Month: March 2016

On Silence and The Whirr of Life

Last night, as I was plugging links and pictures into this week’s newsletter* before bed the power went out for the third time in as many months and I thought, “so this is how 2016 is going to be.” To be fair, three times in […]

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On Curation and “Fine Art” Farm Photography

One time when my youngest was little (but big enough to clean up after herself) she refused to straighten up her room. After battling wits and wills with her to no avail for hours I finally laid out the old you-will-clean-it-up-by-this-specific-time-or-it-will-be-donated-or-tossed ultimatum. The deadline she […]

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Why Whole Foods’ Big Poultry Revolution is Chicken Shit

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One of the most frustrating things about being in agriculture is watching people who mean well, but who do not have enough knowledge and experience to be truly informed, make bad decisions on behalf of the industry and its consumers. But then, I guess you could say that’s the most frustrating thing about being alive. In almost any capacity there are people who have surface familiarity with a topic in decision making positions. Such is the dynamic of power — especially in the information age.

This month Whole Foods announced that it would be pressuring all of its suppliers to transition to slow-growing meat chickens. This morning a long-term customer of our farm emailed me a link to the NPR article on it for my take. In emailing her back I realized it’s probably something I should post about here. We sell chicken, after all, and our goal in growing those chickens — as well as our pork, beef, lamb and vegetables — is not so unlike Whole Food’s own: high quality and flavor. In fact, over the years we have produced chicken in almost every combination you can imagine, looking for the best way to deliver the results we and our customers (who are often Whole Foods shoppers themselves) want.

We’ve raised standard broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised slow-growing broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised dual-purpose cockerels, so-called “heritage birds”: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

Through it all we’ve kept track of expenses vs income, customer satisfaction, farmer satisfaction, labor per pound of meat produced, feed per pound of meat produced, and animal welfare (including rates of injury, death, and predation.) What I’m saying is: we know a thing or two about raising quality, flavorful chicken in alternative systems. And as I read the article this morning all I could do was shake my head. Once again decision makers are taking a simple problem and instead of applying the simplest and most effective solution, they’re making gross overcorrections without considering the consequences and selling it to consumers as revolution.

The problem, as defined by Whole Foods — and on which I would agree with them, by the way — is that standard broiler birds are prone to leg problems. They grow rapidly, which means their weight gain can outpace their legs’ ability to hold them up and propel them around. Which can create animal welfare problems if they cease to be able to get around on their own before being sent to market. But the key word in all of this is can. There is a big difference between correlation and causation, and even where cause is clear cut nothing exists in a bubble. What we have found on our farm is that rapid weight gain causes leg problems only when it’s allowed to co-exist with inactivity. In other words, rapid-gaining birds who use their legs as they gain don’t end up handicapped.

Yet somewhere along the way people decided that it was inhumane for chickens to walk more than a few feet to the food and water source despite the fact that it is quite natural for them to travel hundreds of yards per day otherwise. Inside the conventional agricultural industry this became standard practice due to high-density stocking rates and competition. Not having food and water every few feet means birds might fight and some might not get adequate access which would be a violation of humane animal stewardship on its own. But then, for inexplicable reasons, the same standard was applied to alternative systems as well. Here stock density doesn’t create competitive environments, but farmers still were warned to keep food and water within wing’s reach or else fancy themselves neglectful and abusive. So much so that third party humane certifications demand it.

Certainly, when chicks are quite young you want to make sure their needs are met and they don’t have to work too hard for it. Babies should be treated like babies. But as they grow this is an absurd standard that does more harm than good, and virtually creates the problem Whole Foods is now re-creating the wheel to “solve.” Rather than simply create guidelines for their farmers to move the food and water further from each other as the birds mature, forcing them to move around more in order to prevent leg problems as they grow, they’re demanding their suppliers abandon an entire breed* of chicken. Which might not be the end of the world, if that breed of chicken itself was not a linchpin solution to much bigger problems — environmental, human rights and animal welfare in nature.

  • Environmental Problems
    The standard cornish cross broiler’s rapid growth is not just an ability to pack on pounds. It is an ability to pack on pounds while eating less feed per pound of growth. In the farming community we call this Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR. And while it sounds wonkish and boring, it has enormous sustainability implications. In the U.S. the average FCR for cornish cross broilers is about 1.8. Which means it takes less than two pounds of feed per pound of gain. For the sake of simplicity and continuity I’ll stick with the numbers NPR used for examples in their article. This means that for a standard broiler to be grown to six pounds, it requires about 10.8 pounds of feed.

    While the 25% increase for slower-growing birds quoted in the NPR article doesn’t sound like much at first it means about 13.5 pounds of feed is needed for a slower-growing bird of the same size, or 2.7 additional pounds. And so you can see how it adds up quickly when we’re talking about the sheer number of birds Whole Foods suppliers raise. Let alone the entirety of the U.S. poultry industry. According to Whole Foods their demands will affect 277 million birds per year. Which means Whole Foods’ supplier farmers will use 747.9 million more pounds of feed per year to produce the same amount of meat for Whole Foods’ customers.

