Raising Rhode Island Red hens has had its ups and downs for us. We've had to euthanize for illness and we've brought injured hens back to a laying state from a dog attack. The question of what to do when they stop laying has weighed heavy on us. I have written of the heartache, guilt and anguish that we face due to the outcome of this decision.
One day I had a tour for a group of city folks who are environmentally sensitive and wanted to learn about sustainable practises. For the most part it went well until we got to the hens. “What do you do with your hens once they are past their useful egg laying life?” My first thought was to say go to LocalHarvest.org and read our blog. But instead, I said, “I don’t know, our first flock is still laying and we are into their fourth year.” Actually we get about six eggs in a week from the five residents. Without blinking an eye the man says “It’s horrible the way hens are used for laying then disposed of, denying them a full life,” I wanted to ask if he ate chicken but I didn’t. He’d freak to learn meat birds are processed as early as thirteen weeks. He wants the hens to live out their life even though they do not produce. And that is a growing school of thought even though hens can live up to thirteen years. I had written about this and I wondered if I was being tested. I’ve learned that less is more so I didn’t say much on the topic.
I did relate some of my dismay with having to make economic decisions for the health of the organization that have the opposite effect for the hens. I explained feed costs and so forth and h elooked like he was genuinely interested in the plight.
When we got to the end of the tour I showed them the difference between a real free range organic egg and one purchased from the local supermarket. I also talked about the Mother Earth News article that pointed out the benefits of true “free range” eggs. True free range eggs are high in omega 3’s, lower in cholesterol and saturated fats and have seven times the amount of beta carotene. I then talked about the difference in price and how our eggs were basically three times higher than in a grocery store and I saw some heads shake.
The tour ended and we were selling vegetables and fruits but the eggs were not moving. Having extolled the virtues of free range eggs I asked did anyone want any eggs. “No, we are vegans” was the reply. My next thought was to ask if anyone wanted to adopt a hen. And, being the kind of person that has a dysfunctional "brain to mouth" evaluation system, I blurted the thought out. I got quizzical looks after the question until I started to explain.
We need help paying for the food; we’d take care of the birds but feed for them costs money. I’ve been worrying for a couple years about this. We can not take a chick, raise it from a day old and then dispatch it because they don’t lay enough to pay for their own food. But we can not stay in business if we keep hemorrhaging money. But in that instant in front of the group the idea just flashed. Adopt a hen or the bird gets it. A similiar threat was used before, on-line, by a young entrepreneur, why not now? Besides, a person bought pet rocks before, surely adopting a hen so it could live their life out was a beneficial way to spend.
I felt good about that idea but after everyone left I had time to think about how things would work. When you look at this world and in particular the US and know that people go to bed hungry every day the idea just pales. Why would people spend money on keeping a hen a live, so they can live their life out, versus giving to a food bank to feed the poor and less fortunate? I volunteered in a soup kitchen for about a year. I saw first hand the faces and families of poverty, bad decisions and working poor.
It was then that peace and clarity came to my mind. We can process the hens and give them to the local soup kitchens. A sense of warmth came over me when my thought was that the hen’s final purpose was for humanity and we could stay true to our values. It doesn’t lesson the pain we will feel and the associated guilt but at least we can hold on to the fact that the hen’s last act is helping feed the poorest and less fortunate among us.
The hens' demise has been on my mind since before we purchased the first flock. We are a humane farm and we have given our hens the best life they could live. I too believe that a hen should live a natural life but when you start to accumulate the amount of hens we have either we need to charge ten dollars a dozen for eggs, or we can process them or we can go out of business.
Going out of business is just what the Industrial Food Complex (IFC) counts on for the small farmer. They can not compete with local small farmers when it comes to safe, fresh and tasty foods that have a small carbon foot print and benefit the local economy. This movement is growing, more people are learning of the perils of our industrial food supply and thousands of people like us are doing extraordinarily hard work to provide safe, tasty alternative choices. We have found a way to use our spent layers as part of being a humane farm and that feels good.
Buy Local: From an actual local grower not a chain saying they do