Never too fowl for Halifax hen keeper

John Wimberly, founder of HFX HENS, says there are benefits to raising chickens in a city.

By Linea Volkering

John Wimberly
John Wimberly, founder of HFX HENS, says there are benefits to raising chickens in an urban setting. (Linea Volkering/ Peninsula News)

Balancing a jug of steaming water in one hand, and a pellet-filled container in the other, John Wimberly is an unlikely sight in front of his north-end home. He barely hesitates as he squeezes between a car and his house, lurching over a snow bank left over from Wednesday’s snowstorm into his backyard. He unlocks the latch of a snow-covered creation of mesh, wood, nails and wire. Past the enclosure’s gate, Wimberly pushes up a plank of wood. Three beaks poke into view.

This is Wimberly’s chicken coop, built from scratch out of repurposed materials. It is home to three unlikely urban residents: hens.

Wimberly mixes feed for the hens using special pellets and hot water. (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News)

Hatching an interest

Wimberly’s interest in keeping hens began around two and a half years ago, when his father offered him an old brood intended for slaughter. Intrigued at the idea of hen keeping, Wimberly took on the birds. Since then, he has become an active advocate for urban hen keeping in Halifax.

“When I started raising hens, I was really enthusiastic to push it further and I wanted to get people together,” Wimberly says.

A barred rock hen (bottom) and a golden comet hen (top) (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News).

The egg industry

Wimberly uses “disconcerting” to describe factory farming because of the small amount of space given to the animals. He views this process that brings eggs to supermarkets as unethical and unhealthy for the birds involved. Instead, he encourages like-minded citizens to support local henhouses, as they provide an alternative to the system.

“It also creates a conversation in your neighbourhood, some sort of understanding of where your food comes from,” says Wimberly.

Wimberly reaps the benefits of having at least one of his chickens lay an egg per day. However, the best part about this is it happens for free.

As the eggs can last up to six months when refrigerated, Wimberly finds that they build up over time. Rather than selling these ethically sourced products, he uses them for cooking, or trades them for local garden-grown goods. For Wimberly it results in a cheaper grocery bill, but most importantly, he values the opportunity to be independent and sustainable.

A single egg is retrieved. (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News)

Launching a social platform

The world of urban chicken keeping is riddled with difficulties because of negative public perception, as well as poor legislation. There has also been mass controversy in Halifax over the keeping of hens in an urban and residential setting.

In an attempt to unify and educate the community on the facts surrounding chicken management, Wimberly founded the Facebook page HFX HENS in February 2013.

“Mostly it was created because there needed to be some sort of outward facing focus here to push for that political change and also to make sure people had the information they needed.”

The page, operated and curated by Wimberly, exists as a forum for chicken owners, as well as those who are merely curious about the idea. To date, there are 189 members.

Wimberly says that groups he participates in, such as Halifax Chickens, who cater to current chicken owners, are valuable.  However, he hopes that HFX HENS will serve as more of a resource where any level of chicken enthusiast can find mentorship, educational opportunities, and information on proper keeping techniques.

Education and outreach in the community

Wimberly, through HFX HENS, often holds educational events such as this Saturday’s Intro to Hen Keeping where guides those in attendance through an interactive session, complete with hen handling to build confidence and understanding.  Wimberly mentions that necessary things such as wing clipping are an example a of a particular demonstration he would give at an event like this.

The chicken coop complete with hutch, atrium and run are hand made from scrap materials. (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)
The chicken coop complete with hutch, atrium and run are hand made from scrap materials. (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)

The outreach done by HFX HENS has been popular, according to Wimberly who will have taught over 100 people about hen keeping by the end of the month. Among those in attendance are children, seniors and young adults from several different backgrounds, including experienced farmers.

Wimberly says parents “realize that this is a really good way of building responsibility with their children.” He notes  that by having chickens as a pet, parents are “teaching their kids about food and where food comes from and just instilling a lot of really healthy values.”

Wimberly hopes to help people in the community overcome the stigma of hen keeping by teaching people how to keep the animals in a way that is not a nuisance to others.

Wimberly’s chicken coop. (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News)

Common hen keeping misconceptions

“The big things are noise, odour, and vermin,” says Wimberly.

The problem of noise, Wimberly says, is avoided by not keeping roosters. Often loud and energetic, roosters are the most likely to upset neighbouring households with their calls. Additionally, they are not needed in order for hens to lay eggs.

Wimberly has found that odours can be eliminated with proper cleaning and bedding techniques.

As for vermin, “it’s not a chicken specific issue, it’s just whether you leave a food source out,” says Wimberly. By limiting the amounts of available open food and using a hanging feeder that is inaccessible to rats, vermin problems are easy to be rid of.

