DIY urban farming gets a boost with the modern chicken coop

The co-founder of urban beekeeping company Alvéole tells us about his new project, POC POC.

A hen and POC POC coop. Photo by Virginie Tardif

It isn’t impossible to farm from home, even with limited urban space, but it can be a practice that demands a lot of time and resources. As a result, the movement to streamline urban space for food production is on the rise, and Montreal is seeing its share of companies jumpstarting the process. Alex McLean is at the helm of one of them.

Perhaps better known as one of the founders of Alvéole — the urban beekeeping company that began in 2012 and has expanded exponentially with locations around the world — McLean has spent the last year and a half on a new project: POC POC, a company that makes modernized chicken coops for city dwellers, who’ll pay $1,200 for the privilege to farm DIY (or $1,020 with the current early bird special via Indiegogo). Facing city bylaws that (for now) only allow chickens in two boroughs (Rosemont-la-Petite-Patrie and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve) as well as criticism from the SPCA, McLean spoke to me about the project and its challenges.

JP Karwacki: Why did you and your cofounder start with a beekeeping project?

Alex McLean: We pushed this idea of bees really hard to show people it’s something they can do and do in the city — really happy about that, convincing a lot schools and company owners to cooperate — but we wanted to push further.

We’re different from others because we don’t focus on production as much as we do on education. There are a lot of people doing large urban farms, crickets, aquaponics, that kind of thing, but for us it’s more about education and having more people connected to nature and agriculture in the city, seeing the city as a different place.

When you put people in front a hive, they change. They ask a lot of questions, understanding the processes behind pollination and food production. When we started a pilot project with chickens and had clients expressing a lot interest in caring for them, we knew we had to expand (it).

The coop

JPK: Cool. Could you share your elevator pitch for POC POC?

AM: Bring chickens to your home to bring an educational experience to you and your family where you’ll understand where food comes from, start producing fresh eggs yourself and the pride that comes with that.

JPK: And so how does it work? Where would someone get started with chicken farming through POC POC?

AM: The first thing we do is start with getting healthy hens that are vaccinated multiple times. We get in touch with certified farmers who are around Montreal, Quebec and Toronto — they have registers of chickens’ vaccinations and can supply the right food supplies for proper care. We connect people with those farmers, because without that connection there can be all kinds of health issues, and the farmers can also be asked questions. After that, we connect people with vets who can take them in and treat them as pets. There’s only so many in the city who do this.

JPK: What about caring for the hens? There are vets and farmers to help with caring for them, but don’t hens have a finite period of their lives where they produce eggs?

AM: In terms of lifespan, they live up to 10 years and lay for up to three years. Some people keep them as pets, or you can bring them to a butcher and they’ll be humanely butchered, and you can have them for dinner. Some people aren’t comfortable with that part, but if you do eat meat, then it’s part of the cycle which is important to understand.

JPK: That’s a good point, I hadn’t even thought of asking you about killing the hens.

AM: It’s needed, and it’s not going to waste. Commercial hen’s eggs from a grocery store come from a bird that has lived at most 60 weeks and then are killed, and they’re living in terrible conditions for their entire life. Backyard hens have about 10 times their space and can lay up to three or four times more because the conditions are better. In my opinion, you get healthier and happier hens.

JPK: It seems like there could have been a fair degree of micro-management in overseer efforts regarding chicken coops — but from the sound of it, POC POC is designed to only supply the tools a person needs, in addition to the connections to farmers that’s required?

AM: Exactly. There were two aspects regarding urban hens where we see ourselves adding value: First, the coop, as there’s no real urban chicken coop provider out there, and if you want to have your own you need to have the proper set-up. The second thing was creating a database of farms and criteria of what an ideal hen farm is, and then we connect people to those farmers. It creates an extra revenue stream from those farmers as well.

JPK: Urban agriculture hasn’t always been popular, and in a way, it’s still struggling to be a common practice. Has there been much resistance to your initiatives since they began?

AM: There have been a lot of peaks and valleys, and I think we’re living in more of a peak now. The main thing is that people are tired of not knowing what they’re eating and being completely disconnected. People are now asking more questions, and they want to assume the role of not just consumer but also producer.

Any movement of change — and while this isn’t a complete change because agriculture has been part of our lives forever — there’s always going to be people who think it’s a bad idea, that it’s bad for the animals and so on and so forth, but we believe that this revolution is really important.

JK: And what about bureaucratic resistance? I’ve read that Hochelaga and Rosement are the boroughs where this kind of urban farming is legal, while there’re some legal grey areas in others. Could you clarify this?

AM: It’s not that grey. Rosemont has been the city’s official pilot project,so they’ve been testing this for the last three years, and it will be backed up by UQAM studies of the quality of life around those who have coops. We’re the official partners who have supplied the coops and hens and all that.

Hochelaga-Maisonneuve changed their regulations a year or two ago, but there you have to have a minimum of space that’s actually quite large. Then there’s Hampstead and Westmount, which don’t fit into Montreal’s bylaws, so they don’t have any regulation, and no regulations means you can do it. Around Montreal, there are 15 municipalities that changed their regulations in 2017 — Terrebonne, Chambly, Granby, for example — to allow this. Toronto has a pilot project that started a few months ago, Vancouver changed theirs about three years ago, so there really are winds of change to allow this and go in the opposite direction.

That’s why we jumped into this and we pushed the idea. If people are going to start doing this, they should be doing it properly, and if they want to do it properly, then they have to have the proper coop.

JPK: So, given there’s been so many changes to reception and perception of practices like POC POC’s, do you no longer see efforts like your own as radical?

AM: I wish. It’s maybe not as radical as it once was, but it’s still a fight for sure. Even with bees, even with a hundred schools that have hives on their roofs, there’s still a huge way to go until it’s mainstream. ■

See more about POC POC here.