RICHMOND -- With its proximity to roaring traffic and paucity of organic produce, the Richmond Certified Farmers Market is no foodie mecca. But it does boast one product not found at its more sprawling competitors: live poultry.
Now, thanks to a City Council decision spurred by months of protests, Richmond's chicken stand is closing.
A group of vegan protesters showed up en masse Tuesday night and flooded Mayor Gayle McLaughlin's inbox with more than 1,000 emails charging that the vendor Raymond Young keeps his chickens in unsafe, inhumane conditions.
Citing possible animal cruelty and ongoing administrative headaches, the City Council voted 4-2 to shut down what protesters say is the last open-air chicken stand outside of Stockton.
Once in full view, Young now keeps his chickens hidden behind a tarp on a truck bed on the far end of Richmond's weekly market.
On Friday, a stream of mostly Asian women paid Young $6.50 each and then walked over to the truck to accept their purchase from a hand extended through the tarp walls.
Customers said that like the other offerings at the market, the chickens are healthier and tastier than those available at the supermarket and an essential part of their diet.
The chickens also attract practitioners of animistic religions.
Poet Saeyand, a Mien immigrant from Thailand, bought a hen to sacrifice for the health of her child on an auspicious day.
"To do the ceremony,
"If my children are sick, I buy the chicken and it helps them not go to the hospital. With a chicken from the store, it won't work."
Council members Jovanka Beckles and Corky Booze expressed concern Tuesday about the impact closing the stand might have on the Asian residents that makes up 13 percent of Richmond's population.
Young, who has operated here for six years, says he generally sells 700 hens on market days, even with the vegans protesting weekly.
Jennie Ong, director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, wishes the protesters had worked harder to come to an agreement that made room for these cultural practices.
"I feel like maybe this could be handled in a way that could be more sensitive to the Chinese culture," she said. "Maybe we could do some kind of reform to make things more humane."
On Friday, customers said they were unlikely to patronize the handful of brick and mortar shops in neighboring cities that sell live poultry, either because they did not have time for the trip or because they wouldn't be able to travel with a cooing chicken on public transportation.
The protesters, who have won campaigns against three other live markets in Oakland and San Francisco, say there shouldn't be cultural excuses for the law.
Alex Felsinger, 25, joined the campaign after witnessing what looked like extreme cruelty at Young's San Francisco Civic Center stand.
"We do advocate for a vegan diet," he said, "however, we are quick to point out that this isn't the only food source. Those council members act like people are going to starve if they can't get those chickens"
Although Contra Costa County officials say they have no record of serious health code violations at the Richmond stand, protesters say they routinely documented problems such as cramped cages, no access to water, and birds and feces too close to produce, eggs and customers.
They also believe that the poultry are "spent" egg-laying chickens from large Central Valley farms that are no longer productive.
Councilman Jeff Ritterman advocated for closing the stand in part because it could be misleading to sell industrial chickens at a farmers market.
But Asian advocates say that farmers markets, which cater to people looking for newly harvested food, could be perfect venues for live chickens.
"While this is a practice among Asian consumers, I think it's larger than that," said Clarence Wong of Asian Health Services "The idea is that you want to eat food that's very fresh."
In his view, slaughtering a Central Valley chicken before dinner isn't so different from eating a locally grown tomato picked from the vine that morning.
Beckles and McLaughlin noted that regardless of the council decision, the stand would likely have to close in January when a state bill outlawing roadside animal sales goes into effect.
The protesters say they will now turn their attention to a vendor in Stockton.
Young will shut down his stand this month but will continue to sell hens at his Modesto farm.
"The protesters won't come to my farm; they wouldn't go that far," he said. "At least, I hope not."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier