In International Falls, a rejection of backyard chickens

White exhaust floats above a snow covered street.
Exhaust from the Boise Paper mill fills the cold air of International Falls, Minn., last December.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

It was a contentious election season in 2020, but in the far northern Minnesota border city of International Falls, the political arguments this fall weren’t about the presidential race.

They were about chickens.

Keeping chickens has been on and off illegal in International Falls for the past 40 years. For a long time you could have three hens, then none, then three again, then maybe five, then back to none — to the point where no one seemed to know what was allowed and what wasn’t.

City Council member Joe Krause has been fielding calls about chickens for years, he said: Some people calling to complain about a neighbor’s chickens; others calling to complain that they wanted to be allowed to own chickens.

"I, quite frankly, was fatigued from the calls in either direction,” Krause said. So, after years of back and forth — including a unanimous City Council vote in April to reject a proposal that would allow residents to keep chickens — the council decided to put the question to voters.

The thinking was simple, Krause said: “If the people want it or don’t want it, let’s put it on the ballot and go with the will of the people."

The issue got heated, Krause said — far more heated than anything else on the ballot.

Most people agreed on who should run the country — President Donald Trump took 60 percent of Koochiching County’s vote in November — but what they didn’t agree on was chickens.

In the end, the residents of International Falls said “no” to backyard chickens — narrowly.

Now, about 50 people will have to relocate their flocks by the first of the year. Most are sending the chickens to bigger farms outside of town.

"That’s going to be hard,” said Shelly Morin, who helped organize the pro-chicken vote.

She runs a local farm and garden store, and said she knows several older people who have grown fond of their flocks, especially during the pandemic.

“They talk about their chickens: ‘My girls laid two eggs today,’ ” she said. “Because what else are they going to do in the COVID season?"

Morin said it seems strange to outlaw chickens in a rural town like International Falls, while bigger cities like Duluth allow them. And the middle of a pandemic, she argues, isn’t the time to prevent people from trying to reach some food independence.

But International Falls has its reasons.

Among them: There used to be a commercial chicken farm on the outskirts of town. Morin said the smell was pungent — and pervasive. The farm closed down decades ago, but Morin said she thinks the town still has a bad memory of the experience.

But Krause said there’s another reason. A lot of homeowners, he said, worried that allowing backyard chickens would lead to “blight” — that’s a word that came up a lot in the debate leading up to the vote — and lower their property values.

"Blight has been a very big issue in the community over the last two years,” he said. “Unlicensed cars in your yard. Rubbish. Tires. Just blight factors. An unkept chicken coop is going to smell."

This idea of blight has become such an issue in recent years, Krause said, one City Council member ran on an entirely anti-blight platform.

But Morin says “blight” is a code word. She sees a chasm in International Falls between people who are well off and people who are trying to survive. Either you make good money, she said, or you make minimum wage, and there’s very little in between.

The divide might not typically lead to political differences in such a consistently conservative place, but the chicken issue brought it to the surface.

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