The Viva Vine: vol #6, no #3: May / June 1997

Hen farming:
Small and humongous

Internet Eavesdrop: Small operators talk shop

henIn January a man who calls himself Roger Dodger posted the following message at the above Internet bulletin-board address. This is where small livestock farmers really let their hair down and talk shop. Check it out... you'll find this site to be a real eye-opener. We found the following dialogue especially interesting.

Roger Dodger: Thinking about putting up a 125,000 bird laying house. Never been in the chicken business before. Any pros or cons?

Donna: Roger, we have three houses, 42' x 500', and they have been the biggest headache my husband and I have ever had. Think of being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight weeks at a time. Once you are out of chickens, think about crusting out the floors; washing down the feeders, drinkers, curtains and anterooms; cleaning buckets; and fixing medicators and broken equipment. Then, when this is all done, it is time to get ready for new chicks, spreading pine shavings, putting food in 260 feeder pans per house, getting the heat ready to turn on, getting the fans ready to go on-- and the list goes on and on.

Jake: Big chicken-house operation is about as close as you can get in the U.S.A. to indentured-servant status. Your income, not profit, is measured in fractions of a cent per chicken. Labor is intensive, seven days a week, and the conditions are for masochists who love burning their eyes and lungs out. Those are the good points. You also have to figure out what to do with many tons of manure. Be super-careful before you spend a penny.

Pete: Roger, stay as far away from poultry integrators as you can. They can really sell you a bill of goods. Only thing is, they're all lies.

Alison: I love my 50-layer flock, but they are all free range. That many more birds bring that many more problems. Be sure you are aware of all of them. Talk to farmers, not just company reps.

Pamela Rice (VivaVegie): How would you like it if you were crammed into a tiny cage and some cruel monster came and took your eggs?

CB to Pamela Rice: How about in the old days when the chickens weren't in cages (free range) and the "cruel monster" had to physically remove the chicken off the nest to get the eggs? And then the son-of-a-gun would bite me. Ouch!

Art: OK, I guess you got the message in a nutshell. Why do you think they call them fowl?

Money Squawks: One company, 15 million hens

Sure, we understand the smells that go with agriculture, but this is unbearable

Middle-class livestock farmers like those expressing their views on the Internet bulletin board above pretty much hate industrialized agriculture. Their operations cannot compete in an economy that allows large producers to pawn off hidden costs--such as pollution from manure runoff--to the general public.

For family farmers who grow grain, however, the perspective can be the opposite. Move to our town, industrial conglomerates, and buy our feed, they say.

Move they did, to LaRue, Ohio, where conveyer belts now running through a facility the size of eight football fields gather up eggs. And this is the smaller of two facilities in the region run by AgriGeneral Farms--it holds only 2.5 million hens. AgriGeneral's other plant, just an hour away, houses 6.5 million birds.

AgriGeneral moved to the area because there were plenty of grain farmers to feed its chickens and few livestock farmers to compete for the bounty.

Things are going so well for AgriGeneral's owners that plans are being made to open yet a third plant in the area; it will hold an additional 6 million birds, bringing the total to 15 million.

How does this happen? It helps that AgriGeneral contributes $46.5 million to the local economy, of which $23 million goes to the local grain farmers.

And even though some local citizens' groups are trying to fight AgriGeneral--mostly with complaints about odor and environmental damage--the money flowing to local farmers is making it hard for the complaints to stick. When a local protester explains, "Sure, we understand the smells that go with agriculture, but this is unbearable," her concerns are most likely going to fall on deaf ears. Money is talkin' pretty loud at this point.

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