Factory farms vs. Family farms. You hear those terms a lot in production agriculture. There are marches on Washington to "Save The Family Farm". Nobody wants to be a factory farm. Many in the industrial agriculture complex label themselves as family farms, but they are indeed, factory farms. Our state touts itself as having only family farms because we have an anti-corporate farming law. Which means that corporations can't own farms, but families can have factory farms.
A customer of ours recently told me about the conversation she had with her mother. Our customer shared that she was buying eggs from a local farm. Her mother said, "Oh, I'm buy eggs from a farm too!" And went and showed her the carton from her fridge. It said:
Sparboe Farms - Family Owned since 1954
This woman was convinced that because it said "family" and "farm" that it was just a small farm down the road. And marketing directors sigh in satisfaction because another customer has fallen for their ruse.
On our trip to fetch our heifer, Hubby and I drove past a Sparboe Farms facility. I use the word facility because it most certainly was not a farm. There was a large warehouse-type building with semi-trucks backed up to loading docks. And there were 11 egg laying facilities. Completely enclosed, no natural light, no fresh air, cages stacked upon one another, 6-9 hens per cage factory confinement houses. The only way you knew they were laying barns and not just storage buildings was the small grain bins on the side of each one. Without those grain bins, it could have been a FedEx shipping facility...that's how much it looked like a "farm".
"But that's not what I see on their commercials on TV!" No, it sure isn't. Because if you saw what it actually looked like, you would never eat their eggs.
You may have heard the big shake-up in the egg industry is the agreement between UEP (United Egg Producers) and HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) to mandate the removal of colony cages from their egg laying facilities and replacing them with enriched colony cages. The industry touts this as a huge step for the humane treatment of laying hens. I don't care what name you put on it, a cage is a cage is a cage.
Here are the problems with enriched colony cages:
1. They are not requiring them to have next boxes. Hens love to make a nest! They will fuss and preen and arrange the hay until everything is just so. And then she lays her egg. It's completely and totally instinctual and amazing to watch. Even if they have a nest box, it will have an astro-turf-like pad in it. Not real hay or straw.
2. Even in the enriched colony cages, hens do not have enough room to fully extend their wings both horizontally and vertically. Lots of room here for stretching and running and pecking and sunbathing. Did you know chickens sunbathe? They do and it's really funny to watch.
3. Hens also love to dust bathe. It's very important in their preening ritual, both mentally and physiologically. Even enriched cages do not require a dust bath for the hens.
4. Neither standard cages nor enriched colony cages require a roost or perch for the hens. Some of our hens roost on top of the shelter and some prefer to snuggle together under the shelter. At sundown, all the hens find their sleeping spot for the night.
As farmers trying to raise animals in the most natural way possible, I was excited to hear the first word of improvements to factory egg production. But then I heard the details and (to quote my dad) "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear!" You can't put a chicken in a cage and call it a good cage. It's still a cage.
You can produce eggs on a large scale that is chicken-honoring and land-healing. But when the industry is locked into the production model that says cages must be used, then that's all they can see.
My definition of factory farms and family farms goes a little deeper than the graphic on the carton...