Andrew likes to joke that he is the “silent partner” of our farm. As such, it is usually me (MK) who writes the blog posts or the newsletters, or who updates Facebook. But! Andrew has finally bowed to pressure and is guest-posting. Feel free to tell him that he’s an excellent writer and should do it more often 🙂
As we have reached out to people outside of our cloistered tribe (“Wait, do you mean to tell me you’ve never read The Omnivore’s Dilemma??”), we have realized that not everyone understands the difference between our pastured chicken and the organic or free range chicken generally available in stores. More than once, after I’ve explained how we raise our chickens outside, on fresh pasture, my interlocutor has responded “But these free range organic chickens are outside too… so why are yours more expensive?”
Yes, free range and organic chickens technically are required to have access to the outdoors. So it’s easy to see why someone might think that our chicken is basically the same thing. However, we can prove that assumption wrong with a simple thought experiment, inspired by one of my favorite blogs. Let’s think about what would it would look like if free range organic chickens had the same amount of pasture as we give our birds.
The first bit of information we need is how much pasture space we allocate per year for each of our chickens: 45 square feet. We move our chickens onto fresh grass every day, so that they are always leaving behind pasture they have foraged from and onto new ground. If we gave them much less pasture space, they a) would have less grass and fewer bugs to eat, and b) would put out more manure than the land could absorb, thereby worsening the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
The second bit of information we need is how many chickens live in an organic, free range chicken house (if that seems like an oxymoron to you, I’m glad you’re reading this!). To take one example, a recent article stated that Bell and Evans processes just under 52 million chickens per year, produced by 140 to 150 growers. That would mean that each grower is producing around 360,000 chickens per year.
If we take those two bits of information together, we have the result that each chicken house would need 16.2 million square feet (371.9 acres) of pasture around it to support the chickens inside.
If we generously assume that each chicken has one square foot of space inside the house (the industry standard is .7 square feet), this is what an aerial of the chicken house (in black) and the pasture (in green) would look like:
That’s a lot of pasture! In order to get from the house to the outer edge of the range, a chicken would have to walk 2,271.4 feet, or 43% of a mile. For a sense of scale, here is a chicken about to walk 37.5 feet:
I thought about pasting another 59.57 copies of that image (which is how many more times the chicken would have to walk 37.5 feet to make .43 miles), but I’ll spare you. Let’s agree that this is not very realistic.
So how much outdoor space do these chickens have in reality? We called Bell and Evans directly, and they couldn’t give us exact numbers. The woman we spoke with did say that there is more space for the chickens inside the house than there is in the outdoor enclosure. So even if estimate that the outdoor space is just a tiny bit smaller than the indoor space, here’s what the aerial looks like (outdoor enclosure in white):
As you can see, that’s not very much. Instead of 45 square feet per bird per year, the outdoor enclosure is only .083 square feet per bird per year. Or to use a different unit of measure, instead of 6,480 square inches, it’s only 11.9 square inches. That’s less than the size of a ruler.
So what gives? The Bell and Evans woman we spoke with gave us another clue when she said that most of the chickens preferred to stay inside the house than to go outside. That may sound reasonable – after all, they have the choice, right? It’s not the company’s fault if the chickens don’t exercise that choice.
The problem is the chickens’ environment is constructed in such a way that they will stay inside the house. In order to go outside, a chicken needs both the awareness that it can go outside and the motivation to do so. In this case, both are lacking. As always when thinking about animals, it is essential to look at everything from the animal’s perspective.
During the first few weeks of their lives, the chicks are too small and delicate to go outside, so the doors remain closed. By the time the doors are opened, the chickens have gotten used to living within the house walls. Most likely, the majority of them never even realize that there’s anything else.
Moreover, the chickens have good reasons to stay inside, where they have food, water, and shade. Chickens are evolved from jungle fowl, so they don’t really like direct sunlight, especially if it’s hot out. They also, as you may imagine, don’t much like rain, wind, or cold. So perhaps on a still, overcast, 70 degree morning, a few might venture outside, but for the most part the prospect is too daunting. For these reasons, pastured poultry producers like us provide portable shelters for their birds, so that they can be protected from sun, wind, rain, and predators, at time same time as they are on pasture.
Food labels can be confusing, if not downright misleading. An image of a few “free range” chickens running around a farmyard does not reflect the reality of a 30,000 bird chicken house. This is what Michael Pollan calls “supermarket pastoral”: stories designed to make you think your food is coming from farms like the ones in children’s books, when the truth is anything but.
No label should be taken at face value, including a label that says “pastured chicken” – in part because there is no legal standard or definition for what constitutes “pasture-raised.” That’s why we invite you to go beyond the label. That’s why invite you to come to our farm, to see, with your own eyes, how our food is produced. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.