Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

Last week, Tyson Foods made the announcement that it’s “striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its US broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017”. I snickered to myself after reading this and thought, what’s the catch?

Researching this big announcement took me firstly to Tyson’s website for the official announcement and found that the company does indeed say that “it is “”striving”” to eliminate the use of “”human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017″”. The company will report annually on its progress, beginning with its fiscal 2015 Sustainability Report.  Tyson Foods has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries, requires a veterinary prescription for antibiotics used on broiler farms and “”has reduced human antibiotics”” used to treat broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011.”

So why the snicker, wondering about what’s the catch, and double quotes in the last paragraph?

Back around 2007, Tyson began a huge advertising and labeling campaign of “raised without antibiotics” on its chicken products and was enthusiastically applauded for it by many.  I can remember hearing from some acquaintances about the “big” news and I can also remember me saying that I didn’t believe it for a second.

In June 2008, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved Tyson’s use of the raised without antibiotics label.   USDA reversed that approval and ordered Tyson to remove the label after finding out that Tyson injected its chickens with antibiotics while still in the egg, before hatching, warning that it could no longer consider the raised without antibiotics label “truthful and accurate”.  Tyson admitted that the company used gentamicin which had been used for more than 30 years in the U.S. to treat infections in humans interjecting the belief that rules on labeling describing how chickens are raised typically begin from the second day of life.

According to an AP report, a U.S. District Court Judge had ordered Tyson to stop running any advertisements, setting a May 15, 2008 deadline after Perdue and Sanderson Farms sued, claiming Tysons advertising campaign was misleading.  Sanderson Farms claimed a loss of $4 million in and Perdue claimed it lost about $10 million in revenue.

A consumer lawsuit against Tyson followed accusing the company of falsely claiming that its chickens were raised without antibiotics.  Tyson settled the lawsuit in 2010.  The settlement was capped at $5 million.  The consumer payout was based on proof of purchase (a receipt) which would award $50 dollars, those who didn’t have proof of purchase but provided a sworn statement detailing the poultry they bought would receive $10 dollars.  Any residual funds after paying consumer claims that were left over the company would donate its products to food banks in lieu of the dollar amount.

“While we believe our company acted appropriately, we also believe it makes sense for us to resolve this legal matter and move on,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.

While researching this ongoing saga, I found some fairly strong words being used to describe Tyson’s actions.  Statements such as “no longer consider the raised without antibiotics label truthful and accurate”, false and misleading, and getting to the heart of the issue – “It is quite clear to this court that it was in Tyson’s financial interest to delay the phase-out period as long as possible,” Judge Richard D. Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland written opinion referring to Tyson delaying further use of its advertising campaign.

Take the time to go back and read the bold print above and what I’ve double quoted.  Tyson’s announcement does not say that the company no longer uses antibiotics.

It’s all in the words folks!  It’s the twisting and turning of what the words actually mean and the assumption that consumers read the words and believe them as the gospel truth.  Is it any wonder that I snicker and wonder, what’s the catch over Tyson’s newest BIG announcement concerning the use of antibiotics?

Furthermore, $14 million was claimed to have been lost by Tyson’s competitors, just in 1 year.  Settling for $5 million with consumers is peanuts.  Were any fines levied for not being truthful and accurate, false and misleading, or delaying being so for financial gain?  Does anyone keep their household food purchase receipts for 3 years or bother with a sworn statement to a court for $10 dollars?  Was Tyson able to write off the value of products donated to Food Banks?

After transitioning our farm from industrialized chicken production to an Animal Welfare Approved certified pasture based egg farm 3 years ago, a CAFO now plans to be our neighbor!  We’ve learned from the prospective buyer of the property neighboring us that he has plans to build a chicken CAFO.

It is unfathomable as to why any company would allow their chickens to be put next to a pasture raised farm with chickens on it.  The industry claims that strict bio-security is a mainstay of their operations and necessary to its survival.

Bio-security is the practice of measures taken to prevent the spread of disease on poultry farms.

Looking at the situation from an independent farm, raising hens in a pasture based system one has to question the rights of an individual farm.  What about the right of that farm protecting its chickens from viruses and bacteria’s spread by industrial chicken CAFO’s?

All appearances indicate that the independent farm has no rights and that the highly potential risk created to that farm by the chicken industry is of no concern.

Industrial chickens are vaccinated for many diseases.  Introduction of live viruses into an area where no viruses exist or introducing a bacteria or disease where none exist is a recipe for disaster.  That is basic 101 bio- security for any poultry producer.

