The bill: House Bill 1191, the Chicken Freedom Act
Filed by: Briscoe Cain, Republican, District 128 (Deer Park)
What it would do: Contrary to what its name implies, the Chicken Freedom Act does not grant special freedoms to fowl. Rather, the prefiled bill would amend Chapter 251 of the Texas Agriculture Code—a chapter that deals largely with the protection and preservation of agricultural operations—to include special protections for Texans who want to raise chickens in their own backyards.
The amendment states that “a political subdivision may not impose a governmental requirement that prohibits an individual from raising or keeping six or fewer chickens in the boundaries of the political subdivision.” It adds that a municipality may impose “reasonable requirements” on the raising or keeping of poultry within city limits, as long as it doesn’t restrict an individual from keeping six or fewer chickens. Cain’s bill would also amend Chapter 202 of the Texas Property Code to allow six chickens (roosters included!) on any single-family residential lot, so that no property owners’ association can stand in the way.
What’s all the fuss about chickens? Well, first came the egg—more specifically, the rising cost of eggs. In January, prices across the country soared to 70 percent higher than a year before, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Texas, the jump was even sharper: one report found that prices increased nearly 138 percent, with a dozen eggs costing on average of $4.25 in January, up from $1.79 last year. The increases are thanks to a combination of factors: the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, and animal feed; the war in Ukraine’s disruption of the global supply chain; and an outbreak of avian flu that led to the depopulation of egg-laying hens in the United States. Responding to the demand, some folks have taken to smuggling eggs across the border from Mexico, where they cost less. Others have decided to raise their own chickens and create their own supply.
The demand for backyard hens has skyrocketed in Texas. Ideal Poultry, a family-run supplier in the small town of Cameron (some 80 miles northeast of Austin) that sells “day-old poultry”—that is, chicks that have just hatched from their eggs—is already sold out of chicks until the middle of May. “We have been since January,” said Julie Eason, a customer service supervisor for Ideal. “We’re never sold out this far out, this early in the year.” Among Ideal’s wholesale customer base, which includes feed stores and the like, Eason said those companies will order six hundred chicks from Ideal and be sold out within an hour or two. “They’ll send us pictures and there are folks lined up outside the store,” she said.
“Probably one out of every five phone calls we get is people asking about chicks,” said Hannah Sloat, the manager at Hill Country Feed & Supply, a wholesaler in Leander, about thirty miles north of Austin.
While Ideal doesn’t deal in mature birds, elsewhere, the price of a ready-to-lay hen has nearly doubled, with breeds costing anywhere from $20 to $50. Ideal has kept its chick prices the same (around $4 each), but it’ll be months before the chicks mature. “They’re not even going to get eggs out of them for five or six months,” Eason said. “But they’re still coming and buying them like crazy.” Your average hen will lay somewhere between two hundred and three hundred eggs per year. With all the associated costs of raising chickens, including feed and the price of buying or building a coop, savings are not guaranteed.
There is no state law regulating whether Texans can keep chickens in their backyards; rather, it’s a matter regulated by city ordinances. For example, in Cain’s hometown of Deer Park (twenty miles east of Houston), city ordinances prevent residents from keeping noisy animals or birds that “by [their] character, volume or repetition [are] offensive to persons in the vicinity so as to disturb the quiet, comfort or repose of any person.” So what is Cain, a small-government crusader, doing trying to override local coop control? “I heard from constituents who were concerned about the rising cost of eggs,” Cain told me. “When they looked into raising chickens for eggs, they found regulations in place to prevent that. Although some cities do allow for ‘backyard chickens,’ Texans deserve consistent regulations.”
When I followed up with Cain and his staff to ask why six was the magic number of chickens, they declined to answer. But the general rule of thumb is that you should get three chickens per every two members of your household. At that rate, six chickens wouldn’t supply enough eggs to Cain’s own flock of seven, but you could comfortably feed a family of four.
Does the bill have a chance of passing? It’s the first session in which this legislation has been filed, which—given the ways of the Texas Lege—often means a bill’s chances of actually hatching are slim. But while backyard chickens didn’t make it onto Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s influential list of priority bills, Cain’s bill could become one of the few that receives bipartisan support. After all, raising chickens is as popular among liberal urban homesteaders as it is with small-town traditionalists.