Miscellany: “No Time to Say Hello, Goodbye”

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Every so often I take a picture that is technically atrocious, but I love. And then I am appalled with myself. That’s the story behind this one from a short road trip I had to take yesterday. As soon as I saw it there were a list of things wrong with it in my head, but I also immediately knew I’d use it. Usually, the thing with those unsound pictures is that while they may not capture the imagery very well, they capture the mood full stop.

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Still no lambs. Last night I even did a midnight check because Louisa had been nesting and restless, her flanks have been sunken for a week and her udder looks like an over-inflated water balloon. But no luck. I didn’t originally have her on the calendar as due until the end of this week, but then the shearer convinced me they might be ready a bit earlier. Now I’m getting impatient.

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Remember last week when I said all the tomato seeds had been planted and most were up? I lied. I had the bright idea to go through my stash of seeds and unload… eh hem, GIFT… a bunch to my Mother-in-Law, who loves to garden and is better at it than I am anyway. I did manage to get rid of a whole bag full of seed packets, but I also found a few other varieties of tomatoes I just had to plant. Every time I think I have escaped the grip of the tomato-addicted gardener’s disease it reels me back in.

On the bright side, I ran across a pack of regular San Marzano seeds and decided it would be a grand idea to plant a bunch to compare side-by-side with my beloved San Marzano Redortas. So we all have those notes to look forward to mid to late-summer.

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The season is both literally and figuratively heating up now. Seventy degrees by the end of this week. My to-do list seems to grow with every passing minute. This is the time of year I love, but also find it curious that when I am most on top of things I feel most scattered. Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “No time to say ‘Hello,’ Goodbye! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

Going too many directions at once, I suppose. Which is also not unlike the white rabbit. No matter, I’ll be back later this week with a couple more posts. One on speaking the language of pigs by request, plus a some more garden thoughts on what’s worth planting and how much.

A Few Favorite Things: April 8

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Read: The books I’ve been reading this week don’t really fit with what I usually post here so this week’s book recommendation is an oldie, but goodie I pulled off my shelves. Tracie McMillan put more personally on the line to write The American Way of Eating than any of the big name food and agriculture writers, but didn’t get nearly as much attention. She went undercover for a year working at all stages of the food system — alongside migrant vegetable workers in California, while working at a Wal-Mart produce section, and from the kitchen of an Applebee’s restaurant — and living off the wages she earned doing those jobs. The result is this book. It’s well-written and reported, and probably didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved for that latter reason alone.

Watch: I can’t believe I didn’t watch Salma Hayek in Frida sooner. It doesn’t even need a blurb here. It’s Frida and Salma as Frida and it was a huge success back when it was released in 2002. If you haven’t seen it yet, do. (I linked to iTunes for those who want to rent it online, but it’s also on Netflix.)

Eat: We usually eat Manhattan Clam Chowder several times throughout the winter. It’s one of our favorites. Somehow it kept getting pushed down the menu plan this year though so I’m making it this week before it’s too hot for bowls of soul-warming, hearty soup.

Listen: I listen to country music often, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of many artists. Eric Church is one exception to that rule. I respect him for doing the opposite of what most singers do. Usually, they start off with their own style and artistic vision and then, when the industry gets a hold of them, they lose it to the demands of mass-production radio hits. Eric, on the other hand, seems to only get more creative and personal with his music as time goes on… and still manages to pull off chart toppers. There is something to be said for artists who can produce entire albums full of good songs, rather than albums with a couple of decent tracks and the rest full of songs no one will ever listen to more than once or twice on purpose. Eric is one of those artists for me. This one is from his newest album.

Miscellany: Lamb Watch, Garden Progress

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“Your favorite ewe is restless,” I texted my Mom earlier this week, “Maybe lambies soon!” She has been asking when there would be lambs to visit for weeks now. She’s also a fan of baby pigs and has been nudging me about why I no longer have geese for at least two years. She seems to fancy us her personal petting zoo. The first time she saw Louisa (not pictured, that’s Penelope at the top) she marveled, “Ohhh, that one is so pretty!”

