From the street, Carolyn Ioder’s house on the western side of the Austin neighborhood looks pretty normal. It’s a large off-white stucco with an American flag hanging out front and a big trampoline crammed into a fenced-in backyard.
It’s the sounds from the garage that give it away. Inside her two-car garage, Ioder keeps one car, six goats and a small coop full of chickens. The animals live here year-round, and Ioder takes the goats to pasture daily in a vacant lot down the street. She has the owner’s permission, and she gets water for the goats from the Chicago fire station at the end of the alley.
“Goats are such flock animals, they like to be with each other but they’re also extremely bossy,” said Ioder, wrangling the goats onto leashes for their daily walk to pasture.
The occasion of this visit is the first-ever Chicago Urban Livestock Expo, to take place this Saturday at the Garfield Park Conservatory. The event, sponsored by a small coalition of urban agriculture enthusiasts, features workshops on raising bees, rabbits, chickens and goats within city (or suburban) limits.
Officially, Ioder’s goats aren’t livestock. They’re pets. But Ioder does keep them as a food source.
“In my house all the pets work,” she said. “The cats take care of the mice, the dogs scares the people that aren’t supposed to be around, and the chickens lay eggs and the goats give milk.”
In the summertime, the goats can yield up to two gallons of milk a day, which is a lot for a single family to deal with. Ioder’s only had them for a couple years, so she’s struggling to get up to speed on goat cheese production. She started with just two goats, they had twins and twins again, and now she’s dealing with a small herd. So she may also have to sell some off.
“Not because I want to make a profit,” she clarified. Feeding six goats every day is a big task, and her actual yard is a scarce patch of grass.
That’s actually allowed?
There are no regulations specific to goats in Chicago, except that you’re not allowed to slaughter them. Same goes for chickens, a more popular pet that’s already banned in some Chicago suburbs.
But urban agriculture experts say no one should get into city goat or chicken farming without getting educated. The backyard pen or coop can be clean and contained, but it takes some work. And they recommend checking in with the neighbors before you welcome in a new flock or herd.
“I have met a couple people who’ve complained about it,” said urban chicken consultant Jennie Murtoff. “I talked to a woman [...] who was adamantly opposed to chickens. She said they were noisy and they were smelly, and she was very unhappy about her neighbor having chickens. And then she told me she was a pit bull rescuer.”
But she says if they’re managed right, chickens should be less of a nuisance than some dogs.
“They’re relatively quiet. If the owners keep the pens well, which doesn’t take a whole lot of work, there won’t be any smell. A lot of people don’t even realize that the chickens are in the backyard,” Murtoff said.
Plus, good housekeeping is the key to keeping the city from cracking down, which is part of what the Expo aims to educate people about. An unregulated urban farming landscape is ideal for these passionate local foodies, and they want to have a real conversation about what that takes.
“If people are looking for a day out with the kids at a petting zoo, this probably isn’t the place for them,” Murtoff said. “It’s an event for people who are seriously interested in the urban agriculture movement.”
Local food systems, cute pets
Murtoff stressed that getting eggs or milk from your own backyard isn’t just a novelty. To her it’s about having a hyperlocal source of good food, knowing where your food comes from, and maybe even saving some money.
“Too often we think that, oh, eggs come from the supermarket,” Murtoff said. “And they don’t. They come from a bird.”
And a cool bird, too.
“They’re just wonderful little people inside those feathered bodies,” she added.
“What we’re working for is local community development of food systems,” Ioder said.
By day, she runs a bread company and stays active in various groups working on issues of food security. And she’s not the only goat farmer in town - a scattered number of Chicago and suburban residents keep pygmy goats, which are small enough to pass as terriers but still give milk. Chicken farmers in the Chicago area probably number in the hundreds.
Ioder doesn’t see her work as real farming, but she said it helps keep her connected to her roots.
“We were the first generation, my husband and I, to be born off the farm,” she said.
And she ran out to catch a goat who was wandering towards the CTA tracks on Lake street.
The first Chicago Urban Livestock Expo takes place Saturday, February 16 from 10am to 1pm at the Garfield Park Conservatory.
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