The Chickenfeed Chronicles
"If something is small or unimportant, especially money, it is chickenfeed," says the idiom collection at Using English. But at Marin Sun Farms – and many other chicken and egg operations, such as Nigel Walker’s EatWell Farm – chicken feed is anything but small or unimportant. Instead, it stresses the operator financially and intellectually, and is a hot button for eaters. While on my recent tour of the Marin Sun Farms’ Rogers Ranch in Point National Seashore, the tour group probably could have talked about chicken feed with Marin Sun Farms’ David Evans for hours.
Chicken feed is a complicated business because of genetically modified organisms (GMO), organic certification, the national commodity markets, and international trade. Soy and corn can be important components in chicken feed, but in the U.S. the vast majority of soy and corn are GMO varieties (USDA has a handy chart showing adoption of GMOs since 1996), a characteristic that is objectionable to many for multiple reasons. Consequently, the vast majority of the nation’s harvesting, storage, transportation and marketing resources are devoted to the GMO varieties, which makes organic or non-GMO products more expensive, as they don’t have economies of scale. Although relatively cheaper supplies of organic feed can be purchased from China, Evans thought that transoceanic feed just doesn’t fit into a local foods movement (of course, most corn and soy comes from the Midwest, hardly a local source, but closer on a conceptual basis). At EatWell Farm near Dixon, California, Nigel Walker has tried growing his own organically certified wheat as a source of ultra-local chicken feed (I wrote about this for Eat Local Challenge a while ago). Evans has weighed all of the factors for Marin Sun Farms – practical, ecological, economic – and has settled on conventional feed for his operation, but is not particularly happy about the situation. I don’t know if anti-trust rules would allow for this, but some kind of buying cooperative for organic feed that was made up of chicken farmers might seem to be a way to drive down the costs of organic feed by harnessing some economies of scale.
On the Pasture
Marin Sun Farms raises chickens as egg layers and as meat birds, with the two varieties receiving significantly different treatment. Evans credits Polyface Farm as the inspiration for his system of mobile chicken coops and broiler cages. (Polyface was made famous by Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Learn more about Polyface in a post from Fit for Life and a segment from Eric Ripert's TV show, via Slow Food LA.)
Let’s start with the egg layers. The laying hens (and a few roosters) live in coops out on the pasture, roaming around freely during the day and roosting inside at night. Guard dogs keep watch for coyotes and other threats (here’s a photo of the dogs as puppies from MissNatalie on Flickr). Once a day, the Marin Sun Farm workers drag the houses a few dozen yards to the next spot of pasture, giving the chickens new pasture to explore for bugs, seeds and other chicken treats. The hens end up getting about 15-20% of their nutrients from the pasture and their dropping fertilizes the pasture for future grazing. Importantly, for those who care about animal welfare, the chickens get to be chickens, to revel in their ‘chickenness’ by choosing their own food, taking dust baths, flocking as they like. These birds typically have a life span of about two years.
The broiler chickens have much less freedom than the laying hens, spending their first 5 weeks inside of different parts of a series of open-sided sheds and their last 3 weeks in large cages on pasture. Evans contended that the broiler breed (Cornish cross, a ‘modern’ fast-weight-gain variety) is less of an explorer and has more flocking tendencies than the laying hens, so that it wouldn’t make much sense to use the open-field laying hen system. Like the laying-hen coops, the cages are moved every day to allow the birds to choose food from the pasture, resulting in about 10-15% of their diet being the grass, bugs, seeds and so forth that they pick out of the pasture. Beyond giving the birds some choice in food and fresh pasture each day, Evans said that the practice greatly improves the flavor of the meat.
I still remember the excitement I felt when I read about Joel Salatin's farm in Omnivore's Dilemma – the "egg mobiles," running cattle and chicken in sequence on his pastures. It was a system that seemed to work with nature instead of against nature, as so many CAFOs do. And so, it was rewarding to see a similar system – one that needs to account for California's distinct wet and dry seasons instead of Virginia's winters – at work at Marin Sun Farms, and to hear someone as passionate and knowledgeable as David Evans explain how the many moving pieces fit together.
Marin Sun Farms has been extensively covered in the media and blogosphere, including a piece by Bonnie Azab Powell at the Ethicurean, one by Stephanie Rosenbaum at Bay Area Bites, an article in the Winter 2009 issue of Edible San Francisco by Wayne Garcia, and a few articles on the Marin Sun Farms’ press page.
Random link from the archive: Okra Greens