Now, I think Louisa looks like an unremarkable old Amish man. And frankly, her nose is kind of crooked. But my Mother loves her, so I’m glad we’re expecting her to lamb first this year. My Mom will, no doubt, trot right over here at the first sign of lambs on the ground and she’ll get to see some out of her favorite ewe when she does.

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We’re now taking bets as to whether or not Penelope (pictured) is in lamb. She’s got a nice bit of belly on her in this picture, but I’m not convinced it isn’t just a big meal. She doesn’t appear quite so rotund in person. She’s going to keep us guessing right to the end, I suppose.

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On the garden front, all of the tomato seeds have been started, and most are up and growing.

Last year I got a bit overzealous with herb garden clean-up and hacked away at most of my plants. I’ve been meaning to move the herbs to the main garden for a couple years now anyway, so this is as good an excuse as any to start over. I found more herb seeds that I remembered having when I went through my seed stash looking for the Riesentraube seeds last week, so I’ll start a bunch of those too — chives, garlic chives, basil, lemon basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano… the list goes on.

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We traded a young boar for about eight tons of stemmy hay last week. It’s of no nutritional value, but will be fine for bedding for the animals and mulch for the garden. I’ve had a post in draft about no-till gardening — which we started experimenting with years ago, but committed to in earnest last year — and will probably get around to publishing it once we plant and mulch for this year so I can share pictures of the process. I am a fan of the rural economy of barters.

The farmer we traded with is one we do business with often. He’s a [I’m not sure how many, but many] generation family farmer about my age who has been working with his Dad and Uncle and Grandpa on their farms since birth and has been working now on building his own legacy for his kids. Sometimes I wonder who will be tying into this local economy when we’re old. His kids? Ours? Someone else’s? Will there be new farmers just starting? I can’t think of any other than us who are new now, so it seems unlikely that there would be new ones then, but only time will tell. I suppose that’s why agriculture manages to keep me interested; it’s never static.

On First Storms

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As I was writing yesterday’s post about folk wisdom and the fine art of applying science to real life I was reminded of something The Man has said every year since I met him, and this picture I took last week after the first real thunderstorm of the season. I have never heard anyone else say it and while I could speculate as to what scientific principles may be behind it, I’ve never seen any sort of evidence that could be reasonably correlated to it. Still, he has always maintained that the first thunderstorm of the season “shocks” the ground.

I have never been clear whether he means an actual shock, as in by lightening. Or a more figurative shock, as in the way one particular boom of thunder while I was loading groceries into the truck last week made me jump. And I’m not sure it matters.

In any case, the outcome has been implied a million ways. “Looks like we’ll have our first thunderstorm tomorrow, that ought’a pull the last of the frost out,” or “We need a good thunderstorm to get the water moving out of the fields,” or “A thunderstorm’ll wake the earthworms up.” It seems counterintuitive. If there’s too much water standing in the fields the last thing you might think we need is for more of it pour out of the sky by the bucketful. But I also have to admit there’s something to it. And maybe that something is just coincidence, but around here the first thunderstorm of the season almost always seems to directly precede a rapid acceleration of spring into summer; the ground opens up and swallows up the standing water, the grass grows by leaps and bounds, the leaves appear on the trees in short order. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.

On Soil Temperature and Seed Germination

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The last time the soil was as warm as it is right now, this early in the season, was 2012. That year we didn’t have a proper winter at all, and I had been harvesting lettuce from the garden until well into the middle of January. Last year at this time the ground was still frozen. This year the frost laws have already come and gone, and the soil temperature is climbing — both at two and four inch depths — into the low fifties. Today, as if by clockwork (it’s wet and the weather is nasty to boot) the county came by and graded our road into a soft, red-dirt mess.

