Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thoughts On: Chicken Farming

Chrissie Zaerpoor, farmer, cheesemaker, up-and-coming mead producer and one of the hardest-working women I know, began Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill with her husband Koorosh in order to build a life and a business together that they could be proud of. She recently sent out an e-mail with her thoughts on recent reports that have appeared in the media.

In the past few weeks, I have seen more bizarre reports in the media and on the web regarding the incubation, raising, handling, harvesting and selling of chickens and poultry than I ever would have believed.

As far as I can tell, these show actual photos and footage of animals in horrendous conditions both before and after they are dead, and the news stories tell of abominable practices related to incubation, handling, hygiene, and trucking. No wonder people don't trust their food sources, and no wonder more people are becoming vegetarians.

Not in the news is one of my current "hot buttons," which is the sale of processed chicken rather than whole broilers and fryers. Although boneless skinless breasts, thighs, ground chicken and chicken nuggets all seem like harmless convenience foods, they hide the story of why they exist. If you have the stomach to watch the chicken-harvesting scene in the video "Eating Mercifully," you will see that the chickens are battered appallingly as they are "harvested." Obviously most of these chickens suffer bruising, dislocations, and broken bones. This is the reason that most poultry in the U.S. is sold as parts rather than whole birds. The damaged limbs are cut away from the carcass and "processed" into ground chicken and chicken nuggets. Broken bones are removed for "value added" convenience products such as boneless skinless breasts. Unfortuantely, buying processed parts is a vote for this kind of treatment for poultry.

Our chickens are always gently hand-caught and gently hand-loaded into coops that are designed for a 15-bird capacity; we never put more than eight in a coop. These coops are $40 each and we own 40 of them. It's a significant investment in capital equipment to have twice the "recommended" number of coops, but it's gentler and safer for the birds. We slowly catch our birds one at a time, and place them one by one into the coops. Judging by the video, our labor cost for catching birds is about 15 times that of "industry standard." We typically have less than 5 percent of our birds with bruises or other injuries—some 95% of our poultry is fancy-quality, undamaged, undiseased, uninjured, perfect broiler/fryer carcasses. Right there in the unblemished bird is direct evidence of our gentler handling procedures.

Commercial poultry is over-medicated and often diseased at the time of harvest and is typically trucked hundreds of miles, in the coldest and hottest weather, with no food or water for up to 36 hours prior to slaughter. Studies have shown that when these trucks drive past, they leave a comet-trail of antibiotic-resistant disease germs in their wake. When you follow such a truck on the highway for a few miles, these germs enter your car. When the truck drives past a farm, it deposits these unwelcome visitors on the farm property. Antibiotic-resistant disease germs are spread among wild birds nesting or resting on the side of the highway.

We've all read that the USDA's standards for "free range" are ridiculously permissive, allowing a single door or a few minutes of access to the outdoors to qualify. Apparently now the "raised without antibiotics" tag is also misleading. The hatching eggs of meat chickens are routinely injected with long-acting antibiotics that stay in the chicken's system right up until the slaughter date. When Tyson was caught doing this, they objected to removing the labeling because "it's the industry standard" and "everybody does it." Kudos to the USDA who for once seems to be pressing the point that such chickens are NOT antibiotic-free.


We have confirmed that our hatchery does not inject anything into the eggs, ever. We have never given antibiotics to any chicken, at any stage of its incubation or growth, ever. We have never deliberately mistreated or roughly handled any chicken, ever. Koorosh and I participate in the catching and harvesting of our chickens, always.

Our chickens are raised and killed on the same farm. When we "truck" our chickens to slaughter, we're talking about a 3-minute tractor ride, 64 chickens at a time. (Eight coops of eight birds each is all our little Kubota tractor can move in one trip!) Our chickens are caught at sunset and killed before dawn the next morning, minimizing their discomfort. Our licensed and inspected poultry processing facility is clean and exceeds the standards of both the Oregon Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division inspector, and the standards of the meat director at New Seasons Markets, both of whom have observed our slaughtering and packing operations.

And every week you get to vote yes for this better kind of farming by buying our chickens at New Seasons Markets or directly from us at the Hillsdale Farmer's Market. The question is not really why are our Kookoolan chickens so expensive. We believe we raise chickens the way they used to be raised, and the way they should be raised. The real question is, what corners are the big guys cutting to make commodity chickens so cheap?


Loo said...

Wonderful post! We went without the classic Thanksgiving turkey this year because we have no access to poultry raised like yours. As a result of this lack of access, we've become primarily vegetarian. I'm so happy that there are farmers like yourselves, stores like New Season's, and consumers willing to spend the extra money for your poultry. Meat should be expensive and used wisely in the diet. That is how it was for eons. The cheap and readily available meat in our supermarkets is a lie and I believe killing us and our planet. Thanks for such a strong post!

Anonymous said...

Hi Loo, thanks for cheering us on! We agree with you on all points and are moderate meat-eaters ourselves. We're sorry you went without turkey for Thanksgiving, but now you know where to get one for next year. Come visit us Sunday Dec 7 and Sunday Dec 21 at the Hillsdale Farmer's Market, We do many kinds of poultry plus beef, pork and lamb, all very responsibly raised, so you don't have to go without meat anymore.


Kathleen Bauer said...

Is it possible to ship to customers like Loo who are not able to get to the market?