve never had better scrambled eggs than I make every morning.”

Raising chickens in the city has become a growing hobby for many health enthusiasts and organic eaters in recent years. Part of the reason is due to the affordability. Chicken coops can be purchased for as little as $2,000, and baby chicks run about $1 to $5 each. Even fully-grown hens beginning to lay eggs will cost just $15 to $25 each. Food isn’t a huge investment either, because they eat grains and vegetables and grass. Cabbot said he pays three times more to feed his dog than his six chickens.

Considering the cheap (pun intended) cost and quality of eggs that can be produced right outside one’s kitchen, it’s not surprising that this trend is on the upward move among the urban and suburban populations.

Caroline Graham has been raising chickens in her backyard for almost four years and says she’s never regretted her decision to keep them in the city.

“I’ve lived in West Des Moines for six years, and I was skeptical at first about bringing chickens into such a populated area,” she said. “But I really wanted to have them, and I wasn’t interested in moving out of the city or to a farm. I like the convenience too much.”

One of Graham’s concerns was the noise. Since there’s only about five feet between her house and each of her neighbors, she wasn’t sure if the chickens would be too loud to keep in her yard.

“I did some research about hens and their noise levels, which is nothing compared to roosters, but then I still checked with both my neighbors to see what they thought. If they were totally against it, I wouldn’t have bought them.”

But Graham’s neighbors didn’t have an issue with the thought of having chickens next door — as long as they wouldn’t be cock-a-doodle-doodling when the sun came up.

“We’ve always been animal people,” said Graham’s neighbor Kent Larson of his family’s response to having chickens next door. “We certainly appreciated Caroline asking us first, but we never had doubts about bringing some new friends into the neighborhood. Dogs bark around here all the time, so we figured they couldn’t be louder than that.”

Graham now has eight chickens and gives the extra eggs to the people on her block.

“My friends joke that I’m the neighborhood ‘chicken lady,’ ” she laughed.

Living in a family-friendly residential area, Graham says she has a lot of families who stop by in the summer because the kids want to see the chickens. She says it’s been a great way to meet people.

“I used to give the eggs just to my close neighbors, but they spread the word to their friends and neighbors, and now people just stop by and ask for a dozen or two whenever they need eggs,” Graham said.

 

The growing trend

When Des Moines resident Erin Stevens’ dog died in the summer of 2012, she thought she would never find a pet to replace her furry friend. But when her boyfriend Jason Thompson surprised her with a teacup pig the following spring, her house didn’t seem so empty anymore.

Erin Stevens received Assnose when the teacup pig was just 4 pounds. Now she weighs 200 pounds and resides with her mate, Timmy, in Stevens’ West Des Moines backyard.

Erin Stevens received Assnose when the teacup pig was just 4 pounds. Now she weighs 200 pounds and resides with her mate, Timmy, in Stevens’ West Des Moines backyard.

“I honestly thought I was done with pets after I lost Trixy,” Stevens said of her dog. “I was just too devastated to go through that again, but Jason came home with this sweet, tiny little pig one day, and I fell in love with him.”

The pig, that is. The couple has since become engaged, so it might have had a positive affect on their relationship, too.

“She was so sad when Trixy died, and I knew she didn’t want another dog, but I saw one of my friends had posted about getting their own teacup pig, and I thought it would be the perfect pet for Erin,” Thompson explained.

Weighing in at just 4 pounds, the pig, fondly named Assnose, quickly earned a spot in Stevens’ heart.

“How can you not love something this tiny?” she asked, holding up a photo of Assnose the day Thompson brought her over.

But Assnose wouldn’t stay 4 pounds forever. In fact, she began to grow rapidly, surprising both Stevens and Thompson, who both had thought the maximum weight for a teacup pig was about 12 pounds.

As it turns out, Assnose is now a hefty 200 pounds. Instead of sleeping on a soft blanket in the corner of Stevens’ bedroom like she used to, Assnose now sleeps on a bed of hay in the backyard with a new friend.