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A couple of years ago while talking to Maasai elders they assured me and the other journalists I was traveling with that they no longer used their traditional Maasai calendar, but had instead transitioned entirely to a western method of time and season-keeping. Later, the woman who ran the NGO nearby said that she was almost certain they do still use the Maasai calendar, but that they also always deny it in the presence of westerners. Western methods are viewed as more legitimate, more scientific. The modern western world doesn’t suffer famine and the traditional African tribal men do not want to be seen as lesser; as being at fault for the hunger and poverty that wracks their communities. So they tell people they have abandoned the folk wisdom passed down through their generations full stop for a “proper” calendar with twelve months, three hundred and sixty-five days, four seasons.

By the time the woman at the NGO had confided in us we were a couple beers and a whole-roasted-goat-over-an-open-fire away from the days meetings. The elders were asleep in their bomas; a short hike over a dusty hill slung low out into the black sky west of Kilimanjaro. There was no going back.

To this day I wish that hadn’t been so; that I’d had the opportunity to tell them about our folk wisdom. About how the western calendar that adorns my wall tracks the phases of the moon, as well as the days of the month. About the racks of Farmer’s Almanacs in every Tractor Supply Company in the country. Maybe even the common saying in my neck of the woods that you shouldn’t plant until the leaves on the oak are as big as a squirrel’s ear, if only I thought I could figure out how to translate “oak” and “squirrel”. Not to make the point that scientific methods of production shouldn’t be embraced — this is a post about soil temperature and seed germination, after all — but that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive; that often the old folk wisdom has a little science behind it, too. The leaves on the oaks around here tend to be about the size of a squirrels ear just about the same time the soil temperature is just right for planting our major summer crops — corn and soybeans. The old farmers might not have known that connection, or maybe they did, but also understood that, “don’t plant until the soil is fifty or sixty or seventy degrees (depending on the crop)” wasn’t as memorable.

A lot can happen to a seed in the ground. Left too long and too wet it can rot and decompose. Left too long and too dry it can shrivel and die. Left too long under almost any circumstances and it can become dinner for the local pest population from varmints to birds to insects. I once lost three plantings of green beans to a very hungry family of shrews, before I turned the dogs loose in the garden and the Schnauzer brought me their heads (and bodies, she’s not a total barbarian.) The sooner after being planted a seed germinates the less risk there is of the crop failing before it even begins.

Most seeds need two things to germinate well: moisture and warmth; water and heat, the two fundamental elements of life as we know it. For seeds started indoors or in greenhouses both are easy enough to come by, but outdoors is a little trickier. You can go by the size of the leaves on the oak, or you can use a soil thermometer. A little of both probably never hurt. Many universities — especially in agricultural states — also have weather stations scattered throughout the country with the data they record daily available online. I usually watch the data from a local weather station online (which is what I have charted above) until it consistently records a reasonable planting temperature. Then I use a combination of a soil thermometer, my own judgement and folk wisdom about the weather we’re seeing, the forecasts of a couple local meteorologists whose work has proven most accurate over the years, plus a glance at my own schedule to see when I will have time to plant. I guess you could say while some regard an approach to planting as an absolute science, I consider it more the art of applying science to real life.

Either way, this chart of optimum soil temperatures for germination, by crop, is (one of) my bible(s). The shortest length of time from planting to germination can be expected when planting into soil at the optimum temperature, and deviations from that temperature in either direction will delay seedling emergence until, at some point on the continuum the seeds won’t germinate at all — those are your maximums and minimums. Whatever your approach to planting I hope it helps you, too.

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A Few Favorite Things: April 1

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Read: I’ve been in a philosophic mood lately. Last week I pulled a copy of Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on The Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels of my book shelf and tucked it in my bag to carry along and read in those in-between moments. It’s edited by my good friend Cathleen Falsani and her friend Jennifer Grant, and contains essays by other friends — Karen Walrond, Alice Currah so I may be biased, but it has been a lovely addition to my day. The essays don’t need to be read chronologically and they vary in length, so it’s perfect for jumping around and fitting a little reflective reading in when you only a few minutes of down time here and there.