A hanging feeder makes it difficult for rats to steal chicken food. (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News)

Major ‘henefits’

As Wimberly mixes the hot water with the pellets into an oatmeal-like substance, he points out that the cost of chicken upkeep is cheap. With a chicken’s ability to eat almost anything, they act as a living compost bin and produce highly coveted waste for fertilizers.

Wimberly finds the upkeep of a henhouse to be a very minor time-commitment, needing only two quick visits a day for feeding and some casual cleaning. As long as a nesting box and a roosting beam are included, the animals make themselves at home.

“You just make something that kind of fits those characteristics and they will just go straight to it.”

Wimberly says that his landlord is comfortable with the setup, so long as space is used appropriately. Even Wimberly’s neighbour seems unabashed, giving him a friendly wave as she appears briefly on her back porch before disappearing back into the house.

Hay is used as bedding for the chickens. (Linea Volkering/Peninsula News)

Fowl legislation

The Halifax Regional Municipality examined the land use bylaws in 2009 surrounding the keeping of hens on non-agricultural designated lots. It was discovered that, although the regional land use bylaw prohibits chickens on residential lots, it was not listed as specifically prohibited on the Halifax Peninsula.

In a 2011 report done by municipal staff, a survey was conducted asking participants to state on a scale of one to five whether they were for or against urban hen keeping. The average score was a 4.3 in favour.

The report also mentions that 84 per cent of the people who took the survey thought that “laying hens” should be allowed.

“I don’t disagree with the notion that it’s agricultural. I just disagree with the notion that anyone should restrict a harmless, at worst, and wildly beneficial, at best, activity,” says Wimberly.

In 2013, it was announced that chickens would be allowed on the properties of those residing on the Peninsula.

As the conversation surrounding chickens in the HRM is far from over, Janet Bryson, senior communications advisor for the HRM, encourages those interested in hen keeping to contact the city’s planning department. By knowing a neighbourhood’s specific set of rules or bylaws ahead of time, nasty fines and surprises can hopefully be avoided.

Dal students try homelessness for a week

Dalhousie Commerce Society students get a taste of what it feels like to be homeless for five days.

By Linea Volkering

Students exiting the Rowe building notice campaigners (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)
Students exiting the Rowe building notice campaigners (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News)

Dalhousie student Emily McAughey has been living under a tarp for the last five nights.

Braving the snow, freezing rain, high winds and below zero temperatures, she is one of a handful of Dalhousie Commerce Society students participating in 5 Days For The Homeless, a countrywide campaign that invites university students to live outside from March 9-14. The goal is to raise awareness for homelessness. As the first Atlantic university to get involved, the students hope to raise money for a local organization, Phoenix Youth.

Survival by public donation

“We started our day on Sunday, and each were allowed to pack a small backpack. Knowing that all we could bring was a couple pairs of socks and a pair of sweatpants so that was eye-opening in itself,” McAughey says.

The students have been relying on public donations in order to stay warm and well fed.

5 days for homelessness

“We’ve been given a ton of hot chocolate throughout the day, and pizza by Domino’s. The faculty has been taking care of us, and students have been taking care of us.”

McAughey says they were surprised to receive a tarp, cardboard, sleeping bags and toiletries. With these items, the group created a small camp outside of the Rowe business building.

Campus space helps educate

Donated tarp and cardboard, held down by pipes, rocks and promotional grab bags. (Linea Volkering / Peninsula News
Donated tarp and cardboard, held down by pipes, rocks and promotional grab bags.

“We’re all commerce students and this is supported by the commerce society so being outside the faculty was good because we’re getting all of our peers coming in. It’s a little more sheltered, not much more, but a little bit more than what we would hope for,” she says.

McAughey acknowledges that her experience outside the Rowe building differs from the experience of those without campus security. The benefit of occupying a campus space means there is increased awareness of the cause.

“We’ve had so many people that have just walked by and then other people who have found us online and have came to talk to us. It’s a big push for people to realize that this is a huge issue,” she says.

During their time on campus, the students have been visited and educated by several organizations such as Shelter Nova Scotia, Phoenix Youth and Standing In The Gap that provide resources to combat homelessness.

Changing Attitudes

After spending four nights in the freezing and damp environment, fending off sickness and having to overcome the concern for safety, McAughey says she feels she has a better understanding of what it means to be homeless.

“It’s just, after four days, it’s knowing you get to go home on the fifth day. But then, knowing that there’s people experiencing homelessness that don’t have that privilege — that they know there’s an end to it — that’s what we’re feeling right now.”

A 2013 report by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia states that in 2012, 1,860 individuals stayed at shelters offered in the HRM. Halifax has also been identified by the federal government as one of the 61 Canadian communities to have a significant homelessness issue.


Huddled for warmth, students take turns sleeping during the day.
Huddled for warmth, students take turns sleeping during the day.

Homelessness expert weighs in

Don Spicer is the executive director at Shelter Nova Scotia, which held an event comparable to 5 Days For The Homeless, last year. He commends the campaign’s motive and says that any effort to raise awareness and recognition of the circumstances of homelessness is a step forward for the cause.