In 2008, Johns Hopkins researchers found that poultry trucks driving to processing plants spread harmful bacteria into the environment, exposing other drivers, pedestrians, and rural communities to these bacteria.  Researchers consistently detected drug-resistant bacteria in the air and on surfaces inside vehicles while driving with their windows down behind poultry trucks (Rule et al. 2008).

In our case, a right of way from the county road will be mutually used.  Harmful bacteria will exist in the environment spread from the industry trucks entering and leaving the CAFO.  It’s reasonable to expect that our vehicles will pick up bacteria’s not only harmful to ourselves but also harmful to our disease free hens.  Walking to our mailbox could be harmful to our health!

Drug resistant bacteria spread by industry vehicles will not be the only concern.  County regulations allow for building of chicken houses to be 20 feet from property lines.  These huge buildings can hold up to 60,000 chickens in one house.  Air exchange is accomplished through fans only.  It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the same drug resistant bacteria’s that are found in feathers and dust blowing from trucks will also be exhausted into the air from housing.

Less than ½ mile down the road from the farm is a YMCA.  Joggers and bicyclist use the area for recreational activities and for YMCA sponsored events.  Schools use the sports fields at the YMCA for practices.  Are public and school activities to be discontinued just to accommodate a CAFO that wants to move into the area?

Clearly, the chicken industry has no thought or care of potential risks to human health nor any respect for the neighbor that their CAFO’s want to go next to.

Craig Watts did the unthinkable in the world of a contract chicken farmer and industrialized chicken production. He allowed cameras inside of his chicken houses and showed the world the deplorable conditions which contract growers are mandated to raise chickens under.

Some will say that Craig is brave, others might say he’s crazy, and surely most contract chicken farmers will say that he should have known it would cause trouble for his self. Having walked in the shoes that Craig is now walking in I would say it’s a little bit of all of the above and more!

With the release of the shocking video, taken by Compassion in World Farming, reaction was swift. For those wanting to do something to stop the methods used in raising our nations chicken they had the option to send a letter to supermarket CEO’s asking them to replace the source of their supermarket brand, in Craig’s case Perdue.

All supermarket brands come from a source. All chicken companies supply one supermarket brand or another. Inside of chicken company processing plants packing under many different labels is all in a day’s work. Do you know who supplies your favorite supermarket brand?

Back to Craig Watts…. Having known Craig for quite some time I’m not at all surprised at what he has done. He has been simmering like a pot of water on a stove for a long time. He’s tried talking to Perdue representatives, he’s shocked them with video before Compassion in World Farming came along, and most often was given a message in some shape or form of keep your mouth shut. It’s nothing new and every contract chicken farmer knows it. In this case the swift reaction for Craig was for Perdue to inform him that he is the subject of an “internal animal welfare” investigation.

Secretly and behind closed doors, fellow farmers will pat Craig on the back. He will be the topic of conversations in the farmer community for a long time. Those in the outside world will use the video and the compatible New York Times Op Ed article by Nicholas Kristof for different purposes. When all of the sensationalism dies down, Craig Watts is still on his farm in North Carolina battling Perdue and hanging on to his farm by a thread.

I’m not saying that the world shouldn’t have been given a view into our food production system. We as individuals need to see where our food comes from and make informed choices. What I am saying is that now that Craig has provided that view, who will be standing with him in his battle?

I’ll have much more to say on this subject in the days and weeks ahead.

As some of you know we raised a few Heritage Bronze Turkeys this year mostly to see how they would make out on pasture rather than in confined controlled housing and feeding.

The vast majority of store bought turkey’s come from industrial mega farms which confine and control the living environment and implement a continuous feeding program. The genetically mixed breed of turkey is meant to have a broad breast and to grow rapidly. These turkeys become so large that it’s impossible for them to mate naturally and artificial insemination is the only way that fertile eggs are produced for hatching.

Our newly hatched turkey babies (poults) arrived last June and were about the same size as a baby chick. I knew absolutely nothing about raising turkeys and it was an exciting, but scary, moment when I realized that okay, they are here, now what do I do with them?

If anything the turkeys became an exercise in building family as all of the grandkids had to come and see the new babies. As a matter of fact, our oldest grandson, Noah, was with us on one of his weekly summer visits and the turkeys’ arriving was a big surprise for him. Needless to say, he fell in love with them and most days we had to drag him out of the turkey pen.VOM Turkeys 6192014 008

There is no question that baby animals are cute and cuddly and explaining to the kids that we were raising them for Thanksgiving dinner was hard. Much to my surprise they looked at me and said “I know”. So much for thinking that it was going to be tears and screaming over the turkeys!

