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.