Saturday, March 07, 2009

An alternative to Tyson: Natalie and Cassie of Grateful Growers Farm

Sadie Kneidel interviews Natalie Veres (center) and Cassie Parsons
(right) of Grateful Growers Farm.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

"Tyson: that's what your family deserves." It's an odd slogan for a corporation that feeds its chickens slaughterhouse scraps, fecal matter, antibiotics, and feather meal. The company gets away with it because few people know what goes on in a Tyson broiler shed, or what the chickens eat. Even the farmers who raise the Tyson chickens under contract don't know what's in the feed that Tyson delivers. It's a "trade secret".

While Sadie and I were researching our latest two books, Going Green and Veggie Revolution, we toured Tyson factory farms and interviewed the farmers. We went inside crowded Tyson broiler sheds, where the broiler chickens are raised. And we found out what they eat. It wasn't so hard to find out. We called the National Chicken Council and asked; we called food scientists at land grant universities and asked them too. They told us.

Fortunately, a growing number of smaller farms are raising happier livestock on healthier diets. We toured lots of those farms as well. One of our favorites was Grateful Growers Farm, owned by Cassie Parsons and Natalie Veres in Lincoln County, North Carolina. Cassie and Natalie have dedicated themselves to raising healthy livestock and vegetables. "Visiting a corporate factory farm," Cassie says, “took my breath away. It reaffirmed what we’re doing completely.” What Cassie and Natalie are doing is surprisingly simple. They raise hogs, broiler chickens, and egg-laying hens, all in outdoor pastures under the Carolina sunshine. They also grow and sell organic vegetables.

At Grateful Growers Farm, the broiler hens reside in pastured chicken-wire enclosures. Each fenced enclosure is sturdy enough to protect 75 hens from predators. Because broilers grow bulkier than laying hens, they are less nimble and thus more vulnerable to foxes, weasels, birds of prey, and neighbors’ dogs. Yet the chicken-wire enclosures are light enough to be portable, and are moved to fresh ground on the field twice a day – with the chickens still enclosed. So their manure is distributed evenly around the pasture, and is easily broken down by soil organisms to fertilize the pasture. The feces of factory-farmed broilers, on the other hand, are cleaned out of their sheds only once every 18 months, causing “hock burns” and “breast blisters” on the crowded chickens. We saw their reddened and featherless rumps when we visited Tyson broiler sheds.

Grateful Growers Farm's laying hens have lives of true luxury, as livestock go. In contrast to the million caged and tightly packed hens at the Food Lion egg farm we toured, Natalie and Cassie’s layers have the run of the farm. As we talked to the owners, the hens moved in and out of the woods close to their spacious hen house, dust-bathing, preening, pecking, and snuggling in the leaves under the watchful eye of an attentive rooster. After an active day, Natalie says, the hens put themselves to bed in the roosts inside their shed. They’re all trained to lay their eggs inside, where Natalie and Cassie collect close to 50 eggs per day.

A spacious hen house for every 25 hens at Grateful Growers Farm.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

While walking around Grateful Growers Farm, I asked myself a question I learned from Diane Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute, an organization that has developed a protocol for humane husbandry of farm animals. She asks, "Do the animals live a life worth living?" At Grateful Growers, the answer is yes. At a Tyson contract farm, that would be no - from what I saw.

We need to support the kind of agriculture we want to see in our own communities. They need our support to stay in business. Visiting your local farmers market can help you track down responsible providers of animal products, as well as organic vegetables. While you're mulling over the mustard greens, ask around about local farmers who are raising animals, including dairy cows, humanely and sustainably. It's not that hard to find them. In North Carolina, you can contact Carolina Farm Stewardship Association for their listing of small-scale farmers, or the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. In Georgia, contact Georgia Organics. I imagine just about every state has such an organization now.

I'm a vegetarian, but I recognize that most people are going to continue eating animal products for the foreseeable future. Given that, I want my community to support the farmers who are trying to do it right. Responsible, humane, and ecofriendly providers - that's what my community deserves.

Keywords:: Grateful Growers Farm Natalie Veres Cassie Parsons poultry Tyson chickens broilers layers North Carolina Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

1 comment:

Alison Kerr said...

I like my food to come from this kind of farm :-)