Watch: I can honestly say I had no idea how competitive the world of wine could be. And though it absolutely makes sense, and had you asked me about it before watching this documentary I would have accurately predicted the gender ratio of Master Sommeliers, I can’t say that I ever really gave the fact that it would be a glorified boys’ club much thought. The gender gap isn’t what Somm is about — it’s about the grueling studying process of becoming a Master and follows four men as they work towards that goal — but you can’t watch it without noticing the lack of women. Also, I would be lying if I didn’t admit the competitive side of me wanted to run out and start learning about wine immediately after watching this. It takes a topic you might otherwise expect to be boring and makes it engaging. I’ve linked to the iTunes page here, but it’s also available on Netflix if you have a subscription there.

BONUS WATCH: A packed Irish Pub paying tribute to their friend who died of Cystic Fibrosis by singing Mr. Brightside. At least one middle-aged Irishman removes his shirt and trust-falls off the bar.

Eat: We have been stuck in a nothing-sounds-great dinner loop lately. “What do you want for dinner? / I don’t know, what do you want for dinner? / I don’t know, what do you want for dinner?” Has become the nightly song of our people. Eventually, we give up and eat whatever is easiest. I think it’s the time of year. We’re ready for fresh spring and summer food, but fresh spring and summer food isn’t available yet. We’re tired of hearty winter fare, yet on the cold and rainy days it’s what’s most appropriate. The New York Times’ version of Mississippi Roast is bridging the gap. Paired with coleslaw, rather than the roasted or mashed root vegetables we’d choose if it were January. A hunk of sourdough and tall iced tea on the side doesn’t hurt either.

Listen: Billy Strings is a Michigan Bluegrass artist who has been a marvel from a young age. I was not a Bluegrass fan, but he converted me. More specifically, his Bluegrass rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man converted me. This one below isn’t too shabby either. Billy travels all over the U.S. and you can often catch him in small, local venues like craft breweries. You can check out his schedule and a full, free playlist recorded from one of his live sets on his site.

On Silence and The Whirr of Life

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Last night, as I was plugging links and pictures into this week’s newsletter* before bed the power went out for the third time in as many months and I thought, “so this is how 2016 is going to be.”

To be fair, three times in as many months when they are the stormiest months of the year isn’t so bad out here and none of those have been long drawn out affairs. I remember plenty of times in the past decade when we have had it worse; when the power has been out for days at a time. We spent a week a few winters back with a tractor generator purring outside our bedroom window. It was frigid that year and snowy and blustery and we had a few outages if I remember correctly. The years run together a bit after a while, but I think that was also the winter when the snow in the paddock behind the horse barn was waist deep by Christmas and somehow the unheated barn felt warm compared to the double-digit negatives outside while one of my best friends and I would stand around in our carhartt overalls having a beer and a chat every night after work, oblivious to the risk of frostbite and the wolves of winter nipping at the old barn door.

At least in the winter you don’t have to worry about your food going bad; just tuck it in the barn freezer or a snowbank and wait for the power company to get the grid back up and running again. Last night it wasn’t frigid or snowy or blowy though so I double-checked the outage map on my phone to make sure we didn’t need to set up an alternative power source. When you raise your own meat and keep two freezers full of it, you become intimately aware of both the value and the cost and you take no chances.

It was moderate and rainy, but since there seemed to be little risk of an extended outage — the map showing just two outages in the whole state — it was kind of nice to sit in the silence and listen to the patter of raindrops against the windows and roof in the wake of the first thunderstorm of 2016.

No matter how often the power goes out I always forget how much white noise there is from the whirr of electrical appliances when it’s on. At first, the silence is always exactly as they say: deafening. But then, I have found, that if I let it, it becomes restorative in its simplicity and lack.

So I sat and listened and observed and composed passages for a book I’m working on in my head, and then on paper by candlelight. And when I noticed that the clock had long since clicked over from Wednesday night to Thursday morning, I met up with my pillow and a favorite handmade quilt, knowing I would wake to the whirr of life again a few hours later.

* Each weekly-ish newsletter includes exclusive content for subscribers. You can sign up in the sidebar at the top left of this page.