“We adopted Timmy in spring 2014 because we thought Assnose needed a buddy since we had to move her outside,” said Stevens. “They’re both about the same size, so they play together really well.”

To many people, keeping a couple of 200-pound pigs in the backyard might seem a bit strange. But to Stevens, they’re just two great pets.

“Actually, we’re kind of hoping they’ll mate so we can have new little piglets running around,” she admitted. “It might not be the ideal situation for my neighbors, but there haven’t been any major complaints about Assnose and Timmy.”

But there have been a few issues with the pigs, mainly having to do with smell and noise. West Des Moines residents are generally accustomed to dogs barking, but not everyone has had the opportunity to live near a pig that squeals for its dinner.

Stevens said Assnose and Timmy don’t squeal all the time, and they’re usually good about keeping quiet during the night. But sometimes their noises have been enough to disturb neighbors several houses over.

“We’ve had a few people calling us or coming to our door and asking us about the noises,” said Stevens. “When we tell them about the pigs, they’re a little surprised, and then they just kind of let it be. Well, except for this one lady who had a few choice words to say about us and our pigs. We stopped answering her calls.”

 

Invading the city

One reason raising animals in the city hasn’t become the norm is the simple lack of space to do so. Animals get bigger, and a responsible farmer must take that into consideration when choosing to raise them in the backyard.

Margot Casey has tried a few extreme measures to prevent her goats from eating garbage off the streets of Des Moines.

Margot Casey has tried a few extreme measures to prevent her goats from eating garbage off the streets of Des Moines.

Animals need space to roam, especially goats, which eat grass and weeds and love to walk around in search of new plants to feed on. Goats are social animals, and it is suggested that they be bought in pairs or groups in order to keep them happy.

So while more and more people are building strong fences around their properties to keep their goats in, they also understand the importance of allowing them time in open spaces.

Many of the urban farmers around Des Moines who spoke with Cityview were hesitant to take their goats out to the streets at first, but they soon realized the goats were as good for the neighborhood as the neighborhood is for the goats.

“We take them out for walks at least twice a day, usually out by the capitol building and through the East Village,” said Margot Casey, who raises goats to sell milk and cheese to local restaurants. “You know why these sidewalks are so clean nowadays? Because goats are the best maintenance crew around.”

Casey said she hasn’t had to use her lawnmower in years, thanks to her three goats. When she takes them for walks through the city, she lets them chow down on the fallen leaves, flowers and any stray weeds, but they also manage to get a few pieces of stray garbage if she’s not watching carefully.

“My husband just laughs when he sees them with a wrapper in their mouths or something, but I try to stop them,” she said. “Even if they like it, nobody’s stomach should have a Snickers wrapper floating around in it.”

Whether it’s good for the goats or not, city officials don’t mind the extra help in cleaning up the city — especially when it’s free. Brady Collins works on the Des Moines Public Works Department’s Street Maintenance Division and says the growing number of goat farmers in Des Moines is the best thing to have happened to the city.

“People litter all the time,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how many signs you put up, or how many trash cans you put on each block. People just don’t care. So having these goats running around the city, it’s like having extra maintenance people working, except it doesn’t cost me a dime! I think it’s great.”

When goats first began roaming the streets of downtown Des Moines, farmers were pelted with questions. The Des Moines Police Department received hundreds of calls from concerned residents. City Council meetings had concerned citizens showing up and questioning the rights of the urban farmers, not to mention the safety of Des Moines residents.

But since there have been no recorded incidents of goats injuring residents or creating any sort of harm in the area, the city’s ordinances remain in favor of the horned ones. The council recently approved the addition of new signs around neighborhoods with goat farms so residents and visitors will be more aware of their presence.

Many people who came to the meetings were concerned as to why people were farming goats in the city. To the farmers, the answer is simple: They’re close to the restaurants that want to buy their products.