    And while “feed” may seem abstract for someone who doesn’t use it every day, it’s largely just corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals. With the corn and soybean meal being the bulk of it and the important part here. Rounding for simplicity of math (but not so much as to be inaccurate), the average broiler’s diet over the course of it’s lifetime is made up of about 60% corn and 25% soybean meal.

    So in the case of Whole Foods’ slow-growing broilers, that’s an additional 448.74 million pounds of corn and 186.975 million pounds of soybean meal per year. Using the most recent USDA yield trend data for corn and soybeans, this means Whole Food’s teensy-tiny 3% of the broiler industry alone will require more than 11.13 million bushels of grain, calling for more than 112,000 additional acres of crop land — 47,698 corn and more than 64,921 soybean. Which means Whole Foods’ feel-good poultry campaign either requires us to take more than 112,000 acres out of wildlife habitat and put it into cropland or all of that additional demand will fall on current cropland, causing a run up in grain — and by extension food — prices. Which brings me to…

  • The Human Rights Problems
    The World Food Programme estimates that 795 million people in the world today are hungry. In the developing world 12.9% of the population is chronically undernourished. In the U.S. alone 1 in 6 people face food insecurity. 20% of U.S. households with children reported food shortages in 2011. Meanwhile, the global population is increasing rapidly. Earth will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050, representing a 33% increase in population over just 35 years. Most of this growth will take place in developing and poor nations where food insecurity is directly related to extreme poverty.

    In a global economy it is impossible to insulate food choices in prosperous countries from affecting food insecurity in poor nations. Which means that moves like this one by Whole Foods will be a considerable contributor to food insecurity, hunger and starvation around the world in the years to come.

  • The Animal Welfare Problems
    And as much as I would love for all of this — the environmental and human rights issues — to be enough, I know we live in a world where the picture of a slain elephant garners more outrage than that of slain children in war zones so I will also add this: Whole Foods is not just demanding this change of feel-good, hobby farmers with plenty of space to spare. They’re also demanding that farmers who raise their birds in conventional barns follow suit. I don’t need to explain to you that smaller, lighter animals often are more active than their heavier counterparts. We describe lightweight boxers as “scrappy” for a reason. Putting lighter, scrappier birds in an enclosed barn together will not end well for the birds. We are going down the cage-free eggs path again, because we still haven’t learned our lesson. Chickens are not nice to one another in enclosed spaces, and the more active they are the more time and energy they will spend picking on one another. I don’t like battery cages any more than the next bleeding heart, but I don’t buy cage free eggs for a reason: those battery cages served the purpose of preventing hens from brutalizing one another in enclosed, densely stocked barns. Putting slow-growing broilers in those same barns will result in that same competition and fighting. It’s not more humane, it’s less.

The NPR reporter wants you to believe that the size and growth rate of broilers is responsible for the modern history of our increase in chicken consumption, and that by extension Whole Foods’ slow-growing chickens will force Americans to cut back. “A century ago,” writes NPR author Dan Charles, “your typical chicken was really kind of scrawny. It took about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. One result: Americans really didn’t eat much chicken.” But this, again, demonstrates a failure to distinguish between causation and correlation. And in this case even the correlation between broiler efficiency and chicken consumption is loose at best. People didn’t eat less chicken in the past because chickens didn’t grow quickly, they ate less chicken because they were poor and farms hadn’t yet industrialized. It simply wasn’t available and where it was, it was too expensive. History has been very consistent in this regard: as incomes rise, people eat more animal products. So long as we continue to prosper people will eat their meat. Prosperity is the reason for Whole Foods’ very existence, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

And in many cases this isn’t a bad thing. Researchers in Kenya found that the addition of milk and meat to the diet of impoverished school children improved development outcomes for everything from growth and weight gain to test scores to leadership behaviors during play. Can meat and milk be overconsumed? Sure. As can any and every other kind of food and drink. But in the big picture it’s a valuable source of nutrition and will continue to be, increasingly so, well into the future. I believe Whole Foods’ customers want to make good decisions, I believe they want their food dollars to act as a vote for good in the world and for better outcomes for the environment, their fellow humans and for the animals which act as a part of the system. It’s a sentiment I share with them, and a founding principle of my own farm. Which is why I know in this case, Whole Foods is not just failing its customers it’s perverting their trust for monetary gain. And that, my friends, is chicken shit.

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* Standard broilers are not technically a breed, they are hybrids or “cross-breds”. Think: Labradoodle. I’ve used the word “breed” here for lack of a more succinct and accessible descriptor.

** Since this post was written quickly between farm chores on Tuesday, an earlier version contained a couple of mistakes — one due to rounding, and one due to missing a step. Those have been fixed in the current version.

