Organic farms debate letting chickens outdoors
Battle over chickens and the outdoors has been particularly protracted. The National Organic Standards Board considers the matter at a meeting in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 25.
Seattle Times business reporters
YELM, Thurston County — The choir of clucking from thousands of Rhode Island red chickens inside a Stiebrs Farms hen house creates such a din that it's hard to hear anything else. The chickens follow visitors around, tilting their heads to have a better look.
A few dozen of them amble down ramps onto a grassy lawn, where they peck at the ground and roll in the dirt, an instinctive activity farmers call "dusting."
These are the lucky chickens, the ones certified organic that do not spend their lives in cages.
In fact, these hens are extra lucky because Stiebrs Farms decided that when national organic rules called for "access to the outdoors," that meant big doors and grassy lawns.
Some organic chicken farms do not see it that way, and a fight is brewing over what exactly "access to the outdoors" means when it comes to chickens used for organic eggs and meat.
"There's huge lobbying going on from industrial agriculture trying to force the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) to get rid of the concept of any outdoor access," said Goldie Caughlan, nutrition-education manager at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle and a former member of that board.
The NOSB, an advisory board of retailers, consumers, producers and others with an interest in organic food, makes recommendations to an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that issues final rules on everything from organic corn to honey to milk.
Rule-making takes years, and the battle over chickens and the outdoors has been particularly protracted. It will reach fever pitch later this month, when the NOSB considers the matter at an Oct. 25 meeting in Madison, Wis.
There are as many opinions about chickens and the outdoors as there are farmers.
Stiebrs — which has 450,000 hens, about 125,000 of them organic — recently added extra doors to a couple organic houses to coax more hens outside.
It's important to consumers and customers like PCC, said Kaisa Kuykendall, granddaughter of Stiebrs Farms' founders and head of sales, marketing and customer relations.
It also creates work for the farm, because workers have to round up the chickens before dark so they are safe from predators. Herding even a few dozen chickens takes time, Kuykendall said.
"You don't just say, 'OK, ladies, we're going inside.' "
It also takes space.
If all 4,700 hens that live in one of Stiebrs' houses congregated outdoors, they would have more space — 1.7 square feet per bird, to be precise, than the 1.2 square feet they have indoors.
Some people do not like that the NOSB is looking into the matter.
Steve Kopperud, a lobbyist whose firm's clients include the National Renderers Association and the Animal Health Institute, wrote at BrownfieldAgNews.com in March that the NOSB should not consider "animal-welfare" standards. He thinks organic should mean only an absence of man-made chemicals.
"Since by federal law no company can make humaneness or safety claims based on production practice, how better to try and play to the Whole Foods crowd than by promoting your 'animal welfare' standards as part of the organic program?" he wrote.
The NOSB seems "totally oblivious to ongoing concerns by conventional producers when it comes to the dedication of the animal-rights movement and others to render all of livestock and poultry production extinct," Kopperud wrote.
James Barton, a veterinarian with the American Association of Avian Pathologists, told the NOSB's livestock committee last fall that raising chickens inside is better for their health.
"Exposure to insects and earthworms can facilitate the transfer of internal and external parasites ... as well as bacterial and viral infections," he said.
Country Hen, a farm in Massachusetts, appealed to federal regulators in the early 2000s, when a certifying agent refused to consider its chicken porches "access to the outdoors." The regulators sided with the farm, and it now sells organic eggs.
Country Hen manager Bob Beauregard told the NOSB last year its proposed animal-welfare rules, including a possible requirement for 3 square feet of outdoor space per bird, "would completely undermine everything that we have built our organic system plan around for the past seven years."
"The land to range the hens properly would not be practical, nor would the hens be safe from natural predators," Beauregard said.
The board's latest documents, to be used for discussion this month, suggest 2 square feet per chicken outdoors.
NOSB members vary in their take on animal welfare.
Board member Jennifer Hall, a foodie from Washington state who's been involved in various restaurant and other food projects, did not attend the group's last meeting, but wrote an e-mail that was read to the group.
"It's still big corporate outfits even in organic that literally pump livestock of all kinds through their systems at unreasonable rates with low oversight or real care for the living animal," she wrote.
"I would very much like to have minimum standards of care for organic livestock that are far superior to conventional, and that make a difference in pain and suffering and the quality of life the animal leads. That would justify a doubling of price, not the fact that organic feed just happens to be so hard to come by and inflates the price of a still potentially miserable existence."
The Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin released a report on organic egg farms this week that rates dozens of farms, including several in Washington.
It gave Stiebrs Farms in Yelm and Wilcox Farms in Roy each a rating of three eggs out of five. Five eggs went to Trout Lake Abbey in Trout Lake, Klickitat County; Misty Meadows Farm in Everson, Whatcom County; and Skagit River Ranch in Sedro-Woolley. Cornucopia's report is at www.Cornucopia.org.
Oct. 12 is the deadline for public comments.
They can be made online at http://bit.ly/czDAYO.
— Melissa AllisonTidbits
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