Friday, September 11, 2015

Cage Free...a magic remedy?

Yesterday's news announced that strong consumer preference for cage-free eggs has tipped even fast food giant Macdonald's into making that change in their food supply chain (see the NPR  source for this picture of a cage-free facility in Hershey, PA; see also  Wall Street Journal).


It throws me back to days on friends' farms in recent summers, collecting eggs. My friend Marie until recently ran an egg farm near Montlucon in the heart of the French region known as L'Allier. She was ahead of the current cage-free curve. She kept her hens inside a large stone barn, with a doorway where they could also walk outside into an outdoor pen. Neither space was very large, nor did either boast the newest technologies for what the industry terms "manure removal" from cage free egg production facilities. But it produced lots and lots of tasty fresh eggs, and people came from miles around to pick them up, or met Marie and her partner, Bernard, at local markets to pick up their eggs.

Marie also grew gorgeous vegetables and herbs in and around huge hoop houses full of cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, verbena. The contrast struck me and my (then) seven year old daughter--such a difference between the sunlight and freshness of the plant production areas, and the dank, feather-strewn muck of the hen house (of course fresh straw went down as often as possible...but let's be honest, chickens are pretty filthy). But it wasn't just muck that struck; there was also the cluck. As we went to collect eggs or scatter grain outside in the  yard for them to eat, we joined many more timid hens in dodging the aggression of the bigger bullies. Many of the hens seemed stressed, racing around noisy and alarmed;  still, none were confined.

Our own quarters that week were the airy, renovated rooms of the old farmhouse for weekend visitors and tourists, with pastel wall paper, original woodwork, and new skylights, complete with en suite showers. In the morning we would creak open the old wooden shutters, then throw the french windows wide to take in the breeze and golden rays of rising sun on the eastern side of the building. At that hour, all was more or less quiet on the western, egg producing front.

Almost any farm is a mucky, clucky, multi-species system.  In this case, a purebred german shepherd was variously doted upon and chained or reprimanded. His presence helped keep the hens safe from predators, but his purview seemed cruelly restricted...no roaming the hills with sheep for him!

Marie herself was moving slowly, having made a miraculous recovery from a tractor accident that had left her all but brain dead. Bernard had painstakingly stripped and repainted the guest rooms, renovating as she lay in the hospital for nearly a year, telling himself each day that she would again be awake to accompany him in the work, and enjoy the newfound beauty of the historic structure.

One day she did wake up; but this is no fairy tale. Farm life is hard on the humans and animals involved; it is less amenable to reform and improvement than naive consumer preference for a label like "cage free" might suggest. As Bernard stood in the historic old farm kitchen making us a spectacular chicken and cured lemon tagine in moroccan earthenware, Marie rolled cigarettes by the hearth, watching him with the German Shepherd at her feet. They spoke of their unhappiness in that life, of the lack of friends and community, the crushing regularity of the daily tasks.

Marie comes from a long line of sheep farmers in that very Bourbonnais region. Returning home to her roots she was realizing a dream of having her own farm there. She was raised as the one girl in a family of five or seven strapping boys, but she can shear a herd of sheep faster than any of her brothers.  Bernard's past is far more wide ranging; his talents are many, his parties are legendary if one can recall anything in detail about them, and his frustrations with closed, normative social worlds whether urban or rural lead him perilously close to rage at times.  To make matters more complicated, Bernard's appetite for talking of sex is insatiable--I think of him as a kind of sexual extension agent amidst the sometimes prudish, often stoic denizens of cage-free countrysides where talk tends more to the weather, or the whereabouts of a missing animal.