On Curation and “Fine Art” Farm Photography

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One time when my youngest was little (but big enough to clean up after herself) she refused to straighten up her room. After battling wits and wills with her to no avail for hours I finally laid out the old you-will-clean-it-up-by-this-specific-time-or-it-will-be-donated-or-tossed ultimatum. The deadline she was given came and went and after I had spent at least an hour bagging and boxing up all her things and hauling them out of her bedroom she met me in the hallway on my last load, “It’s okay, Mommy. I didn’t want those stuffs anyway.” She grinned innocently and I almost went stark-raving mad right then and there.

To this day, she is impossible to motivate. If she wants it, she will get it — whatever it is. She is not afraid of hard work, or taking risks, but she will do it on her time. No amount of money or bribery or punishment makes any difference. She is equally difficult and rewarding to parent. And though I guess you could say that about most kids, both her difficult and rewarding come in super-sized portions due in no small part to her very particular set of motivating factors. Most of which I still do not understand myself.

Another time, when I told her, “your room has to be clean by lunch,” she went on a hunger strike. “I’m not that hungry anyway,” she told me, meal after meal.

I tell you this, because over the years several regular readers have requested the option to buy prints of my photos. The reasons I have not made them available before are numerous, but probably mostly excuses which I realize are both unreasonable and boil down to “it hasn’t felt right.” The apple never falls far from the tree, is what I’m saying — even if it bounces a few times on landing. There is no denying that child is mine; I understand her, because my own set of motivators is often just as internal and ambiguously defined. But then, last week, as I walked by an empty wall in our hallway — ironically one right outside her bedroom door, as well as one I have been meaning to cover with a curated collection of photos — I had an idea that finally made print sales “feel right.”

I am a firm believer that, done right, curation takes time. Well-executed curation cannot be rushed, nor is there a substitute for it. It’s why some of the most amazing homes are so often the eclectic result of a lifetime of curation; a living testament to the owners over many years. It’s also the reason my photo wall hasn’t come to fruition yet. I keep trying to force myself to sit down and go through all my files and put together a cohesive, finished, whole-wall-worth of photos. That’s not curation; it’s torture.

So here’s what I’m going to do: approximately every quarter, I’m going to choose three photos for my wall. I’ll name and number them and make them available to you too. Each season will bring a new series of three photos curated for my own collection and yours too. And at the end of each quarter the chosen series will be retired. You can buy 8″x12″ prints of just your favorite photo(s), or you can buy all of them in either 4″x6″ or 8″x12″ size and follow along each quarter to create a full limited edition collection. The common thread running through them will be a theme of “rural life.” Barns, livestock, farm dogs, fields, gardens, homegrown food, fairs, equipment, Americana… they will be the best and my most favorite. Series one is available now on the newly created prints page. Enjoy!

Why Whole Foods’ Big Poultry Revolution is Chicken Shit

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One of the most frustrating things about being in agriculture is watching people who mean well, but who do not have enough knowledge and experience to be truly informed, make bad decisions on behalf of the industry and its consumers. But then, I guess you could say that’s the most frustrating thing about being alive. In almost any capacity there are people who have surface familiarity with a topic in decision making positions. Such is the dynamic of power — especially in the information age.

This month Whole Foods announced that it would be pressuring all of its suppliers to transition to slow-growing meat chickens. This morning a long-term customer of our farm emailed me a link to the NPR article on it for my take. In emailing her back I realized it’s probably something I should post about here. We sell chicken, after all, and our goal in growing those chickens — as well as our pork, beef, lamb and vegetables — is not so unlike Whole Food’s own: high quality and flavor. In fact, over the years we have produced chicken in almost every combination you can imagine, looking for the best way to deliver the results we and our customers (who are often Whole Foods shoppers themselves) want.

