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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Factory vs. Family Farms & Enriched Colony Cages

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...


  1. We have different views on factory farms - I think it is a bad word and is used to scare people. But, a family farm that has grown into a corporation would not be a factory farm in my book. As long as the farm is treating the animals ethically and the family has the animals best interest in mind.

    When you have lots of chickens, there has to be a cage for the hen's safety. Last year my mom got another 10 hens (she had 5) they have a coop and have free range of the garden and a large pen. In one night 4 hens were killed. Then the next night 2 more were killed. They were locked up into their run and the killings stopped. I would much rather have alive chickens in a cage than "free range chickens" that are dead.

    I think we need both large and small scale farms and that both are just as important in our food system.

    Sarah from The House That Ag Built

  2. You have to watch how you introduce "new" chickens. It might take a little more time but you can usually find the bad chicken right away and remove them from the flock. My neighbor has chickens, 27 of them and by doing it this way she has never lost a chicken. The eggs are delicous. Ilene

  3. I don't think the issue is so much about wire around a chicken's habitat, or protecting it from predators at night, as it is about the egg industry's very deliberate efforts (mostly successful) to convince their customers that they produce eggs from hens who live as natural a life as possible. Do we need large scale egg producers? Yes and no. Polyface farm and other farms like them have several hundred hens each, ranging on pasture, moving frequently. That is not small scale production. More farms could do it, but they don't. If more people cooked from scratch instead of using products with powdered egg in them (cake and pancake mixes for example), industrial food wouldn't have to buy so many eggs either. I know that's an unrealistic statement, but really, change has to begin at home. Preaching to the choir, I know. Great pictures by the way.


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