Monday, September 6, 2010

If A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

I thought this was a lovely picture ... the grassy field in front of the non-descript buildings. It could be any non-offensive warehouse business in the world. There could be books in those buildings! Or things to make books! Or even people making books!

The fact is that that picture does show a warehouse, but nothing as lovely as books are housed there. What is housed in those buildings are chickens. MILLIONS of chickens in cages.

When I first started researching keeping chickens, I learned that the MINIMUM size area for one chicken was two square feet inside and four square feet outside for EACH chicken. If I had a million chickens, that's a lot of square feet.

The space allotted to the chickens who are housed in these sorts of buildings does not even begin to meet the minimum space requirements to keep healthy and happy chickens. They don't ever see the light of day. They don't ever get to scratch the ground or take a dirt bath with the sun streaming on them through the leaf cover. They don't ever get to hunt bugs or nibble fresh grass. They live their short lives in a cage, roughly, the size of a piece of copy paper - about 8 1/2"x11".

If we didn't care about our chickens, and all we wanted was the eggs they could give us at the highest profit margin possible, then, we wouldn't have gone to such great lengths to make them such a comfortable place to live.

There are some stark differences between our chicken living quarters and the one in the picture above. The first is that when a newcomer walks up to our chicken run, there's no doubt as to what's inside. See? Chickens.

But the most stark difference is this:

Children play where our chickens live.

Children play where our chickens live.

I would never take a child into a confined animal operation - especially not one of my girls, who are beautiful and sensitive and have only seen happy chickens with plenty of room to cause mischief.

This is a great article in support of local foods and against the S. 510 bill I wrote about a couple of days ago.

My favorite line in the piece was this: Unless all the food you eat comes from the farm stand down the road or your backyard garden, you too are consuming industrial food, and I thought of the dairy farms where we get milk, and our friends at Broadturn Road Farm, which looks exactly like the pictures on their website (I know, because I've been there on many occasions - and was even able to help out on the farm once or twice :), and Snell Family Farm, where I have a CSA (and which also looks just like the pictures, and I know this, because I've been there, too), and I thought of my little nanofarm, too, with my wild and crazy gardens and my ducks and chickens and rabbits, which serves to perpetuate the Old McDonald's Farm myth, and, actually, people who have visited have commented that we have "Old McDonald's Farm" here.

I smiled, smugly, after reading the line, because, for the most part, my food supply is that myth, and not the reality of factory farms.

While factory farms do, indeed, have the largest part of the market share, I know that in every community in every part of our country, there are small farms that look just like the Old McDonald's Farm, and those small, local farmers, are all too happy to sell their lovely crops at small farmer's markets across the continent. All they want is a customer who values what they do, and understands that their product is *not* what's available in the grocery store. Most just want to be able to live comfortably, and they just want an honest wage for an honest days' work.

I pay more for tomatoes at the Farmer's Market than I do at the grocery store. I pay more for corn, and more for potatoes, too, but while the actual dollars I spend may be a bit more than what I would if I bought the same item at the grocery store, I know that the items are not comparable and there is no comparing the tomato picked green and artificially ripened with the box of canning tomatoes I bought from Snell last weekend.

And it may cost me more to can those tomatoes than it would to buy a can of tomatoes from Hannaford, but I know there is no comparing my home-canned tomatoes to the ones canned in the factory in a BPA-lined can.

The bottom line, though, is that by supporting my local growers and by growing some of my own, in the event of a hiccup in the on-demand food delivery system, I don't have to worry, and that's worth every penny and more.

Food safety? Definitely! Food security? Absolutely!

Old McDonald's Farm is not a myth. It's up the road, and around the corner, and in my backyard.


  1. I am working on having it in my backyard too! I am awestruck by how much food we grew in a comparatively small conventional garden and a few raised beds. And now that we have a small hoophouse I can't wait to see how much we can extend the season.
    I can't imagine how the owner's of factory "farms" can stand to cram so many chickens in such a small space, without it bothering their conscience. I can't imagine working there, one would need a gas mask to go inside.
    Thanks for a good post.

  2. I recently found someone in the next town over who sells eggs, so I'll be buying my next 1/2 dozen from them. (I only use between 6 and 12 per month.) This is one more thing I can feel good about; neighbors, community, and safer food. Around here our farmers markets last until the beginning of December, unless weather turns bad. Even though the selection will be limited, I'll make use of what is available before I turn to the chain grocery stores.

