The Muscatine City Council heard arguments from both sides of the farm yard at Thursday night’s meeting. The issue set before the council was whether or not to approve the proposal to start a pilot program in Muscatine allowing residents who reside on plots smaller than two acres to own hens.

The current ordinance allows residents with plots over two acres to have chickens, regardless of whether they are inside city limits.

Alma Morgan, a representative from Hy-Line North America, a day-old chicken hatchery in Wilton, spoke to the council in opposition of the proposal. Morgan expressed concerns over possible cross- contamination if local residents begin to raise chickens at home. Morgan recalled the recent avian influenza outbreak in which an estimated 49.7 million laying hens in Iowa died. Hy-Line follows strict guidelines of cleanliness and biosecurity measures to ensure safety, Morgan explained.

While the plant is located in Wilton, a large portion of their work force calls Muscatine home. Morgan reiterated the concern of employees coming in contact with air-borne pathogens that could potentially be passed to chickens at the plant. “The level of protection that we offer is not possible in backyard farms,” Morgan said.

Muscatine resident Angie Overton informed the council that most residents who would participate in the program come from a farming background, and they will use practices they have learned to “do our very best to ensure there are no health issues.”

Muscatine Egg Gatherers representative Jay Brady spoke to the council about education opportunities that are available to residents who wish to raise their own chickens, including the USDA and the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach programs.

Brady stated that the health risks are minimal, and he believed they were being blown out of proportion. He went on to say that precautions had been built into the proposal to include regulations that if one hen became ill, then all hens in the pen must be seen by a veterinarian to insure both animal and consumer safety.

Council members described receiving several calls from area residents who expressed concerns over guidelines and implementation of the proposed program. Brady assured the council that all of the expressed concerns could be “managed through education that will be part of the class that is required.”

Council members discussed whether the proposed trial period should stay at the 24 months listed or be shortened to 18 or even 12 months. Council member Michael Rehwaldt raised the possibility of amending the proposal to include all property inside of the city, including plots larger than two acres.

Council member Phil Fitzgerald suggested allowing the program to run through December 31, 2017, and, if successful, revisiting the ordinance to include all residents.

A motion was made by council member Santos Saucedo to vote on the proposal and was seconded by council member Bob Bynum.

The proposal was denied by a vote of 3-4. Votes in favor of the proposal came from council members Michael Rehwaldt, Bob Bynum, and Santos Saucedo. Council members opposed to the proposal were Scott Natvig, Phil Fitzgerald, Allen Harvey, and Tom Spread.

Speaking with the Voice of Muscatine following the vote, Brady said, “This is an economic justice issue.  Right now, in the City of Muscatine, you have to own two acres or more to have chickens legally. Not everyone can afford the two-acre size, so they don’t get the opportunity to raise their own food, or have the responsibility of providing organic home-grown food.”

Brady says the Muscatine Egg Gatherers will have to regroup in order to decide their next step.