Thursday, January 22, 2009

Really Free Range

If you've been to visit our new farm -- and if you haven't we invite you to make plans to do so -- you probably saw our chickens running around the farmyard. Some people, when they come to visit, comment that they haven't seen chickens running around like ours in a couple generations. As easy as it is to find "free range" eggs in supermarkets, you might expect to see some of these hens that are now supposedly out in the open, but even as farmers interacting with lots of other farmers, we've never seen or even heard about a real "free range" flock that supplies a supermarket. So what does "free range" or "free roaming" mean? Most likely it means only that chickens are crowded in confinement houses instead of being in individual cages. In such crowded conditions, hens typically have to be de-beaked to prevent cannibalistic pecking. You can bet the factory farmers raising such chickens -- or paying the immigrant laborers that do -- aren't relying the least bit on actual forage to nourish their birds, even if, as in the case of "USDA organic" flocks, they're given a token run beside their confinement houses.

When we use the term "free range" we mean that our chickens are completely unconfined all day, free to wander as far as a chicken wants to wander (in the forest floor, in the orchard, in the pasture, around the gardens, etc.), and able to scratch up enough worms and grubs such that genetically engineered oilseed byproducts (and any other sort of so-called "natural, vegetarian" protein supplements) are completely unnecessary. (We go to extraordinary lengths to feed all of our animals without the use of any genetically modified feedstuffs.) We believe those worms and grubs -- not just a square foot's worth but thousands of square feet per chicken -- are the most valuable and important part of free range. Worms and grubs are nature's free (and ecologically benign) gift to chickens and they are chickens' natural source of protein; the industrial alternative is massive Midwest monocultures (almost always genetically modified), using tremendous quantities of fossil fuels to synthesize everything from the fertilizer to the pesticides, causing problems like soil erosion and pollution of rivers and aquifers, and processed by agribusiness corporations beyond the control of any farmer. Nonetheless, free ranging chickens isn't an easy choice. Fewer and fewer locations allow for the successful free ranging of chickens any more. (We used a moveable fence to rotate enclosures when we lived in Wilkes County.) Even now, our farm can naturally only support a relatively small flock. Predators like stray dogs and hawks have taken a significant toll on our flock over the years. Allowing our chickens free range has also required us to invest in fences around our garden spaces and young trees. We believe we're approaching a different kind of efficiency, though, a kind of efficiency not built on cheap fossil fuel and slave-like immigrant labor but on diversification and creation's natural bounty, and we're very proud of the simple yet extraordinary quality of our eggs and chickens.