The hard, heart breaking reality that sustainable farming is not as sustainable as we once thought it was.
My heart ached as I stood at the edge of a field on another farm and looked at what had once been Salatin style pull pens, used for raising pasture-raised chickens. The pens laid smashed together on a pile in the woods. That style of chicken pen is named after the man who promoted the design and method. The pens at one time had been two feet high and 10 feet wide by 12 feet long. The pens are called pull pens because they are pulled across the pasture by moving them one pen length a day. It is a very labor intensive system. Almost every farm here in America that starts raising chickens on pasture uses this method. The method is romanticized and made appealing to new farmers.
A pile of smashed Salatin style chicken pens that had at one time been used for raising chickens on pasture. It represents the smashed dreams of two sustainable farmers, and the unsustainability of what is supposed to be sustainable agriculture.
Turning around from where the above picture was taken, this is the view of what had once been the pasture where the pasture-raised chickens had been raised. The farm was located in Maryland State Park property. After the sustainable farm failed, the land (about 50 acres) has become a wasteland filled with noxious weeds, thorns, and poison ivy. About four years ago the Maryland Forest Service planted it in trees to reforest the land, never to be farmed sustainably again. The last crop that a farm grows is trees. (We have not yet been able to prove to the world that sustainable farming is the answer to feeding the world and that we are more sustainable than big corporate agriculture. We have more work to do.)
The farm, Full Circle Farm here in Maryland, went out of business over 10 years ago. The pile of chicken pens represents not only the labor of the farmers and their wasted funds, but it also represents the smashed dreams and hopes of a man and a woman who had been told that the system that they were using was the answer to conventional confinement agriculture. They thought they were practicing sustainable agriculture that would last and endure long after the conventional, confinement, big corporation chicken houses had gone out of business for being unsustainable.
Little did they know, as beginning farmers, that the method that they were using was not sustainable and that few people who would try it would be able to make a living wage with it. Most of them would quit after a few years.
I am writing this in hope that the many farmers and want to be farmers who subscribe to this newsletter do not make the same mistakes that I made and that Full Circle Farm made. I used to think that it was me that was having the problems and that others were being successful. I kept hearing glowing reports about how great everything was on other farms. But as I have observed things over the years, and from reading articles in Stockman Grass Farmer Magazine, I have pieced together that the profits were not there that those giving the glowing reports made it sound like it was. From my perspective, the reason that many sustainable pasture based chicken farms are no longer in business is not the farmer’s fault, but the fault of the system that they used. If you are experiencing some of these failures, it is not you, it is the system you are using. Chickens will not be super healthy just because they stand, sit, and sleep on the cold wet ground with grass on it 24/7. If we are going to have sustainable pasture based farms and last long after the conventional, confinement chicken houses have gone out of business, we need follow a different method.
There are a number of reasons why pull pens are not a sustainable method of raising chickens on pasture.
- It requires too much labor for the few number of chickens that the farmer is raising to make a living wage. The pens have to be moved once or twice a day or the chickens will sit in their own filth. If you have 20 inexperienced apprentices running around your farm working basically for free, building and pulling pens is good grunt work to keep them busy.
- The chickens are not protected enough from the heat, the cold, the rain and wet ground, and from predators. I will not go into details, but it is not a humane method. The death loss is too high. Every chicken that dies represents a loss of profit. The overhead costs and feed invested in the dead chickens are still there.
- Because of the high labor input, it is difficult to have enough time in a week to raise, process, and market enough birds to be able to make a full time income. In other words, the hourly wage is below minimum wage. That is why most farms using the pull pen method stay part time or shut down. It is not profitable. They have to have off farm income to live on. For a sustainable farm to be sustainable, the labor input has to be low enough for the number of birds raised, to be able to raise enough chickens with a normal day’s work to make a living. Those that have promoted this method of pasture based farming have made it sound like the animals do most of the work. That is not true.
- Pull pens are a micro version of confinement chicken rearing, only it’s on pasture. The chickens have very little space to move in their small pen.
Likely, unbeknown to the farmers at Full Circle Farm, there was another significant factor that may have contributed to them not being able to sell enough chickens to make a go of farming and be sustainable. The farmer who had taught them the method of raising chickens on pasture had a big name recognition and was illegally delivering chickens that were not USDA inspected across state lines into Maryland to customers relatively close to Full Circle Farm. At that time period in Maryland, Full Circle Farm could only sell their chickens at their farm because their chickens were processed under Federal exemption and were not USDA inspected. People had to go to their farm; the chickens could not be delivered to drop points like the other farmer was illegally doing. It is one thing for a farm to compete with a legal competitor, but it would have been very difficult for them to compete with a competitor with name recognition that was doing things illegally to provide what the customers wanted and taking business away from them.
The black market of illegal pasture raised chickens coming from Pennsylvania and Virginia into Maryland and Washington DC continues. If you are a farmer that is doing this, please stop. If you are buying this black market chicken, please stop. If the illegal chicken and illegal raw milk does not stop coming across state lines, it will endanger the sustainability of all pasture based farms.
For sustainable agriculture to be sustainable, the farmers have to stay in business. As sustainable farmers, we need to look out for each other and help each other and not take business from other sustainable farms by doing things illegally or misrepresenting our products as something that they are not. If you are a consumer, do not hurt the sustainability of the sustainable farms in your area by supporting the big guys (or the little guys) who are doing things illegally or are misrepresenting their products. One of the most common misrepresentations is a farm giving customers the impression that their chickens and eggs are organic when they are actually not feeding their chickens organically and are feeding non-organic feed. Non-organic feed is much cheaper than organic feed. Contrary to what you might think, a pastured chicken actually eats more feed than a confinement raised bird because they get more exercise and because they need to keep themselves warm during cool weather and on cold nights. It is important that the feed is organic.
Sustainable agriculture is a team effort of farmers and consumers. If we do not make sustainable agriculture sustainable, big business, confinement, “pasture raised” animal operations will be what is sustainable.
Related articles from past newsletters on this subject:
Sustainable Farming – The Farmer Has to Stay in Business
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Raise Chickens on Pasture
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Produce Eggs on Pasture
For those who are farmers
Here in the United States, much of the information that we have been given about raising chickens on pasture is outdated by 20 years or more. There have been a lot of advancements in the last 20 years that we as small growers have not kept up with. Europe with their free-range chickens, and the larger poultry breeders have a lot of beneficial information for us to learn from. Raising chickens on pasture is a lot more high tech in meeting their nutritional and other needs than we have been led to believe. Small mistakes in nutrition and management can end up costing a farmer a lot of money and may mean the difference between making a living and going broke. Here are some valuable resources that have been beneficial to us:
The following three books available from 5M Books – http://www.5mbooks.com/agricultural-books/poultry-books/poultry-signals-training.html
Ross 308 Broiler Handbook
ISA Brown Egg Layer Alternative Management Guide
ISA Brown Nutrition Management Guide
Hy-Line Brown Egg Layer Red Book – A Management Guide