We’ve raised standard broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised slow-growing broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised dual-purpose cockerels, so-called “heritage birds”: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

Through it all we’ve kept track of expenses vs income, customer satisfaction, farmer satisfaction, labor per pound of meat produced, feed per pound of meat produced, and animal welfare (including rates of injury, death, and predation.) What I’m saying is: we know a thing or two about raising quality, flavorful chicken in alternative systems. And as I read the article this morning all I could do was shake my head. Once again decision makers are taking a simple problem and instead of applying the simplest and most effective solution, they’re making gross overcorrections without considering the consequences and selling it to consumers as revolution.

The problem, as defined by Whole Foods — and on which I would agree with them, by the way — is that standard broiler birds are prone to leg problems. They grow rapidly, which means their weight gain can outpace their legs’ ability to hold them up and propel them around. Which can create animal welfare problems if they cease to be able to get around on their own before being sent to market. But the key word in all of this is can. There is a big difference between correlation and causation, and even where cause is clear cut nothing exists in a bubble. What we have found on our farm is that rapid weight gain causes leg problems only when it’s allowed to co-exist with inactivity. In other words, rapid-gaining birds who use their legs as they gain don’t end up handicapped.

Yet somewhere along the way people decided that it was inhumane for chickens to walk more than a few feet to the food and water source despite the fact that it is quite natural for them to travel hundreds of yards per day otherwise. Inside the conventional agricultural industry this became standard practice due to high-density stocking rates and competition. Not having food and water every few feet means birds might fight and some might not get adequate access which would be a violation of humane animal stewardship on its own. But then, for inexplicable reasons, the same standard was applied to alternative systems as well. Here stock density doesn’t create competitive environments, but farmers still were warned to keep food and water within wing’s reach or else fancy themselves neglectful and abusive. So much so that third party humane certifications demand it.

Certainly, when chicks are quite young you want to make sure their needs are met and they don’t have to work too hard for it. Babies should be treated like babies. But as they grow this is an absurd standard that does more harm than good, and virtually creates the problem Whole Foods is now re-creating the wheel to “solve.” Rather than simply create guidelines for their farmers to move the food and water further from each other as the birds mature, forcing them to move around more in order to prevent leg problems as they grow, they’re demanding their suppliers abandon an entire breed* of chicken. Which might not be the end of the world, if that breed of chicken itself was not a linchpin solution to much bigger problems — environmental, human rights and animal welfare in nature.

  • Environmental Problems
    The standard cornish cross broiler’s rapid growth is not just an ability to pack on pounds. It is an ability to pack on pounds while eating less feed per pound of growth. In the farming community we call this Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR. And while it sounds wonkish and boring, it has enormous sustainability implications. In the U.S. the average FCR for cornish cross broilers is about 1.8. Which means it takes less than two pounds of feed per pound of gain. For the sake of simplicity and continuity I’ll stick with the numbers NPR used for examples in their article. This means that for a standard broiler to be grown to six pounds, it requires about 10.8 pounds of feed.

    While the 25% increase for slower-growing birds quoted in the NPR article doesn’t sound like much at first it means about 13.5 pounds of feed is needed for a slower-growing bird of the same size, or 2.7 additional pounds. And so you can see how it adds up quickly when we’re talking about the sheer number of birds Whole Foods suppliers raise. Let alone the entirety of the U.S. poultry industry. According to Whole Foods their demands will affect 277 million birds per year. Which means Whole Foods’ supplier farmers will use 747.9 million more pounds of feed per year to produce the same amount of meat for Whole Foods’ customers.

    And while “feed” may seem abstract for someone who doesn’t use it every day, it’s largely just corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals. With the corn and soybean meal being the bulk of it and the important part here. Rounding for simplicity of math (but not so much as to be inaccurate), the average broiler’s diet over the course of it’s lifetime is made up of about 60% corn and 25% soybean meal.

