In addition to big-ticket items like education finance reform, Texas lawmakers have been tackling other issues, this legislative session – like what to do about chickens. One lawmaker has filed a bill to try and make it easier for Texans to own chickens. The legislation is currently awaiting a House vote.
Wynona is a chicken. She lives in Melissa Dismukes’ backyard in a suburb outside Houston.
Wynona is one of Dismukes’ five backyard chickens. She has a colorful variety – two cochins, a brahma, a black sex link and a naked neck. Sounds nice, right? There’s only one problem – the town she lives in doesn’t technically allow people to own chickens.
”We talked to the neighbors before we got them,” Dismukes says. “Because the last thing you want to do is pour money into a coop and chickens and let your kids get attached to them, and then get turned into the HOA and have to get rid of it all. So we did have a quiet discussion with them like, ‘hey, how would you feel about this?’ And they were all on board.”
Right now, whether you can own backyard chickens depends on where you live. But in the last few years, there’s been a push in Texas to strip away these restrictions.
”Everybody doesn’t have a Whole Foods on their street corner like you do here in Austin,” says State Rep. James White. “And so, it just gives people a little bit more discretion and control over their diets.”
The Republican represents Tyler County and other parts of East Texas. White filed a bill this session that would allow Texans to have at least six chickens.
White says he wants people to have more of a say over their diets and to make sure students in FFA, or Future Farmers of America, or other educational agriculture groups, can raise chickens for projects.
There are some stipulations. A municipality could still do things like ban roosters, or dictate how far a coop needs to be from a residence. So you couldn’t have hens in your apartment closet. But if you’ve got a yard and are far enough from your neighbors, like Melissa Dismukes, then you’d get the green light.
Dismukes says her family has backyard chickens for many reasons. For one thing, having hens gives her more control over her family’s health. Dismukes is a nutrition coach. She says even with organic labeling at grocery stores, people can’t be 100% sure about the eggs.
”I’m pretty comfortable with us eating our eggs because I know exactly what they eat, exactly how they’re treated and it makes a big difference,” she says.
The legislation White filed is identical to a bill filed last session by Sen. Van Taylor. Here’s Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican from Edgewood, joking about it during a 2017 Senate session.
“I truly feel this is an egg-ceptional piece of legislation, and I thank you for bringing it to the floor. How did you hatch this idea? But I would like to peck at it a little bit,” Hall said.
Puns aside, there were some concerns, and the bill died.
So far this session, the legislation has had a warmer reception. At a recent hearing, no one testified against it. This could be because there are bigger issues on Texans minds. Or, it could be that backyard chickens are becoming more and more commonplace. In rural and urban Texas. In fact, Austin even offers residents a $75 rebate if they own chickens.
But sometimes, backyard chickens get a bad rep. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked them to a multistate salmonella outbreak that caused the hospitalization of 56 people.
Craig Coufal is an extension specialist in the Department of Poultry Science at Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. He says any concerns are overblown.
”Even your cat, dog, your pet, could harbor bacteria that could potentially make you sick,” Coufal says. “We just need to make sure we practice good hygiene when handling those animals.”
So far, White says these concerns haven’t been raised at the Capitol. That gives Melissa Dismukes hope. She says the bill’s passage would ease her worries about her homeowner’s association one day forcing her to give up her chickens. But even if the bill doesn’t pass, she’ll still keep the chickens around.
“They are my pets,” Dismukes says. “But I enjoy them. It’s fun to come out here. It’s fun to see them. I like giving them treats.”
And most of all, she says she likes collecting their eggs in the morning.