On the same day that I had my adventures in leafleting, I visited a small farm that sells milk, eggs, and chicken. The rest of my family eats eggs and dairy, so I've been looking for the most humane sources of them that I can find. This farm sells its eggs at a local health food store, and, since it's located in the same area as a school I was going to leaflet, I decided to take a tour. I wanted to see firsthand how the chickens and cows are treated. It's been awhile since the visit, but I'm going to attempt to tell the story from memory.
Upon arriving at the farm, we were greeted by the farmer. He wore a plain olive T-shirt, faded jeans, wire-rimmed glasses, and a baseball cap. No cowboy boots, just a pair of old sneakers. He was friendly and likable.
The first animals he showed us were some adorable female Jersey calves. I got to pet a couple of them. They were in a pen separate from their mothers. One of the sad truths about dairy farming—whether factory or free-range—is that calves are almost always taken from their mothers at birth. Since mother cows form strong bonds with their babies, this leads to profound grief. And the male calves are sold to be raised for beef.
I asked the farmer if the cows get to drink any of the milk from their mothers, or if they're fed a formula. He said if there's any leftover milk, the calves get to have some, but the milk is intended for human consumption, so most of it gets bottled and sold.
Then, we walked over to the “processing area”—the place where cows are milked and chickens are killed. This particular farmer kills chickens by placing their heads into orange traffic cones hanging upside down, and then slitting their necks. He told us this is one of the most humane methods of slaughter. I believe he said it takes about a minute for the chickens to lose consciousness, and five minutes for them to die. I could not help but think that that minute must be the longest and most agonizing minute of their lives.
After that, we hopped in an old farm truck, and drove to where the chickens live. First, we saw the “broiler” chickens—the ones raised for meat. They weren't yet full grown, so they were small, and very skittish. They indeed had plenty of space, living in a rotating pen of pasture with little shelters that contained their food. A large, white, laid-back dog lived with them to protect them from predators. It was almost time to rotate their pen, so the grass was fairly sparse. But it was a far cry from being crammed into cages, or packed together in a shed, as many “cage-free” hens are. I believe the farmer told us that he slaughters the broiler chickens when they're about eight weeks old. I asked if they have the same health problems as chickens in factory farms, the ones that develop from being bred to gain weight quickly and grow enormous breasts. He said they're the same kind of chickens, so they do have some of those problems, but to a lesser degree, since they have room to exercise.
Next, we drove a little bit further to see the laying hens. They were larger than the broiler chickens, and a gorgeous reddish-brown. They also lived in a rotating pen, with sparse grass, and some areas of dirt that they liked to dust bathe in. There was a shelter with nesting boxes and some rafters on which to roost. The hens were curious and friendly, though shy if one got too close. The farmer picked one up so I could pet her. Another dog or two lived there with the hens.
The clucking was amazing. It had a soothing, hypnotic effect. The area had a pleasant barnyard scent with no hint of ammonia. Some of the hens were missing a few feathers from scuffles they'd gotten into. But none of the hens (or the broiler chickens) had been debeaked. For the time being, these hens seemed pretty content. The natural lifespan of a chicken is 5-8 years. Some of the “spent” laying hens at this farm are sold to people who want to keep a few chickens in their backyard, but most are killed after one or two years when their egg production declines. Their flesh is used for chicken soup, pet food, and fertilizer.
After visiting the chickens, we moved on to the full-grown cows. They were just as cute as their offspring. Again, I got to pet some of them. Like the chickens, they lived in a rotating pen. The farmer fed them some hay while we visited. One of the cows had a growth on her udder, one of the health problems common in dairy cows. But overall, they seemed healthy and happy.
Some of their ears were pierced with name tags. I found that intriguing. The cows at this farm live for 2-12 years before their milk production declines; the natural lifespan of a cow is 20-25 years. Since the cows' flesh gets tougher as they age, most dairy cows are sold for ground beef or pet food once they're no longer profitable. I asked the farmer how he avoids getting too attached to the cows to kill them, given that they have names. He then described the mental gymnastics he goes through in order to stay detached, including not giving them human names. In the end, he said, it's a business, and “their purpose is to make money.”
Before leaving, I bought a half gallon of milk. It was $7, including $2 for the returnable glass bottle. That's the price of truly free-range, organic milk. Though I don't make much money, I am willing to pay it. I wouldn't feel comfortable drinking the milk myself, but if my family is going to drink it, I'd at least like to know that it comes from a farm like this one. With extremely rare exceptions, it's about as good as it gets.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)