by Travis Hare
photos by Eric Bond
I knock nervously on Tom Fedewa’s door.
Fedewa, who is known on the street as Okra Tom, has recently run afoul of the law for harboring illegal animals.
The door swings open and two tiny dogs run laps around my feet. When I look up, a grandfatherly man hands me a half-empty carton of eggs—the main ingredient for a final omelet from his condemned chicken coop.
The urban farmer cheerily offers me a glass of water and a seat on the porch.
Fedewa, 75, is happy to chat, but he is also eager to finish packing for a vacation to his home state of Michigan. He will be joining his brother for an antique tractor parade across the five-mile Mackinac Bridge that connect the upper and lower peninsulas of the state.
Originally a Michigan farmboy, Fedewa spent his early twenties in D.C. before striking out for the West, with stints in Mexico and Oregon. Then he and his wife, yearning for diversity, returned to Takoma D.C. five years ago.
Fedewa claims he had no idea chickens were illegal in the District. He had kept them for two years with no complaints.
“I was quite surprised when the men from animal control came knocking on the door and said the chickens had to be gone in 24 hours.”
He says he had just assumed that “since we live in the 21st Century,” D.C. would—like many cities—allow responsible folks to keep chickens in their backyard.
Fedewa is cagey about where his chickens are now, but suggests that they are vacationing in Virginia while they await word for their triumphal return.
“I want D.C. to make it possible for people to exercise the right to be sustainable urban farmers,” Fedewa says. “With an election coming up, I think it’s a good time to push the issue.”
Back in 2009, D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-6), currently running for mayor, tried to enact legislation that would make it possible to keep chickens. However that bill was shot down. Fedewa is unsure of where his councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-4)—also running for mayor—stands.
Apparently Bowser is unsure herself. When I reached out to her campaign, a representative told me that he had “no idea,” what her position is on backyard poultry.
Takoma Park, Md., is a haven for hens
Five minutes from Fedewa’s house, across the District line, Marylander Charlotte Schoeneman operates a completely legal egg cooperative, sharing the bounty and the work with several families. Schoeneman and her daughter, Zoe, show us around the backyard where they keep five hens.
When I mention that they are “cute little guys,” 8-year-old Zoe looks embarrassed for me. “Girls!” she says, “Cute little girls!”
Though she admits she hadn’t really thought to start the co-op until she read an article about it in The New Yorker, Schoeneman later remembered that her parents owned a cattle cooperative when she was a girl in Virginia. An avid gardener and a fan of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver’s books about eating and raising real food, Schoeneman says that keeping urban chickens just makes sense.
“Factory chickens are just treated horribly,” she says.
Though none of the chickens have names, Zoe does have a favorite.
“She’s the only one who will let me pick her up,” Zoe says as she scoops the orange hen into her arms.
When I ask about concerns neighbors might have—noise, smell, disease— Schoeneman says that as long as you are responsible and follow the guidelines set by the county—for instance, keeping the coop 100 feet from neighboring houses and 25 feet from property boundaries—those worries aren’t really an issue. She also doesn’t keep roosters, the main offender when it comes to noise.
The only attention the chickens have attracted has been from raccoons and foxes.
“We’ve lost a few—but we haven’t had any complaints from the neighbors,” says Schoeneman.
Looking for a farm in the heart of the city
Back at Fedewa’s, we get up from the porch to visit the vacant chicken coop in the backyard. We pass ripening tomatoes, soccer-ball-sized pumpkins, and rows of beans—enough to feed a neighborhood.
Although he lives on a typically small urban plat, Fedewa uses every corner to maintain a thriving urban farm. He shows off the solar room that he built on the side of his house to warm his house and continue the growing season during the winter. Then we descend to the basement, where a dirt-floor cellar keeps his home-canned vegetables cool.
As we make our way out to the chicken coop, Fedewa calls attention to the lack of foul odors and flies.
He opens the lid of the coop and points to something in the corner.
“The last egg,” says Okra Tom.