    So in the case of Whole Foods’ slow-growing broilers, that’s an additional 448.74 million pounds of corn and 186.975 million pounds of soybean meal per year. Using the most recent USDA yield trend data for corn and soybeans, this means Whole Food’s teensy-tiny 3% of the broiler industry alone will require more than 11.13 million bushels of grain, calling for more than 112,000 additional acres of crop land — 47,698 corn and more than 64,921 soybean. Which means Whole Foods’ feel-good poultry campaign either requires us to take more than 112,000 acres out of wildlife habitat and put it into cropland or all of that additional demand will fall on current cropland, causing a run up in grain — and by extension food — prices. Which brings me to…

  • The Human Rights Problems
    The World Food Programme estimates that 795 million people in the world today are hungry. In the developing world 12.9% of the population is chronically undernourished. In the U.S. alone 1 in 6 people face food insecurity. 20% of U.S. households with children reported food shortages in 2011. Meanwhile, the global population is increasing rapidly. Earth will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050, representing a 33% increase in population over just 35 years. Most of this growth will take place in developing and poor nations where food insecurity is directly related to extreme poverty.

    In a global economy it is impossible to insulate food choices in prosperous countries from affecting food insecurity in poor nations. Which means that moves like this one by Whole Foods will be a considerable contributor to food insecurity, hunger and starvation around the world in the years to come.

  • The Animal Welfare Problems
    And as much as I would love for all of this — the environmental and human rights issues — to be enough, I know we live in a world where the picture of a slain elephant garners more outrage than that of slain children in war zones so I will also add this: Whole Foods is not just demanding this change of feel-good, hobby farmers with plenty of space to spare. They’re also demanding that farmers who raise their birds in conventional barns follow suit. I don’t need to explain to you that smaller, lighter animals often are more active than their heavier counterparts. We describe lightweight boxers as “scrappy” for a reason. Putting lighter, scrappier birds in an enclosed barn together will not end well for the birds. We are going down the cage-free eggs path again, because we still haven’t learned our lesson. Chickens are not nice to one another in enclosed spaces, and the more active they are the more time and energy they will spend picking on one another. I don’t like battery cages any more than the next bleeding heart, but I don’t buy cage free eggs for a reason: those battery cages served the purpose of preventing hens from brutalizing one another in enclosed, densely stocked barns. Putting slow-growing broilers in those same barns will result in that same competition and fighting. It’s not more humane, it’s less.

The NPR reporter wants you to believe that the size and growth rate of broilers is responsible for the modern history of our increase in chicken consumption, and that by extension Whole Foods’ slow-growing chickens will force Americans to cut back. “A century ago,” writes NPR author Dan Charles, “your typical chicken was really kind of scrawny. It took about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. One result: Americans really didn’t eat much chicken.” But this, again, demonstrates a failure to distinguish between causation and correlation. And in this case even the correlation between broiler efficiency and chicken consumption is loose at best. People didn’t eat less chicken in the past because chickens didn’t grow quickly, they ate less chicken because they were poor and farms hadn’t yet industrialized. It simply wasn’t available and where it was, it was too expensive. History has been very consistent in this regard: as incomes rise, people eat more animal products. So long as we continue to prosper people will eat their meat. Prosperity is the reason for Whole Foods’ very existence, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

And in many cases this isn’t a bad thing. Researchers in Kenya found that the addition of milk and meat to the diet of impoverished school children improved development outcomes for everything from growth and weight gain to test scores to leadership behaviors during play. Can meat and milk be overconsumed? Sure. As can any and every other kind of food and drink. But in the big picture it’s a valuable source of nutrition and will continue to be, increasingly so, well into the future. I believe Whole Foods’ customers want to make good decisions, I believe they want their food dollars to act as a vote for good in the world and for better outcomes for the environment, their fellow humans and for the animals which act as a part of the system. It’s a sentiment I share with them, and a founding principle of my own farm. Which is why I know in this case, Whole Foods is not just failing its customers it’s perverting their trust for monetary gain. And that, my friends, is chicken shit.

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* Standard broilers are not technically a breed, they are hybrids or “cross-breds”. Think: Labradoodle. I’ve used the word “breed” here for lack of a more succinct and accessible descriptor.

** Since this post was written quickly between farm chores on Tuesday, an earlier version contained a couple of mistakes — one due to rounding, and one due to missing a step. Those have been fixed in the current version.