At four weeks of age we moved the turkeys into what I called, “the turkey condo”. My husband and son had converted an unused horse stall into a home for the turkeys and they had our horses for company. We installed electric fencing to surround their pasture, not to keep them in, rather to keep foxes out.Turkeys 7182014 008

I found that turkeys are much friendlier than chickens. They love having visitors and will follow wherever anyone would like to take them for a walk. On the other hand they are kind of strange creatures slanting their heads sideways to look at you took some getting used to.

As thanksgiving has drawn nearer and people have found out that we have turkeys, I’ve had numerous requests to buy a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving. I’ve gently turned folks away and hopefully pointed them in directions of where they could buy the same type of turkey as what we have. Selling on farm is not an option for us as State regulations would require us to build something akin to a processing plant.

Slaughter time has come and it’s not something I’ve not looked forward to. And here I thought it would be hard for the kid’s! This brings me to a point of the understanding of where food comes from. 10698459_953630784665250_3111914355740412800_n

Animals raised for food don’t just magically appear at the grocery store although if you ask most school aged children they will tell you that their food comes from the store. I can say that the grandchildren understand that the animals are raised on the farm and they are what people eat.

It comes down to the turkeys are for Thanksgiving dinner. How they were raised and the life that they had is what makes the difference. Having raised industrial chickens for twenty three years it never crossed my mind when the company removed them for slaughter.

When I think about it now relating to the turkeys I think that Thanksgiving dinner is appropriate to say that I will give thanks to the turkeys, among other things, for providing a holiday meal for family to share and for sustaining human life. I know that our turkeys were raised and cared for in the best way possible, and for a time they were part of family life. They were raised for a purpose, not just as a thing, and raised in the best animal welfare standards that any turkey can have. They were stunned before slaughter which is the most humane method possible.

Our turkeys will be the centerpiece, not just on the dinner table, but also something that family comes together over and memories are made. No matter where your Thanksgiving turkey comes from this year, take a moment to thank the turkey along with all of your other thanks. Happy Thanksgiving!
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P.S. I’ve had many requests about how to cook a heritage pasture raised turkey. I’m in no way an expert on this subject as this will be another first for me. I’ve done some reading on the subject and I got some advice from my youngest daughter, Natalie, who cooks one every year. She soaks her turkey in a brine for 24 hours before cooking.

What I can tell you is that heritage pasture raised turkeys are not self-basting so make sure you use oil or butter along with your chosen spices and herbs and generously rub onto the breast between the meat and skin before cooking.

Here are a few ideas:
Local Harvest – http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp

Pintrest has several recipes – http://www.pinterest.com/bighornranc1222/pastured-chicken-recipes/

Martha Stewart – http://www.marthastewart.com/347005/roasted-heritage-turkey

Late spring and early summer have been extremely busy on the farm. In May 700 new chicks (baby girls) arrived while our current flock of hens (the big girls) turned a year old.

We celebrated the big girl’s birthday with their version of a birthday cake, lettuce and tomatoes, their favorite treats. Although the baby girl’s arrival was a few days before the birthday celebration, they weren’t a birthday present for the big girl’s. Actually, the big girl’s weren’t too pleased sharing the attention.

We now have roughly 1,200 hens. The baby girl’s won’t start laying eggs until late October. They spend their days running around like a bunch of hooligans and practicing their flying skills, which by the way aren’t so great! 5212014 BR RIR DE 019
The baby girl flock is a mixture of Rhode Island Red’s, Delaware’s, and Bard Rock’s. They are traditional breeds of chickens and this is a first for us as our previous flocks have been all Rhode Island Reds.

Becoming 1 year old also brought on the first molt for the big girl’s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “molt” it can be easily compared to animals shedding. The big girls are in the process of losing their feathers in order to grow new feathers. This process can take as long as 6 months and since we let our hens molt naturally, they don’t all shed their feathers at the same time. Working with the flock every day I see some hens that are fully feathered, others are partially feathered, and some are downright naked!

While molting, the hens slow down on egg production and some stop laying eggs altogether. Growing new feathers while producing eggs is an extreme drain of calcium on the hens and nature decided, they can’t do both.

