If you’ve been paying attention at all (Sacramento Bee), you know that some major changes are coming to the Egg Production Industry in California. Proposition 2, and subsequent regulations, now mandate that all eggs produced or (important word) sold in California must come from chickens that are able to stand up, lay down, and spread their wings without touching their enclosure or another chicken. Approved by more that 2/3’s of voters in 2008, the law becomes effective January 1, 2015, a little over a week from now. While some are fearing a massive egg shortage (Washington Post), others are wondering just how much meaningful change this new law effect. An informative story from NPR demonstrates the “reality” of many label claims currently associated with eggs, like “Farm Fresh.”
At Sunbird Farms, we have limited hope for these new regulations. At the very least, it will bring awareness to the issues surrounding the industrial food machine in California, but we are skeptical about it’s overall benefit to local food. That said, it’s a step, and every step is valuable. If it encourages more people to question the source of their food and seek out better, local options, then we say “well done.”
The problem with these regulations, in fact regulations and laws in general, is that for all their good intentions, they often miss the mark, or worse, demonstrate a lack of understanding about the nature of… well, nature. For example, the over-arching purpose of Prop 2 was to provide more space for animals. That’s great, but during this time of year when temperatures plummet, chickens, by nature, want to be closer together. Do they need 2 linear feet of roost space per chicken? Hardly. Their natural tendency will be to do what any animal will do when its cold outside, huddle up and hunker down. What about the ability to spread its wings without touching another chicken or its enclosure? While this sounds good, most hens will flap and fluff a few times a day, but I’ve never seen one walk around with its wings out to see if it has enough comfortable space. And when they lay, they look for dark, close quarters. The greatest amount of fluffing and flapping, and for that matter physical space needs in general, comes from a rooster. Guess how many roosters are involved in an industrial egg operation? Zero. What I’m trying to say here is simply this: the problem with all of these regulations is where they start: they assume artificial, confined operations.
But what I really want to address here is not what others are doing, but what we are doing, and saying, on our farm. (If you haven’t read the NPR article, doing so now will give you better context for what I’m about to say.) So let’s start where we start, on our farm:
- “Soy-free”: This claim comes from our use of supplemental feed for our birds. In addition to pasture (which we’ll address later), we provide feed from Modesto Milling either for our layers or our meat birds. In most conventional feeds, the main protein source is soy, one of the largest GMO food sources in America. Our feed has no soy.
- “non-GMO”: Again, this comes from our Modesto Milling feed. Because the feed is organic, it does not contain any GMO products.
- “cage-free”: This one requires a lot of detail…so hang in there. None of our birds are kept in cages that can be found in 95% of industrial egg operations. We have many forms of enclosures or “housing” on our farm. They all exist for one very important purpose: to provide as natural of an experience as possible, while protecting our bird’s from their two greatest enemies, weather and predators.
- We have hoop houses that are 8’x10′ for our egg layers. We open this every day for total free range.
- We have tractors that are 4’x8′ for our smaller flocks of meat birds, specialty layers, or for grow-out purposes. We open many of these daily for total free range.
- We also use portable laying enclosures that are 3’x4′ that house a couple of nesting boxes and serve as nighttime roosting options for some of our smaller flocks.
- Some of our tractors and portable housing are surrounded by portable fencing. This fencing has the effect of limiting our rooster’s range to 200 square feet or so of pasture, but allows the hens to jump the low fence if they want, for unlimited free range.
- All of these housing options exceed the Global Animal Partnership “Level 5+” standards, which allows no more than 5 lb. of chicken/square foot of space (used by Whole Foods; standards are for meat birds; no standards for egg layers). Our maximum in any enclosure is under 2 lb./square foot. The tractors are moved daily or every other day, providing access to new pasture as the chickens eat what’s available.
- “Pasture-based”: All of our chickens are kept outdoors, with plenty of exposure to sunshine and fresh air, a healthy and natural environment. They can scratch and forage, take dust baths and roost. Our pasture is a mix of naturally occurring vegetation occasionally supplemented with organic forage mixes from a California supplier (www.groworganic.com). There are three major components to our pasture-based system.
- First, we farm 17 acres of Ashley walnut orchards, which provides outstanding protection from the elements (especially our hot summers), natural roosting options, and a constant source of local vegetation. From time to time, we till 3-4 rows with organic pasture mixes that the chickens gobble up. However, our orchard is farmed conventionally, which means its not organic-certified. Fortunately, walnut orchards receive fewer chemical inputs that nearly any other production crop. A commercial foliar herbicide (meaning it attacks the above-ground portion of the plant) is used on the berms 2-3 times a year, along with a pre-emergent, to combat vegetation around the base of the trees. The result is that less than 40% of our orchard floor receives direct spray. The remaining row portion is not treated, which logically is where the chickens find their food. We also apply a canopy spray (directed up into the trees, not on the ground) 3-4 times a year to protect against blight and occasionally pests. We only use organic herbicide in the rows where we keep our chicken housing, and remove the chickens entirely from the orchards during canopy sprays. These efforts minimize any exposure to non-organic chemicals. In fact, the blight spray is predominantly organic compounds (copper), further reducing any unwanted chemicals on our property.
- Second, we have about 7000 square feet of “garden” in the front of our home. In the six plus years we’ve been here, we have done everything we can to operate organically in this space. The worst transgressions in that entire time have been less than a handful of perimeter sprayings of RoundUp when your’s truly has been distraught over particularly hardy “weeds.” Otherwise, we use only organic products in our food areas.
- Finally we have 1500+ square feet of “country lawn” that is simply watered and mowed. Our birds frequently range into our yard, hoping to find a treat or two. All of these areas play a part in our process from time to time, depending on the season. Overall, our birds are traveling across our property, eating delicious greens and grubs, walnuts and seeds, and just being chickens. When you crack open our eggs, you can see the difference.
- “Organically-fed”: While we haven’t spent the $1000 a year to be certified organic, that hasn’t stopped us from feeding our chickens the best local organic feed we can. In addition to all the good eats that nature has to provide, we supplement all the pasture with soy-free, organic feed from Modesto Milling. That means in addition to a number of organic sources of protein that aren’t soy, they are also enjoying outstanding nutrients like flaxseed and kelp meal.
- “Heritage breeds”: This is one of our favorite parts, our heirloom, heritage breeds of chickens. We work with some of the oldest and most wonderful breeds of chicken from farms around the world. Bresse, Marans, and Barbezieux from France; Sulmtalers from Austria; Pita Pintas from northern Spain; Isbars from the monasteries of Sweden and the giant Malines of Belgium. These breeds have ancient and illustrious careers from pastoral settings around the world. They have been developed by discerning farmers and people of faith for decades, sometimes centuries. When you enjoy “fruits” of our labor, you are taking part in a traditional food experience that spans not only the globe, but history as well.
All these efforts take a lot more resources, a lot more time, a lot more money. But we do these things not because they are easier or more efficient, but because we believe its a better way. We believe that raising birds with more space, more freedom, more access to natural food sources and the best quality organic nutrients we can find is the right thing to do, for our family and our friends. We believe in being honest about our efforts to offer the best meat and eggs we can. We hope you feel the same way and look forward to sharing the results of these practices with all of you in the new year!