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Yard Chickens

by Ken Root

I believe, if you stand in one place long enough, everything will come back by again.  I cite one room schools as historic examples of modern home schooling. But my focus today the ancient barnyard chicken being romanticized and converted to twenty first century organic production.

We ate a lot of chicken when I was growing up on the farm.  Chickens were handy because you could kill ‘em in the morning and fry ‘em up for hired hands at noon.  You could send the kids to the hay barn to hunt for eggs and make egg noodles savored with leftover meat and bones of the chicken you ate for supper yesterday.  Chickens had a niche in a homestead farm as they existed pretty much on their own with only our trees, barns and sheds for roosting and predator protection.  Feeding the birds was optional as they would survive on what they could scratch out of the ground.  A little oyster shell to strengthen the egg shells and they were good to go.

It seems that idyllic method of poultry production is attractive to modern consumers who indicate they are willing to pay more for happy chickens.  Capitalists are always eager to respond so large agricultural production companies believe there is profit to be made by giving the consumer what they want; in this case, an organic label on livestock.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) released proposed organic livestock and poultry standards.  The proposal reads:

“… (organic) poultry must have year-round access to an outdoor area “that is at least 50 percent soil cover.” The outdoor areas must include clean drinking water, have access to sunlight and shade, and “must have suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside.”

As I look at this definition I realize we were ahead of the times!  We gave our chickens one hundred percent soil cover as we had no concrete anywhere on the farm.  Our manure covered barn lot was ideal for scratching out bugs and worms for suitable enrichment of their diets.  They could also fly to the water tank and drink reasonably clean water from it.  I’m sure they were happy as the roosters crowed and the hens clucked.

The organic industry favors USDA setting standards.  “Ensuring that the high expectations consumers have for organic foods are met, preserves the organic seal’s reputation as the gold standard for agricultural production practices,” according to Karen Batcha, head of the Organic Trade Association.  “OTA is pleased that USDA is moving forward.”

Here is the real kicker in all this.  As diversified farms moved into the 1960’s, they were told by economists and government agencies that farmstead poultry production was inefficient and unhealthy.  As a result, the chicken became the centerpiece of the first industrialized livestock industry.  Technology and capital combined to construct total indoor housing with manufactured feed and piped in water.  The result was a sharp increase in total meat and egg production and a major cost reduction.  From that point on, chicken and turkey became the cheapest meat in the grocery store.  Egg production, per hen, soared as the animals perform very well in confinement.  We existed for fifty years with low cost, sanitary and healthy birds until animal welfare activists and media changed the consumer’s perception to a chicken with a sensory deprived, miserable life.

Profit remains the motivation and the race will be on to become a dominant supplier of organically certified “pasture poultry” and “free range eggs”.  However, I’m not sure how sanitary large scale growers can make their products considering the dirt and sunshine provisions of the organic standards.  I just don’t think consumers are as tough as they were in the past but I know they are a lot more likely to sue if they get sick.

I feel fortunate that I am a survivor of an environment filled with pathogens.  We lived in the dirt and we ate what we grew.  To keep us healthy, my mother had a strategy.  She loved boiling water and hot grease.  Her chicken killing day began early as she wrung the necks of the birds in the yard and let them flop around until they bled out.  Then she plunged them into boiling water and picked off all their feathers.  She then lit a handful of newspaper and burned off the pin feathers.  (I still remember that smell.)  We had electricity so she put the cleaned carcasses in ice water and stored them in the refrigerator.  When she was ready to cook, she spooned about an inch of white lard in a cast iron skillet and heated it while she cut up the chicken, dredged it in flour, salt and pepper and then fried it to a crisp golden brown.  We were then forced to eat it along with mashed potatoes and gravy made with raw milk and cream.  Life was hell!  I always joked that my mother could make anything edible.  She proved that Salmonella is delicious if you know how to cook it.

So here we are in 2016, wanting to replicate this process because it makes us feel good to know the almost brainless descendent of a dinosaur, that would just as soon scavenge dead meat as dig for live worms, is being allowed to socially and sexually interact with its peers.

I have no doubt that innovative people will come up with ways to mass produce organically certified poultry.  Increased volume should bring down the price.  Small growers, who put a lot of individualized work into caring for their flocks, will be challenged to make a profit.  Large integrators, who follow the letter of the law, will be able to take over the market by using technology and marketing skill.

The AMS Deputy Administrator, Miles McEvoy, said the goal of the proposed rule is to align consumer expectations with actual organic production.  We will see if the organic experience feels good and smells sweet in the years ahead.