    I'd gladly have an Old MacDonald's Farm next to me. I may not be ready for any big castrophe, but I'm living as green as I can in hopes of being less dependent on those bigger corporations.

  3. Great post. Wes and I went to visit the pigs today. We can't raise them in the village but a friend is raising one for us. We're on the last leg of "finishing" so Saturday we're going to cull the garden of too big cukes and zukes and other things that the pigs will like and trade them for 2 dozen eggs. I want our own chickens so bad.... hopefully next year.

  4. I'm well versed with industrial chickens, and there's a few half-right things about that. Yup, at the end of a grow-out, it's wall-to-wall chicken, but until the last week or so there's plenty of room for the evil little b**tards to rattle around. In fact, at the beginning of a grow-out, we have to block off half the house because the chicks huddle together for warmth.

    The in-laws' houses are the older-style "curtain" houses, where about half the long wall area is open and covered with curtains that can be raised or lowered as needed to regulate temperature or just air them out. So, at least in those houses, they *do* get some sunshine & fresh air. They scratch & wallow in the dirt, eat bugs, etc. You have to wear a mask in the last couple of weeks because they tend to stir up a LOT of dust.

    The newer "tunnel house" design is much more like described in the post: they're always closed up and the stench is incredible. The temperature is regulated a little better though (they have gigantic swamp coolers).

    But either way... you think the chickens are treated bad, you ought to see how the poultry companies treat the growers. Think "company store" model. Mrs. Fetched tells me they're going to cut them off in spring 2012 because the in-laws refuse to go further into debt for the demanded renovations. I'll believe it when it happens, then I'll piss on each of those four houses.

  5. Hey, FARf - As someone who has raised meat chickens, I have to say, with regard to smell, even on our small scale, the smell can get pretty intense. Our broiler set-up is a 5'x5' "tractor" that's open wire on all four sides (similar to your in-laws' "older-style" houses). The bottom is open to the ground, but even though we move it around the yard, the broiler birds tend to sully the ground rather quickly, and need to be moved frequently, especially as they get older.

    But the post isn't about meat birds. The houses in the picture are part of the Decoster egg farm, and hens don't live in those crowded conditions for a few weeks. They live in those crowded conditions, laying eggs for months or years - two years is the typical lifespan for an industrial hen (we have a hen who is going on four years old and still laying eggs).

    I think everyone in the industrial food business is treated poorly from the workers to the animals, and that the only ones making out are the big producers - like Tyson ... and Decoster ... whose abhorrent business practices make it impossible for smaller growers.

    All that to say that I do understand the why's and how's of raising large numbers of meat birds, and I completely understand how difficult it is for the smaller producers.

    I think localizing both our production and our purchasing will help out people like your in-laws, though. If they were able to scale down their operation so that they had fewer birds, but all of those birds were sold locally (at a potentially higher price per bird, and all going to your in-laws, rather than the bulk of profits going to the corporate moguls who do nothing except serve as a middle-man), I imagine they'd find themselves out of debt and happier. Finding customers would be the biggest challenge, and I do understand how it's often easier to go with the status quo than it is to make such a huge leap of faith and make big changes.

    That said, I don't know how it is for y'all down there in Planet Georgia, but here, there's a HUGE demand for local, humanely-raised chicken, and most people are willing to pay a bit more. We eat less chicken than we used to, but it's much better, and we tend to appreciate it a little more ;).

  6. Hey Wendy! I'm glad you received that comment in the intended spirit. Yeah, Planet Georgia is mostly the Mal*Wart mentality: whatever's cheapest wins regardless of the side-effects. Really, the only good part of a factory poultry operation is that there's free fertilizer if you also have pastures with cattle.

  7. Wendy, I have chickens again, I just cooked 2 fresh eggs, and I was sighing with every bite. I had forgotten what a real egg from a non-abused chicken tastes like.

  8. I know this post is old, but after going out to the coop (it's December 2o11) and finding eggs without an added light is wonderful. Normally, my chickens stop laying in the winter. I was getting my husband's lunch ready for tomorrow and realized I didn't have anything for his lunch. I looked around, and realized I had ingredients for kolaches, homemade pickles and onions (do you can onions?), bread and I made oatmeal cookies. I had everything on hand. I like being able to do something last minute and not run to the store. We have 30 egg layers, 4 roosters, and 26 Freedom Ranger chicks in the tractor. The chicks STINK the worst. ;-)