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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Small Farmers Part 1 - The Chicken Chronicles.

I've been going a little stir crazy lately, waiting for our Border Collie, Chloe, to give birth.  Even now, she sits to my right in the superyard we borrowed from our friends to serve as the whelping box/nursery. I have been doing my normal household chores, but nothing seems to be distracting me enough. I've been doing lots of online reading on a variety of topics from "how to tell if a dog is in labor" to "complications that can occur in dog labor." So today I decided to shift focus away from dogs and whelping to doing some research on farming, small farmers, local producers and buying/selling local and got inspired to talk a little bit about the subject and to explain a little bit about where we are coming from as small farming meat producers.

Special Alert:  while writing this, Chloe went into labor!  I tried to complete and publish this post, but I could not find it in me.  It was too exciting to watch her.  I'll do another post on that adventure!

I'm probably not saying anything new here, I mean, for years we've been hearing about the trends towards buying food and products that are free range, organic, cage free, hormone free, etc. I've said in previous posts that I support the efforts of people to find and purchase these items, but buying products from a grocery store with those stamps on them for our family is not as important as buying your food products locally. By no means am I an expert in this field, I mean, we've only been "small farmers" for about four years now, but in those four years, I've managed to form some opinions, which I can share.

DISCLOSURE: the following comments are the opinion of the author and are a compilation of conclusions I have come to after MINOR research into the small farm business. Please do not interpret my OPINIONS as fact nor should you take my OPINION as an endorsement for anything in particular. If you are interested in the facts, please do your own research and perhaps check out this NPR interview.
NPR interview with Vilsack about ‘Know your famer, know your food’

Opinion 1: Buying organic, free range, etc., is great, BUT buying local (and from small farmers) is more important. My opinions are based heavily on the meat production market. I know a little bit about produce/crop production but not as much as I do about meat production/farming. I know that the biggest concern of consumers in regards to buying produce/crops in terms of the choice to buy organic is the use of pesticides and other chemicals that are sprayed onto fruits and vegetables and how those chemicals remain on the skins of the fruit produced. Obviously ingesting harmful chemicals is not something we want to do. And we don't want to feed animals that we are to consume products that have been grown with these chemicals. A friend of mine, who is much more educated regarding most of these matters has written several posts regarding sustainable living - from organic gardening to sustainable building, she's a plethora of knowledge and I've learned so much from her posts alone. I'd like to give a shout out to "Grace" a pseudonym she goes by to protect the privacy of her children (how excited am I that I get to use the word pseudonym!?  My childhood obsession with "Nancy Drew" is paying off!)  and her blog, Life Under A Blue Roof and include this link to a post she wrote on buying organic which addresses why buying organic produce is healthier on so many levels.  She also offers a great system for thinking about and implementing organics into your life - which you can also apply to the meat production industry.

For the most part, the food you purchase from the grocery store is typically grown on a mega farm or feed lot of some sort. When I say "mega farm" I don't necessarily mean in terms of acreage - I'm talking in product. I guess the new term out there for these farms is "factory farm" which implies that an unnaturally large number of animals are maintained on these farms. Whether the farm is here in the USA or in another country, large farms typically have larger problems with their crop or livestock. The number one problem these factory farms have is disposal of animal waste.  Now, I know that everyone needs to and deserves to make a living, but my personal opinion is that the factory farm is not the best, healthiest, or easiest way to farm.  Additionally, factory farms require less workers, less skill, and when you boil it all down, the meat appears to be much cheaper than locally grown, but the true cost is never truly revealed because as taxpayers, we pay for government subsidies to these farms and we must cover the costs of pollution produced by them. 

Unnaturally large numbers of animals are kept on such farms.  They are kept in close confinement in order to restrict movement allowing for maximum calorie intake and minimal calorie burn.  They are fed unnecessary high calorie diets in order to promote fast growth.  High calorie diets in animals result in high fat foods for consumers.  Sure, in a processing plant, meat can be de-fatted, but from experience, I can tell you it is far easier to start the butchering process with an animal that is leaner.  Additionally, these animals are usually confined indoors with minimal room for normal animal behaviors and limited access to sunlight and fresh air (both which are needed in order for the body to absorb and maintain proper vitamin levels).