For the first time, we decided to try raising some turkeys and in June, 15 baby turkeys (poults) arrived. VOM Turkeys 6192014 007It’s hard to imagine that these tiny creatures grow into becoming the large Thanksgiving turkey we are accustomed to seeing. The poults are much more sociable than the chickens. They love human companionship and the grandkids had great fun sitting in the turkey pen while the babies climbed in their laps.

They were moved this week from their brooding pen to their new condo. We converted an empty horse stall into their new home and provided pasture space for them to forage. Turkeys 7182014 008Allowing them outdoor access for the first time was like a bunch of kids on a candy spree! They didn’t know which to go after first – grass, clover, or bugs. They now have our two horses for companions however the horses try to ignore them.

Unfortunate for me (or maybe not ), is that the turkeys are now visible from my window in the living room and it’s just a short walk to go visit them. I find myself looking out the window much more often than I should and then being drawn outside for a visit.

The new additions to the farm have also brought a lot more work. Some days don’t end until evening. Farming is hard work, but hey, I’m not complaining! Sitting on the front porch (yes, in my rocking chair) thinking about the accomplishments of the day, I’m rewarded.

My post last week about the “Walmarting of Organics” brought me gobs of email. The pot was stirred! But, that is a good thing and what “Food for Thought” is all about.

Every subject or issue has many viewpoints and I for one like hearing them, kind of like playing devil’s advocate with myself.

One particular comment from a share on Facebook got me thinking……..

“Yeah, but when when Walmart is making more of an effort at making organic products accessible to lower income folks than the existing organic/small foods institutions that make small farms possible, I don’t think we should be pointing our fingers just at Walmart. I hate Walmart just as much as any other greeny, but let’s talk about the food system as a [w]hole, about capitalism, about someone’s hunger and nutritional needs being a market to sell your goods when we really should be collectivizing in a way that INCLUDES rather than excludes our society’s most vulnerable people.”

Well said!

Looking at our food system as a whole is a daunting task and needs to be peeled away in layers like an onion. Not wanting to go into a detailed description of economic theories or by any means think that I can conduct a lesson on those theories; it is, however, well worth looking at.

Our main-stream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and/or private owner. The bottom line is the almighty (or not so almighty) dollar. This system supposedly operates on the “free market or free enterprise” theory better known as capitalism.

Capitalism – in short definition is an economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned, and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. (merriam-webster) In print this definition looks good and fairly simple.

To further insure that the free market/enterprise operates fairly on the capitalistic system, laws and regulations as well as government oversight are in place. This is where it gets sticky!

There was a time in our country’s history where the laws and regulations were enforced. Anti-trust and monopoly come to mind. I don’t know about anyone else however I was raised by the belief that if you work hard you will do well, America is the land of opportunity, and so on!

Having lived in industrial contract chicken production and having heard comments such as it’s a free market from corporate types I can say that in the chicken industry there is no such thing. The chicken industry is owned and controlled by a handful of companies and it’s an exclusive club controlling the market.

Controlling the production (placement of chicken numbers on contract farms) determines the availability of the product for sale on the market and in turn controls what the market price will be. Furthering that control through flooding the market and driving prices down, squeeze competition out, we end up with a handful. Becoming fully integrated, whereby all aspects of the operation are owned and controlled by the same handful of corporations furthers a monopoly on the market and anti-competition.

Large-scale, integrated operations that increase efficiency and reduce production costs confer a benefit on firms that adopt them and may confer a benefit on consumers if the lower costs lead to lower product prices. In many cases the barrier is a result of anticompetitive behavior on the part of the firm –. (merriam-webster – relating to monopoly)

The chicken industry has been so successful that the majority of our food production system has adopted this model leading to a highly controlled mainstream food supply.

Industrialized food production is claimed to be the best method for feeding the masses including society’s most vulnerable people and in stamping out hunger and nutritional needs. This might be true, although I beg to differ. In adopting this model we have to consider the societal consequences created to maintain this method.

Industrial food production cannot sustain itself and is highly subsidized by the taxpayer – cheap grain prices for feed (farm subsidies); tax abatements (not paying a fair share of tax liability); public health (such as antibiotic resistance); environmental degradation (cleanup of industrial waste/manure). These are only a few of the ways we subsidize industrial food production which enables the handful of corporations to control the free market and reap the profits from the system.

Other types of food production such as organic, sustainable family farms, etc. are not subsidized. Production cost is actual therefore making prices higher in the marketplace.

