It's another beautiful fall day here. As always, it's been yet another busy week on the farm. I've got some fresh horseradish roots, dug from the herb garden today, that I'll be processing as soon as I'm done blogging. Then tonight Dan and I will finish the sausage making process we started yesterday so we will have fresh hot and mild Italian sausage for sale on Saturday. The roasts and pork chops were wrapped up last night. It's been a busy week for meat, as we also sent 3 lambs for processing. Our processor, Hirsch's Meats, cuts and wraps them for us, so it's a bit of a break in work compared to the other meats after the animals are loaded onto the trailer. We're fully stocked on more lamb chops, ground lamb, and stew meat, plus we'll be offering small shoulder roasts as well this time.
The main job today, however, will be processing chicken. We do this entirely by hand here at the farm. We joke that my title in this department is "Head Chicken Plucker & Quality Control." Dan does the knife work and I pull the feathers by hand after the birds are scalded in 160 degree water. It's a labor intensive job. Some day, we've talked about investing in a plucking machine that would speed up the process and allow us to sell more birds over the course of the year. But today, our Friday night will be spend covered in wet, smelly feathers. (Can you tell it's not my favorite job on the farm?)
We charge $2.25/lb for our birds. Even at that price, they are definitely not our most profitable meat product. We use the Cornish-Rock crosses, and can't breed them ourselves, so we purchase the chicks. Unlike our beef and lamb, you need to supplement the pasture diet with quite a bit of high protein feed, which we purchase. It may be surprising, but we could cut that feed bill significantly by feeding antibiotics to our birds for their entire lives. We pay MORE for feed without added medicine. It comes as a surprise to some of our farm stand's visitors that we charge the price we do per pound for our chicken. Eye-rolling or an exasperated “Why so much?” aren't unheard of. When a grocery store can run a special for $.79 a pound, it might seem to some like price gouging. However, we make less money on chicken than any of our other meat products and most of the price is a reflection of what you aren't getting.
You aren't getting corporate America. Four big companies are responsible for 95% of the chicken produced in America today. Four. While they subcontract the daily dirty work to smaller farms, watch the movie Food Inc. and you'll get an idea of what that is like...many of those family farms are going into debt to keep up with company regulations while the corporate CEO's make money hand over fist. The companies like to call it “vertical integration” and proclaim it as a model of efficiency. Other points of view compare it to indentured servitude. And that also doesn't take into consideration how your tax dollars subsidize cheap corn and oil, creating an artificially low price for a finished product like chicken.
You aren't getting growth enhancing chemicals and harmful additives. Organic chicken feed isn't cheap. Apparently arsenic is. While arsenic is known as a deadly poison, our government allows big chicken plants to feed it to their birds. At low levels, it gives the meat a nicer, healthier appearance. (Ironic, huh?) While lots of packages of commercial chicken claim to be hormone-free, look at the fine print and you'll see the only reason why is because the FDA prohibits it.
You also aren't getting antibiotics from our birds. This is necessary at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations since in close confinement conditions, a sick bird can spread its disease to literally hundreds of other birds before anyone can see symptoms. It spreads so fast because of the overcrowded conditions the birds live in- the axiom of CAFO's is that “room to turn around is room enough” for the animals. We prefer to give our birds room to run, scratch, peck and spread their wings. We also prefer to give our birds fresh air and sunlight. A commercially-raised bird literally never sees the light of the sun its entire life. Not once. This is also true for most so called “free range” birds- the doors to the outside runs are generally kept locked until the last 2 weeks or so of the birds' lives. By that time, they are slow and have difficulty moving around, not to mention no incentive to move very far from the feeders. Many of those runs are also small balconies, with no access to the soil, and only enough room for about 1/10th of the birds to be on them. Big "organic" corporations have even been known to skirt the mandatory outside access part of federal law by finding a sympathetic vet to issue a written statement that outdoor access would be harmful to the health of the flock. This allows them to keep the birds enclosed without losing USDA organic certification, and they can charge you accordingly. Raising small flocks and moving them on the soil daily also eliminates the horrendous manure problem factory farms produce. The runoff of this industrial bird sewage is known to kill every living thing in streams downhill from CAFOs. We move our chickens around the garden areas, where the garden benefits from the bugs the chickens eat and the manageable quantities of manure which serve to enrich the soil, not destroy it.
Tyson or Cargill don't care if they make $.05 profit on each bird they sell, they sell literally billions every year, so they can afford to sell cheap. If I'm only making a few cents more than the cost of feed, I wouldn't be selling chicken. I happen to believe my time is worth something too. Every day, we need to feed the birds, make sure they have fresh clean water and move the pen to fresh grass, making sure they have a healthy, sanitary environment. While not terribly time-consuming in terms of farm work, it still must be done every day, morning and evening without fail. That means every morning, regardless of where else you have to be or what else you have to do. What would you pay to be able to hit the snooze on the alarm just once all summer long? (or shut it off completely for just one day, Sundays included?) Another aspect is processing. We do it here, by hand. An afternoon and evening covered in wet chicken feathers and worse really isn't my idea of a fun Friday night. You're paying me for that time, too.
So, the next time you see a price at your local farm stand that seems completely out of line with what a conventional store charges, don't be afraid to ask why. Your local farmer wants you to understand the true cost of your food. We take questions like these as a learning opportunity, and a chance to talk about what we do. (Which we love and believe in or we wouldn't be doing it!)