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Farmer Atieno Kasagam holds produce in an urban farm in Detroit
Atieno Kasagam at the D-Town Farm Harvest Festival in 2018
Photo by Desmond Love

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Detroit’s farmers are losing patience with the city’s outdated livestock laws

An ordinance to allow for farm animals has been in the works since 2014. Why hasn’t it passed?

In March this year, Atieno Kasagam came home from a long vacation to find a slip for a misdemeanor complaint on the front door of her house. It cited her for possession of a farm animal without a permit and having an unlicensed dog.

It wasn’t the first time her and her partner Zomi Huron have gotten the fine, and it probably won’t be the last. The couple owns a produce farm, Ile Ibeji, spread across several lots in Jefferson Chalmers where they keep dozens of fowl—chickens, ducks, geese—and don’t plan on getting rid of any. It’s currently illegal to keep any “wild animals” inside the city limits, according to Detroit’s city code.

Kasagam was furious. She and Huron have been keeping animals for years and live on a block with lots of vacancies and only six neighbors, none of whom mind the animals. The law is largely enforced through a complaint-based system, so Kasagam suspects that an outsider spotted the animals and reported it.

Fines for violating the ordinance can be as much as $250 per animal. Despite being seven months pregnant with her second child, Kasagam wanted to protest the charge, which could have resulted in jail time. At her court appearance, the judge offered to dismiss the fines and charges if she paid $190 in court fees. She ultimately accepted the deal.

But she’s still desperate for the city to update the code. Kasagam says animals are an important part of the life-cycle of a farm—their manure reintroduces nutrients into the soil and the animals can be a source of food (milk, eggs, meat). Bees, which are in a legal gray area, pollinate plants.

“The practice of raising food and livestock at a scale that is healthy is about freedom and self-sufficiency,” Kasagam says. “And we should be allowed to do it.”

Kasagam isn’t the only farmer who wants the ordinance updated. Some have had their animals confiscated and almost every livestock owner keeps them secret. Kasagam says she knows “at least 50” farmers that keep livestock.

Animal Care and Control wasn’t able to provide numbers for how many livestock it confiscates and how many fines it issues by the time of publication.

Mark Covington, founder of Georgia Street Community Collective, a produce farm in northeast Detroit, isn’t so discreet. At any given time, he has between 40 to 60 fowl, but invites kids, volunteers, and other visitors to his farm almost every day. One of those visitors was Mayor Mike Duggan. He’s also been profiled several times by local and national outlets.

A black farmer in a white shirt holds a chicken.
Mark Covington, founder of Georgia Street Community Collective
Photo by Michelle Gerard

Covington says he keeps his place as clean and quiet as possible to prevent complaints. And similar to Kasagam, he has good relationships with neighbors. “I’ve known these people my whole life,” he says. “They know I’m not going to do something detrimental. And if they have an issue, they can come talk to me.”

But his case demonstrates how capriciously the law is enforced and what kinds of issues might arise in the future.

An ordinance is currently being drafted by the Legislative Policy Division that will set guidelines for animal husbandry in the city. It’s been in the works since roughly 2014, soon after the city amended its urban agriculture ordinance.

In its latest form, the proposed ordinance would allow for a limited number egg-laying chickens (no roosters), ducks, and honeybees. Kasagam and Covington both own other kinds of fowl and more than would probably be allowed.

“I’m still going to be illegal even when the ordinance passes,” Covington says.

But the ordinance has not come before City Council despite years of community engagement, research, drafting, and a clear desire for reform on the part of farmers.

Kathryn Lynch Underwood, a city planner with the Legislative Policy Division, has been the main civil servant in charge of the reform effort. When does she hope to have the ordinance passed? “Last year,” she says. “I’ll be as happy as the farmers when it’s done.”

Underwood says it’s important that Animal Care and Control, which enforces the rule, is comfortable with the changes. But multiple leadership changes at the department have delayed the process; it’s currently looking for a new director.

A duck walks outside a chicken coup
A duck outside a chicken coup
Chickens meander on the dirt
Free range chickens
Photos by Michelle Gerard

She also wants to go back to the community to educate people and make sure there’s a broad consensus about the changes. And not just for farmers. Underwood says many non-farmers are wary of livestock in cities and their accompanying noises and smells. Animal welfare must be considered as well—cages or pens can’t be too crowded and slaughtering of animals presents more complications.

Much denser cities, like Chicago or New York City, and local ones, like Ann Arbor and Royal Oak, allow for certain kinds of farm animals.

The current goal is to have an ordinance before City Council by the end of the year. But Underwood is cautious about how much she can promise farmers. “We’re trying to come up with a policy that will pass,” she says. “We can always go back in and modify as needed.”

Kasagam, on the other hand, is tired of waiting. For five years, farmers have been promised that an ordinance will be finalized, and in the meantime, she’s at risk for getting fined again.

“I absolutely disagree with Kathryn, even though she is an ally,” Kasagam says. “We’ve been through community hearings. Those pro and those against were there. This needs to happen now.”

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