Goat milk and cheese are hot items in many of the recipes used in the kitchens at some of the top restaurants in Des Moines. Having access to both within just a few miles makes for fresher ingredients, and restaurant owners like the fact that it’s one more thing they can buy local.

“We really try to support our local farmers because they work really hard, and farm-fresh foods are just so much better,” said Joseph Kipp, the chef behind the unique recipes at Alba. “Goat cheese is a really versatile ingredient, so we’ve been using it in a variety of new and old recipes.”

For Casey, urban farming was a win-win. Although she runs a store in the East Village, she had always wanted to get into farming.

“I grew up visiting my grandparents’ farm, and I just remember loving those visits. I really wanted to do what they did, but I just didn’t think I could give up living in the city,” said Casey.

That’s why she and her husband Jim started looking into Iowa law and soon found it was legal to raise goats in Des Moines.

“When I learned that I could be a farmer and keep my job here in the city, I knew that’s what I had to do,” she said. “Now I have a job that I’ve always dreamed of, and I get to serve some of the local restaurants. It’s the best decision I could have made.”

 

Just another pet

The goats may have startled the public at first, but soon people began getting used to their presence.

And while adults were growing accustomed to the animals about town, their children were begging to spend more time outside for the chance to see them roaming the streets.

Alison Eve lives in an apartment in the East Village with her husband and two children, ages 5 and 7, who she says are always sitting by the windows to see if the animals are on the streets.

Concerned neighbors on Des Moines’ westside have fears that giraffes are being used to spy on families in their second-story bedrooms.

Concerned neighbors on Des Moines’ west side have fears that giraffes are being used to spy on families in their second-story bedrooms.

“My sons were amazed the first time they saw the goats out on the sidewalk,” said Eve. “Now they’re always begging me to take them on walks around the city, which is great because now they’re getting exercise and exploring the town instead of playing video games.”

The mild-mannered goats were receptive to petting, said Casey. She remembers one Saturday afternoon when a couple of kids asked to pet the goats and it ended up drawing a crowd of hundreds of children and their parents lining up to play with the animals.

“The animals have all been really friendly and gentle,” said Eve. “It’s like a city-wide petting zoo. Even the giraffes have been great with the kids.”

Of all the urban farms and livestock in Des Moines, the least common specie — the giraffes — have caused the most stir among residents. Police received several calls about neighbors concerned that the owners were somehow using the giraffes to spy on them by attaching hidden Go-Pro cameras to their heads.

The average newborn giraffe is about 5-foot-9-inches tall, and the average male can grow to be 17 feet, a perfect height for peering into second-story windows.

Even for residents who trusted their neighbors, seeing a giraffe looking through the window while eating dinner or changing clothes proved to be uncomfortable.

“Even though I knew (my neighbor) John would never record me in my house or anything creepy like that, it’s still a bit odd to see anything with eyes staring at you through your window,” said Suzanne Winters, whose Des Moines westside neighbor raises giraffes. “You might expect people to kind of peek into your windows when you’re on the first floor of a busy street, but the second floor? That’s hard to get used to.”

About a dozen giraffes have been spotted with their heads above neighbor’s fences since the beginning of 2015, and that number is only expected to grow as people realize the benefits of raising large animals in the city.

More kids are leaving their digital screens to play with the animals, and the economy is thriving with the addition of locally grown farm foods. Residents are predicting an influx of urban farmers and the types of animals brought into the metro.

“Since I’ve started raising my goats, I’ve had tons of people asking me questions because they’re interested in getting their own,” said Casey. “I won’t be one bit surprised when people start bringing cows and monkeys into the city, too. Maybe even donkeys and horses, eventually.

“I don’t know if it will ever get to the point where we see wildebeests and elephants, but, at the rate we’re eating bacon these days, who knows?” APRIL FOOLS

 

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