“It’s not about pretending to know what it’s like to be homeless, it’s about creating awareness and showing that you’re willing to sacrifice and learn a little bit about yourself,” he says.

Spicer also offers some everyday advice for those who witness homelessness in their daily lives.

Cigarettes, apple core beside student "camp"
Cigarettes, apple core beside student “camp”

“If they happen to approach you or ask you for money, you don’t have to give money. It’s a personal choice. A lot of people tend to want to ignore them and pretend they’re not there, they’ll suddenly need to check their iPhone or check the storefront across the street. It makes people feel like they’re invisible, like they’re not a part of the community. So, a simple thing someone can do is to acknowledge their existence,” he says.

“It helps to humanize them. It makes them feel part of the community.”

Busker not content with Seaport auditions

The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market is giving buskers a chance to audition for a spot to perform, but the call has drawn criticism from street performers.

By Linea Volkering

Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market will be holding auditions for buskers on March 19th.

Halifax musician Will Fordham is unimpressed with the new Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market advertisement, that welcomes buskers to audition for a performance spot on the market’s busiest days.

The market is holding auditions on March 19. Those selected will be allotted a slot to perform on the weekends or during peak vendor and cruise ship seasons. The slots are unpaid but the option to draw in donations from the public remains.

Fordham began busking with his brother, Peter, at the old Historic Farmers’ Market in 2008. He said that the only qualification at the time was to simply show up, which made for some early mornings.

“When we first started going there, we woke up at seven,” says Fordham. “Then eventually we woke up at six, at five then four, for a long time we were waking up at four every Saturday morning, kind of ditching our Friday nights in high school just to go to bed to get up at four o’clock to get a spot.”

Traditionally, buskers are recognized as informal street performers who set up and play music in public areas. For many, it is a way to make money from people passing by.

Fordham feels that the Seaport Market’s implementation of time slots and auditions has robbed market busker performances of their spontaneous, flexible and competitive nature, something he believes to be crucial to the busking experience.

“I think at that point you’re not a busker.”

Fordham was 17 years old when he began busking and believed it to be a rite of passage as a musician.

“I think there was a lot to say about sort of opening it up and letting people do it if they want. And if they’re bad, then that’s too bad, they get better by being able to play,” he says.

“That was how I learned to perform, was playing hours at the market. I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”

Auditions might be helpful

Lane Farguson, Communications Advisor for the Halifax Port Authority, says that the audition process is intended to contribute to a consistent and positive experience.

“This is basically to help to ensure that we are able to put the right busker into the right space within the market. One of the biggest things that buskers help to contribute to the market is atmosphere,” he says.

Farguson thinks that the right busker in the right environment creates the best experience for both customers and musicians. “It’s something they appreciate, and it shows,” he says. “You can see it on (their) faces.”

In addition to the new busking plans, the market is moving toward a system where there will be no amplified sound within the market. To compensate, Farguson says  there will eventually be a designated outdoor performance area where arrangements can be made for amplified performances.

Aurelie Guillaume, an employee at Noggins Corner Farm Market, one of the market’s vendors, says that the organized busking routine of the Seaport market does help alleviate tensions between performers.

“I think it organizes things and gives everybody a chance to have their time,” she says.

Guillaume also notes that the repetition of regular performers in time slots allows for a sense of familiarity and quality. Every weekend, she expects someone in the spot across from her booth.

Designated busker spot across from Guillaume's vendor table.
Designated busker spot seen from Guillaume’s table.

“It makes it so much better, so much happier and the customers are happy and you see all the little kids dancing here. So you have a little show, it’s really nice. It makes a really great atmosphere,” she says.

Regular weekend visiter Caitlin Leavitt, agrees with the market’s announcement to audition buskers before they play.

“I definitely think there is some benefit [to auditions] just because you can always go downtown and there’s someone playing music trying to find money,” Leavitt says. “It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just not always as enjoyable. Whereas, if there are auditions, you know the people are going to be musically talented. It will be pleasant to listen to.”

Leavitt admits that she does not always notice every individual market performer, but she says the music improves the relaxing yet lively atmosphere of the market and fits in well with the overall local aesthetic.

Music will prevail

She believes it shows a lot of the city’s style, especially to tourists, since Halifax is packed with live music everywhere you go.

“I think it shows a lot of what Halifax has to offer because music is a big part of the Halifax experience,” Leavitt says.

Will Fordham says that, despite the changing locations, changing rules and changing roles for buskers at the market, almost everyone who busks, plays for the love of music. He thinks the love of music will overcome over the rare negative comments made towards it.

“It’s always nice to have people listen to your music, even if someone doesn’t have money or doesn’t want to give you money, it’s totally worth sticking around and listening because it’s greatly appreciated.”

Auditions are open to anyone interested, and all types of music will be considered.