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Miscellany: Mud Season Updates

Do not be fooled. That field only looks dry. It’s actually saturated and squishy underfoot. :: :: :: I’m a little behind. Sunday, with just six and a half weeks until last frost, I finally put tomato seeds to dirt. I wasn’t too worried about […]

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Farewell, Axel

One of the most gratifying things about raising kids on a farm is that, as they get older, they prove they’ve been paying attention and in some cases know even more than you do. The older a boar gets the more risk there is that […]

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A Few Favorite Things: March 25

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“No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear.”
– C.S. Lewis

This was a tough week. One that came on the heels of many tough weeks before it. I could write about tragedies the world over and crazy politicians in our backyard, but I won’t. If you really want my political and pop culture thoughts, you can always find them on the PMF Show and Twitter. I dipped my toe back into the news and social media pool this week, but just my toe and didn’t have much of a desire to go any further than that. I realized somewhere along the way that the most valuable thing my farm has to offer me is refuge and I’ve just been sinking into it and letting it do its job.

The sun is back out today after a dreary, drizzly end-of-winter storm mid-week. It’s a welcome sight. Aside from the sun, here are a few things bringing me joy this week. Hope they brighten your day too:

Watch: Last week Wednesday the first of two eggs belonging to a pair of D.C. resident Bald Eagles appropriately named “Mr. President” and “The First Lady” pipped on the DC Eagle Cam. By midday Friday one fluffy little eaglet had emerged. Friday afternoon the new family enjoyed a dinner of fresh fish, nest side, and we loved watching Mom and Pop trade off eaglet duties and hunting and scavenging time. Over the weekend the second eaglet hatched and it has since become part of our morning routine to check the cam.

Read: I was tricked into picking up “At The Edge of the Orchard” by Tracy Chevalier last week at the book store. It was on a mixed shelf of both fiction and non-fiction books and I didn’t notice the “A Novel” part at first. I can count the number of fiction works I have read (without them being assigned) since Middle School on one hand. It’s not that I don’t like fiction, it’s just that when there is so much to read about the real world I feel like novels are a waste of time. That said, I was only a few pages into this one when I realized I’d be making an exception to my own rule to read it. I’m about halfway through now and don’t regret my decision. The early to mid-1800’s Goodenough family may even be softening me to fiction in general. We’ll see.

Eat: Recently I was reading a blog wherein the author wrote that for dinner they were having, “Soupe au Pistou with Herbed Yogurt Butter and Homemade Rustic Rolls.” And at this I thought two things: 1) Yum! And 2) Soupe au Pistou is such a fancy-sounding name for what amounts to a simple vegetable soup. It’s not the French’s fault. Translated, the name couldn’t be more succinct — Pistou Soup or Soup with Pistou or even simpler yet, Soup with Pesto; Pistou being the usually-pine-nut-free French version of the Italian classic — but that’s the thing, isn’t it? That we Americans would prefer not to translate the names of our dishes; would rather not admit that we are not above peasant food, and that, indeed, peasant food is damn good? But sometimes I wonder if this is one of the reasons so few among us cook anymore. Are we running our brethren and sisthren out of the kitchen with fanciful — and thereby intimidating — names? I hope not, but have my suspicions.

Listen:

we’re all bruised and beaten
lost on account of many reasons
but only love would make you understand

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On Informed Assumptions & High Hopes

I wore a pair of size five normal, not-maternity jeans into the hospital to have my oldest daughter. I don’t think I could get a size five pair of jeans over my ankles now, but young muscles are an amazing thing. Penelope has young muscles, […]

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A Few of my Favorite Things: March 18

It’s mud season, and ATV season, and baby pig season, and will-we-have-enough-straw-to-get-to-the-dry-season season, and almost lamb season. The wheat fields are green, the frost laws are on, the ground is saturated, the song birds are back, the geese are overhead, the sun is out… sometimes. […]

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On the Meditation of Work

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I have gone in and out of meditative practice many times over the years. A bit, I suppose, like I have gone in and out of a regular writing practice over the years. In both cases, each time I reenter, I rue the day I let it slip. Reentry is turbulent.

I was trying to remember the other day how old Tripp is. Most people would probably go to their files and pull his registration papers, but as a photographer when I want to remember the chronology of almost anything I go to my photo archives. He’s four. Turned four just this month, in fact. He seems older. Not physically, not even mentally per se. But wiser. Or maybe I just feel older, wiser for having had him and for other reasons, but more than four years worth either way.

Recently Jon Katz wrote of meditative dogs at his blog, Bedlam Farm. I don’t know anyone who would describe Tripp as meditative. Sensitive, active, distractible, loyal, dedicated, energetic… sure. But not meditative. And yet the longer he is part of our family and a fixture on our farm the more I would describe him as meditative. Not because he fits any predefined notion of what meditative means as he grows older, but because as I grow older with him I have begun to expand my own definition of meditation. Of what it means to be meditative.

It’s funny how close I have come to this lesson before. More than once. But always there was a wall in the way; between work and (spiritual) play.

There is no shortage of instruction on conciousness, mindfulness and presence in eastern literature, but British Philosopher Alan Watts probably put it as well as any westerner could.

The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

To Tripp everything is work and work is everything, and always he is present in it. He inhabits each moment equally — the one loading sheep and the one snoozing, upside down on the sofa. The dog is sensitive, active, distractible, loyal, dedicated, energetic… meditative. And I’m trying to be, too.

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