Not that Bernard's constant promiscuous patter wasn't a welcome reminder of eros in the life of a weary teacher and mommy. But I was glad for the language barrier excluding my daughter from the detailed discussions. As she nibbled tender chicken off the bone, Bernard happily crowed from the cookstove where he was already on to his next triumph: a molten chocolate dessert dish with loads of eggs and butter. His grey ponytail bobbing up and down as he gesticulated, he told us all about wealthy girls from Neuilly whom he had made scream for more in their pantries during his younger days as a cook and caterer in the Paris area. Marie chuckled patiently, until he got so carried away that he burned the chocolate a bit. Cursing, he threw the concoction in the sink and, stopping only to remark on a bit of knee poking out from under my skirt, dashed out to a local patisserie for an approximation of his intended dessert that nonetheless delighted my daughter.

He and Marie have since sold the farm near Montlucon, and instead bought an historic inn closer to the heart of Auvergne, Le Buron de la Coudaire in Renaudie. This spectacular and relatively empty rural region Puy de Dome boasts loads of what the french call "baba cools" or hippies, returning to the land as farmers. Bernard and Marie now focus more on producing food for their visitors at the auberge, gathering mushrooms, nuts and plants, and making their own pottery. I think it suits them better. I don't know what happened to all their hens, but I feel certain the German Shepherd went with them, and I hope he is happier too.

Meanwhile, back in Michigan, Naina and I have found fresh eggs to gather closer to home. The hens on Sandy Acres Farm live in conditions that seem much more humane than most...they  have a very large yard in which to roam, and a few of them roam even beyond the fence, which doesn't seem to bother our friends Shelley and Joe, the couple who built and run the farm. "Oh, there is a rogue hen or two, don't worry about them" they said, as they left us to farm sit for a few days this summer (I snapped the photo on the left at a fall harvest event on the farm).




There are turkeys, too, at Sandy Acres, and large families of wild turkeys strutting lazily across the fields where sheep and cattle graze, and gaze quietly at the birds' ceaseless scrabbling for scraps from the huge organic vegetable garden out back. When night falls at Sandy Acres the poultry retreat to a small henhouse they share with some rabbit cages. The rabbits, too, now have an outdoor yard for their daytime pleasure...it has taken years for this farm family to install all the fencing, shedding, and interior space they need. With each passing summer more gets completed, and they breath a sigh of relief at the gradually improving quality of life for themselves and their various animals. I am always mindful of the sweat and tears involved in every single post hole...the farm is made of straw bale adobe construction, and is entirely solar powered, so heavy equipment is limited to a minimum (see photo, by Oliver Uberti, for a feature on the Trumpeys as Homesteaders of the Year in last year's Mother Earth News).

The whole operation is a life dream concocted over ales during a study abroad in Scotland, where Joe and Shelley met. But this is no fairy tale either. As my daughter and I collect the eggs each morning we note the number of hens missing feathers, or even suffering from lacerations on their backs from the roosters' reproductive attentions. We always keep an eye on the hoses lying around the farmyard, lest we need to turn them on those aggressive roosters ourselves; it brings home the dynamics of aggression that are inherent in much animal life.Were we less delighted by the brilliant yellow yolked fresh eggs for breakfast each morning, would fewer roosters do and all could live in more peace?

Peaceful or not, the Sandy Acres chickens likely have a richer and more varied diet than almost any on the planet. The chemical free farm has a density and diversity of insect life that has made it a haven for bees when beekeepers for miles around are losing colonies each winter.  Robert Paehlke talks in his book Democracy's Dilemma  (MIT Press, from which I borrow this photo) about major historical moments in the evolution of capitalist and democratic systems: agrarian, industrial, and finally today's "electronic capitalism." He notes in his conclusions to that book that in an era of electronic capitalism, the conscience of the system as it struggles with democratic principles and processes will perforce reside with consumer concerns and choices. But what of producers? what of more and more of us trying our hand at production (as may be the solution to current disastrous rates of bee colony collapse, for example)?

When we do, we realize how few simple fixes exist for the quality of life of production animals. Incremental improvements are crucial, even if they appear to be steps backward in terms of the cleanliness or technology of large scale agriculture. As for any complex system, management measures must be adaptive, and remain attuned to emergent challenges. Further, when it comes to our food, we must get even more open to both producer and consumer concerns, on the parts of humans and the other life forms upon which we rely.

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