In theory, one method of food production is supported and apparently favored by the government while other types of food production aren’t. Thusly, a skewed market exists.

Walmart’s adoption of an organic program is the first step toward creating an industrialized organic food production system. Relaxed (bastardized) organic standards have opened the doors for corporate agriculture to step in and produce maybe not so great food. You can bet your bottom dollar the industrialized organic food production system will follow the model of the industrialized chicken industry.

In addition, the Walmart organic move is for the purpose of drawing new high end customers. Economic indicators reveal that Walmart sales are stagnant. The company’s present customer base is society’s most vulnerable people and to spur company sales growth new customers need to be sought.

As an aside, the SNAP (food stamps) program is accepted in all grocery stores and most Farmer’s Markets. The availability of nutritious farm fresh, and/or organic food is inclusive of all through the program. The crinkle is that choice of food dollars spent leans toward not so great foods. Educational programs are lacking in providing society’s most vulnerable people information about wholesome and nutritious food availability and how to spend food dollars on better choices. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that anyone in this country should go hungry. There is no excuse for it and we as a society should be ashamed for allowing it to exist!

Back to the main point – Industrialized organic food production will become something that is no better than industrialized mainstream food production. It’s impossible to survive producing above cost therefore cost efficiencies of production will demand the need to cut corners. Industrialized food production does not sustain its environment and mass production creates uniformity with lack of care. Organic will mean nothing but will demand a premium at Walmart.

Yes, availability of organic will be inclusive of all. When all is said and done, I question what it will be that sits on the shelves of Walmart.

Grocery giant, Walmart, has set its sights on organics planning to drive the market prices down nationwide announcing an exclusive partnership with Wild Oats. Walmart claims that they will sell a line of 100 organic products at 25 percent less than 26 national brand competitors.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries” says Jack Sinclair, Walmart executive vice president of grocery. Need I say more?

I believe that most of us are familiar with the Walmart plan and how they have operated in the past. Driving competitors out of business until it’s the only game in town and then having prices creep up hasn’t been in keeping with the mantra go to Walmart and watch prices falling!

From a farmer perspective the new Wild Oats deal tells me that it’s about capturing a rapidly growing organic market, 10 – 20 percent a year by most estimates, and driving the small sustainable organic family farmers out of business. In keeping with its history, Walmart tells the producer what it will pay for your product and you can take it or leave it. Walmart buys in large volume and to acquire the volume the company will need huge organic suppliers.

By the same token, Walmart customers are traditionally either/or from poor areas, low income, rural, or food stamp recipients. I do believe in food equality meaning that everyone should have access to affordable healthy food choices.

What I don’t believe in is driving the food prices paid to the farmer down to the point of the small scale family farmer becoming listed on the endangered species list!

Open the door for industrial corporate organic food production – I’ve written in the past about the “bastardization of organics” and as I’ve said before, it is not about the real organic food producers it’s about the “posers”. With ever increasing relaxed National Organic Standards occurring, the road is being paved by government regulations for anyone to claim organic. Obviously, history is repeating itself as it did when corporate agriculture took over mainstream food production ushering in vertically integrated food systems, contract farming, and the theory of get big or get out!

It remains to be seen if the new Walmart – Wild Oats plan will be successful. If my local Walmart is any example, I don’t believe that the store will capture new higher end customers. In finding a decent grocery chain, I drive 30 miles. To find a really exceptional grocer it’s 120 miles.

My local Wamart is disgustingly filthy, rotten produce is offered for sale, the employees are rude to the point if you ask a question they behave as if you’ve bothered them, and empty spaces on shelves abound. It has all of the qualities of “if you don’t like it, tough”!

Walmart’s increased sales have remained stagnant. The company sees a rapidly increasing organic market and the sound of cha- ching! The entire deal surrounds the almighty dollar. It’s definitely not based on any warm fuzzy feeling of doing the right thing or providing access to healthy food choices for the masses. I’ve not heard or read one word related to this deal about any claims of corporate social responsibility or being a good citizen in local communities.

Speaking to the local economy, the deal will not provide a boost. Walmart won’t be buying from local farmers they will be buying from centralized mass producers. Efficiency will be the name of the game which translates to cutting corners.

What I find humorous about the deal is that corporations, such as Walmart, have in the past viewed organics as a niche market equating those farmers to left over hippies. Corporate agriculture types snidely snickered over organics as not being technologically advanced in food production. I say, hop on the bus, Gus – be a poser!

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