Although I started out with explaining the confusion of a visitor to the farm over different farming methods, the saga of The Land of Confusion continues and expands after being bombarded with questions from readers. Before going forward I have to go back to my first post and explain to the many who’ve asked how I decided upon “The Land of Confusion”.
While I was writing the first post about animal confinement, fancy names for hen cages, and thinking about why these names are thought up, the song by Phil Collins (one of my favorites) Land of Confusion kept popping into my head. I have a tendency toward equating situations to music. It’s not something that I consciously do, it just happens. At times, it can be annoying, especially when I’m trying to concentrate.
I left off last time bringing into the conversation the term’s “free range” and “pasture raised” and how things can get really fuzzy. Again, I say it’s all about words and what kind of picture those words conjure up in the consumers mind.
Free range in my mind first conjures up the old song “Home on the Range”. What a lovely thought, right? Animals freely roaming the “range” with lots of lush grass to forage on – is NOT what it’s about. Free range varies greatly from farm to farm. Providing “access to the outdoors” is the key to free range. It could mean that the animals have huge pastures to forage in or it could mean that the animals have a small penned in area on dirt.
According to USDA, the term free range for poultry means that farmers must show that the “poultry has been allowed access to the outdoors”. What USDA doesn’t say is that the farmer must show that poultry actually went outdoors, for how long of a time period, or if grasses are readily available in the outdoor space.
In the beginning of the “free range” movement farmers who practiced this method intended for it to mean that their chickens were foraging outside on grasses and for the most part not confined. These were small scale farmers practicing a farming method which allowed for natural behaviors of chickens to abound. As the term caught on corporate agri-businesses saw opportunity in a market that was appealing to consumers. Legal minds went to work figuring how the phrase “free range” could be coined to suit the needs of industrial sized production and capture market share.
In my travels I’ve seen fenced in dirt lots running the length of an industrial sized chicken house that were considered “free range”. I found this method of farming to be appalling and although there is no legal definition for “free range” in my opinion the term has been adulterated. I don’t believe that this is the picture that consumers have in their minds when thinking about “free range”.
Enter the term “pasture raised”. When farmers saw what was happening to the original intents and purposes of the free range method of farming they saw the need to clarify. Farmers use this term to set their selves apart from “free range” and its meaning is the opposite as well. Chickens that are identified as “pasture raised” are outside on pasture and have access to shelter (indoors). To be more specific the chickens have continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life.
To further complicate matters the “organic” seal of approval relates more to the diet of chickens than to how the chickens are raised. Again, the original intents and purposes of “organic” have become muddled whereby industrial agriculture has inserted itself into organic farming. Today there are several corporate giants that are synonymous with organic. The chickens only need “access” to the outside.
Another confusing type of phrase that is used to grab consumers describing laying hens and how they are raised – “cage free hens provided ample space and allowed to roam freely”. General thought would be that these chickens are not kept in cages and have lots of open space on the farm to roam at will. I’ve seen this type of wording used to define cage free hens raised in confinement buildings and never allowed outside. One might say that this is a misleading statement however there is nothing that says that the hens are outside roaming freely it just says that they are not caged and are allowed space to walk around. What it doesn’t say is that the space and freedom allowed is inside a confinement building or that the chickens aren’t allowed to forage. Technically this isn’t illegal.
As a farmer it’s hard to sift through all of the confusing language to figure out what method is right for the individual farm. Having now lived on both sides of the fence, so to speak, the choice was a no brainer. One could say that our farm took a drastic approach going from one side of the spectrum to the total opposite side of the spectrum.
Having become totally disgusted with industrial mass production of chickens and the methods used to adhere to the demands, from the farmer aspect and the animal aspect, changing to the complete opposite method was an easy transition. Knowing this doesn’t diminish the frustration when trying to explain different methods of farming to consumers and for their part, consumers are similarly frustrated in not having clear and concise language to understand what each claim or type of wording means.
A concise explanation about different claims of how chickens are raised and fed can be found here.
Not All Eggs Are Created Equal
Enter genetics. Most unknown to non-farmers is what type of animal is used for production. Maybe back in the 1920’s and 1930’s people were assured that a chicken was a chicken. What I call the “mix-master age of chickens” is today, a high stakes profit driven formula. For those who don’t know what a “mix-master” is, simply put, it’s a blender.
There’s a game that kids play called “mix em up, match em up” which is akin to the mix-master age of chickens. Genetics is an entirely different subject and we’ll talk about that in my next post about the land of confusion.