Thursday, September 5, 2013

when chickens roam

"Are your chickens free range?"

I am asked this question everywhere I go. At farmers markets as a vendor. Or anywhere else when people discover we grow egg layers and chicken for eating. 

It's a funny question. When people ask, I try and answer politely, and find out what that means to them. Since I know what it means in poultry growing language I'm curious what it means to a person, not a farmer, looking to buy eggs. 

I always get the same answer. To a person looking to get eggs for tomorrow's breakfast, they have a vision of a few chickens roaming unencumbered by restraints on sunny, balmy, grassy fields. In their mind, there is dew on the grass and an earthworm in the beak of the chicken. It is never 88 degrees with no shade or 28 degrees with frozen everything: in the imagination of the term free range the day is lovely, the sun is rising, there is no such thing as rain falling an inch an hour, or the sun beating down relentlessly day after day. 

The poultry industry standard for free range means the bunker where the chickens live their entire lives has a door to the outside. Somewhere in the standards of free range is acknowledgement that birds have "access" to grass. The growers we have seen here are proud to remove stacked cages and place all the birds on one level: this makes them free range. They can move around with the thousands of other birds in their building. 

We keep them in small, light, mobile pens. Over the years we have grown poultry we have discovered many different daytime and nighttime predators that love chicken. If a bird gets out of the pen and does not get back in, this is what we will find. 

The chicken is no longer productive. In any way. 

They are, and will stay, in mobile pens. Moving off of their waste and onto fresh grass keeps them healthy and safe. And alive. 

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