Farmer wants subsidy for keeping his pricey chickens outdoors

Farmer wants subsidy for keeping his pricey chickens outdoors

In the article National Burden in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Williams writes of Georgia farmer Will Harris’s experience with bald eagles attacking his chickens. It is against the law (with severe penalties) to kill a bald eagle, and you even need a permit to scare one away with a noise maker.

Soon after Harris began raising meat chickens he began to see bald eagles roosting in nearby trees, looking for a tasty luncheon. And sure enough, as they became braver, they did attack his chickens, the article claims “thousands of his chickens.” This could be true, because the scale of Harris’s White Oak Pastures farm generates millions of dollars of revenue, according to the article.

Now it turns out that there is a USDA program, the Livestock Indemnity Program that essentially reimburses farmers for animals killed by predators. The rate of reimbursement depends on the animal and the region, and they subtract a percentage for normal livestock deaths. In Georgia, the normal chicken death rate is 4%, assuming the chickens are housed in barns. But in Harris’s case, they estimated that since the chickens were pastured outdoors, the normal death rate would be 40%. Much of the article deals with Harris’s attempts to negotiate a more reasonable death rate. They finally settled on 18%.

Well, one might ask, if the eagles are chomping on the poultry in such numbers, why in the world aren’t they using barns to raise the chickens in? (Incidentally, all meat chickens are raised “cage free.”) The disappointing answer in the article is that would

“snip the last strings connecting them to nature.”

Of course, chickens have been raised outdoors for centuries, but according to Hillmire, large scale pasturing of chickens is a “new management practice,” and “pastured poultry growers face steep price competition with the conventional industry and must rely on niche marketing.”  She also notes that

The top issue for pastured poultry growers was carnivore predation of birds, with 44% of growers commenting on this in a question regarding challenges

The end result, of course, is that these chickens are much more expensive.  A package of 2.5 lbs of bone-in pastured chicken breasts runs $18.13, and a whole medium chicken $15.49 and a whole large chicken $20.99. Oh, and shipping is $39.95. They are also available, of course, at Whole Foods, always willing provide overpriced products.

And how do they taste? Well, they “recommend cooking in a manner consistent with classical and rustic cooking techniques, such as slow roasting or braising.” In other words, they may otherwise be tough.

Harris’ chickens are pastured, organic, cage-free, hormone-free, non-GMO and fully buzz-word compliant. If you doubt this, you can admire the beautifully written PR claims on their web site. They make no health or nutrition claims, however. And hormones are never given to chickens anyway: it is illegal.

What this boils down to is that Harris is asking the USDA (taxpayers) to subsidize his risky outdoor pasturing of chickens, for which he then charges premium prices, because people believe (without evidence) that they are somehow better.  In fact, as Simmons explains pasturing uses far more land, and is more harmful to chickens, with death rates estimated at 13%.

This is simply the organic myth writ large. Organic isn’t better, just more expensive.

 

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One thought on “Farmer wants subsidy for keeping his pricey chickens outdoors

  1. When I read this, I have to admit that I despaired for our republic. I did so because it was yet another instance where an American sought to score points off of another American without bothering to engage in any kind of deeper analysis of the issues. This was yet another instance where ideology trumped nuance, and the spirit of intellectual query was ironed over in the pursuit of an agenda.

    Of course, a more interesting analysis might have engaged with the possibility (the shock! the horror!) that the person appealing for aid might have been on to something. If we bother to look at the entomology of the term, “analysis” (from the Greek, to “unloose”) we see it is intended to open up, rather than preclude, discussion. If we are interested in genuine analysis, we might ask, “is there something here that I was unprepared to see?” The inquiry might then follow, “is it possible that this rent seeker was after something that I did not anticipate, given my ideological commitments?”

    One might wonder, for example, whether the farmer actually had a defense of his/her practices. The farmer might have commented on the fact that his chickens acquired a unique taste from scratching outside of the barn (product differentiation), or that they became leaner (product differentiation) or that the chickens preyed upon livestock manure parasites, like files (collateral utility). The farmer’s defense of their ask is interesting, and yet we don’t get to hear it. Why is that?

    Like

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