Is that chicken really free range?


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 So after the silly article in NPR, a lot of people simply said that paleo is definitely not about grain-fed meat. But I find a lot of people who purchase "alternative" products are eating grain-fed meat without even knowing it, simply because it's pretty hard to do commercially viable chicken or pork without it. I and others have worked on models, but they aren't coming to a store near you anytime soon. 

And for poultry, even if it's from a farmer's market, it's not often free-range in the way you might think of it. In NYC there was one farm selling poultry and I read about how they wouldn't allow people tours to their farm. When I looked closer, I realized that was because while the poultry wasn't in individual cages, they were kept in dark sheds. But it was a small family farm, so what can you say? I guess it's hard for people to believe that such a place could do wrong. 

Philosophically, I like to have livestock living as close to how an animal would live in nature as possible. I know people will argue that chickens are safer in dark sheds, but people argue people are safer with irradiated food. In a natural system, some animals don't come home. Some animals die. They fall prey to raccoons or coyotes or accidents. That's a loss economically, but philosophically I'd rather have the animals survive on their own terms, fully using all their muscles and ancient survival instincts, than shut up in a shed. Perhaps I'm more sentimental than I give myself credit for. 

Historically chickens and pigs were secondary production methods. They ate waste from the other crops produced on the farm. This was a sustainable method and what is highlighted in Simon Fairlie's book. 

But if I were supplying a cafeteria this way, most of the time they wouldn't get chicken and when they did, it would be a smaller mostly-dark meat chicken. As I've written before, I think it's not a bad thing to have less chicken or pork, as these meats are generally nutritionally inferior to ruminant meats. I think these birds are delicious and most of the world agrees with me, but Americans want their chicken breasts. 

And so even small sustainable farmers are giving it to them. And I think it's at the expense of making the pastured model truly grass-fed and truly pastured. If you are putting deformed modern industrial chicken breeds (the Persians or Pugs of chickens in terms of their deformities and health problems acquired because of breeding to please humans rather than overall function) in a cage on pasture and feeding them grains...that's better than factory farming, but how much?

Here are some pictures of farms I've dealt with: 

This is the chicken tractor with Cornish Cross method Salatin made famous. These birds are being produced for a "green" restaurant that serves chicken every night. I didn't talk with this farmer about the behavior of these chickens, but at these densities I think bullying becomes an issue, but maybe not since this breed is basically a catatonic walking breast. In Eating Animals, a pastured poultry farmer named Frank Reese says:

Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask them. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. (113)

Salatin responded:

"OK," he concedes. "You know what, that's fine if you want to do that. I'm not opposed to heritage breeds. We have some heritage breeds. Here's the problem though: marketability. When you say: 'Can we feed the world?', we're not going to turn around the system by feeding only 10% of the population. We gotta feed 90%."

You don't think people will pay…

"Double?" he says, finishing my question. "No, they won't. And besides, it's all dark meat. No double breast. Hey, 40 years ago, every woman in the country – I'll be real sexist here – every woman in the country knew how to cut up a chicken. When we started doing these pastured chickens, it was a moot point. Nobody asked for breast – it didn't exist! I mean as a separate item. Now 60% of our customers don't even know that a chicken has bones! I'm serious. We have moved to an incredibly ignorant culinary connection."

Salatin is hitting his stride now. "We tried heritage chickens for three years and we couldn't sell 'em. I mean, we could sell a couple. But at the end of the day, altruism doesn't pay our taxes. And I'm willing to say: 'You know what? I don't have all the answers and I pick my battles and compromises.' If you want to get brutally honest, in my opinion we shouldn't even have egg sales in America! Every restaurant and every home should have two or three chickens. I mean, you got a parakeet, why not have two chickens? You get eggs instead of a parrot keeping you awake at night. In a perfect world, that's how it would be."

Which sounds exactly like the arguments factory farmers or Barbara King make. Is this really all going back to bare efficiency? Maybe we should rethink chicken's place in the production system in the first place. Thousands of pastoral cultures did grass-fed quite fine without it. But Salatin would not be able to sell to conventional restaurants if he didn't use this method probably. How many restaurants are willing to have chicken on the menu only 1/8th of the year and mainly in the form of broth?

These chickens are on Veritas farm in New York. They are eating apples that were damaged in a hail storm. They go pretty much wherever they want.

And these are chickens on my family's farm, hanging out stupidly with cows. They also go wherever they want. Luckily, as heritage breeds, they are a little smarter. Of course both these examples also eat grain, but not human-food-quality grain and not a lot compared to other models. And it's possible to go-grain free on this model with some ingenuity. Socially, they are much less interested in pecking at each other because a bullied chicken can easily go elsewhere on the farm.

Truly free range chickens like these are going to have more dark meat (which I like). If you consume chicken this way, you don't consume it often, though you make great pains to extend it by making soup from the bones and other less-edible parts. You won't have enough of them to eat them every week or possible even every month. 

Maybe if you can't produce something well in a commercially viable way, you shouldn't produce it at all?