For instance, a hen laying chicken facility can house up to 30,00 - 82,000 chickens on one farm.

For a meat chicken farm, they can maintain up to 125, 000 chickens.  Numbers are based on the manure processing/treatment facilities of the factory farm.

Many of you know that Erik and I have been raising layers (hens that lay eggs) for their eggs since we bought our farm.  We also have been raising meat chickens for our home consumption.  We've done this for about 3 years now and through trial and error have learned valuable lessons.  Our first experience in raising meat chickens was good, but we followed the advice of an article based on production from a factory farm.  We kept 25 chickens penned into a section of our barn about 4 feet square.  We offered feed to them 24 hours a day.  We did not buy organic or locally produced feed.  They were limited in movement and had no exposure to the outdoors.  The idea behind this was to promote maximum growth in fewer days.  The chickens we raised were even genetically bred to pack on the pounds in six to eight weeks.  Confined to such a small space, these chickens grew to be quite large and as a result, they also lost their ability to walk - their tiny bones could not support their weight. If we did not butcher them by 10 weeks, they would  be worthless. They also became aggressive with each other - crowded for space, they fought for every spare inch they could get.  Finally, they were dirty.  Unable to walk and move, they were covered in their own excrement.  Gross.  When we butchered them, they were very fatty.  When I cooked them, I spent a long time cutting away fat, which actually left adequate meat- but it was a pain.

The second time we raised meat chickens, we kept them confined to a similar size space, but changed our feeding schedule.  We heard about feeding them for 12 hours and then taking the feed away to help eliminate the amount of fat the chickens produced.  This system did produce less fatty chickens, but the results were still the same in terms of them being dirty and not having any exposure to the outdoors.

This third round, we raised the chickens in confinement, however, we gave them a larger area in which to live.  Erik basically fenced in one area of our hoop-house barn, which receives a lot of sunlight due to the 5 foot wide barn door being open.  We fed them locally grown (about two miles away), locally milled (ground up) feed and were surprised when the eight week mark came and went without the chickens showing signs that they needed to be butchered because they could not support their own weight.  In fact, because we raised these chickens over the summer, we ended up going about 12 weeks or so before we had them butchered and they did well.  We even somehow missed a chicken and he is still alive living with our laying hens to this day.  He's almost six months old - that's like 500 years in a meat chickens lifespan!  We eat our home grown chicken about once a week (if not more).  I find this batch of chicken to be the most flavorful, likely because the feed we are offering is a better feed.  Additionally, it is less fatty.  This is important because although the first year we did chickens, we butchered them ourselves, the last few times we've found local people to do the butchering for us.  Costs go up when the butcher has a lot of extra fat to remove.  Also, when we get the chickens home, I take a few and cut them down myself into portions for meals that require individual chicken pieces.  For us, the cost of about $2 per chicken to have someone else butcher it is worth the cost so we don't have to deal with the time consuming (and let's face it, gross) process of doing it ourselves.

We also feel justified in doing this because we are supporting another local business in their efforts to make a living.  After all, that is part of sustainable farming - utilizing the time, effort, talent, knowledge and skill of other small local farmers so that you ALL profit.

This is a lot of information to put out and to digest, so I'm going to end the post for now.  There is so much more I want to say about factory farming, the use of pharmaceuticals, and what we can do to improve the lives of small farmers, that I'll do a series based on this initial post.

I hope you enjoyed it and that you heed my disclaimer and do your own research so that you can make your own informed decisions about the food you eat and the farmers that you support.  Most people don't want to think about where their food is coming form - hence the popularity of the prepackaged, fast frozen products we can buy at the grocery store.  But there are consequences both economically, environmentally, and let's face it, physically to our health if we don't consider the farming practices behind the food that graces our table.

Some book links from that have been helpful.

1 comment:

  1. Love your post! It is a store of valuable information. I like how you laid out and compared your three years of broilers. We've only raised broilers one summer, and they were a little scrawny. Part of that has to do with the breed we chose, so I think we'll do better this summer.

    Thanks, too, for the link. I'm glad to count you among my friends who take food seriously.