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Into the Frying Pan

Virginia's egg business heats up. But is there a difference between factory and farm?


Organic eggs can sell for twice as much as regular eggs. Despite the extra cost, some consumers don’t mind — just as they don’t mind paying more for organic milk, yogurt, produce and packaged foods. Demand has helped the organic food industry to grow more than 20 percent every year since 1990, with sales expected to reach $30.7 billion by 2007.

But is an organic egg really any different from a regular egg? Are organic chickens happier than ordinary chickens? Do they indeed roam in pleasant, natural environments?

Yes and no. The answers depend on what you mean by natural — a semantic debate cloaked in secrecy and marked by word-splitting worthy of a president.

While the cow may jump freely on the Horizon Organic box, many of the chickens that produce those eggs are much less free to roam — though they eat organic, vegetarian feed. For truly free-range chickens and naturally raised eggs, you have to find small farms where the chickens do what they want — which may include picking parasites out of cow manure for food.

Every Horizon Organic egg sold east of the Mississippi comes from Glenwood Foods, a major producer of organic eggs about 50 miles west of Richmond. In all the Jetersville-based company is home to 400,000 chickens, 17,000 of which are classified as organic.

But when you pull into the parking lot, there is not a chicken to be seen or a cluck to be heard. To the left of the lot stands the egg-processing plant. To the right, five long windowless “chicken houses.” Except for the sound of an American flag snapping in the wind, all is silent.

Glenwood Foods also has the franchise for Egg-land’s Best Cage-Free eggs in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. Other brands they supply include Egg-land’s Best Organic, Safeway Select Organic, and white commodity eggs for Ukrop’s, Food Lion and Farm Fresh.

It takes a lot of eggs to satisfy all that demand. So many that the 324,000 produced every day by the Glenwood Foods on-site hens are not enough. Hence in addition to the 17,000 organic chickens in residence at its Jetersville headquarters the company has another 200,000 spread among contractors in Virginia and North Carolina.

What does organic mean? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards forbid the use of irradiation, sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms in organic food production. They require farmers to minimize soil erosion, rotate crops and control pests, weeds and diseases with biological management practices. If those practices don’t work, the farmers can choose from an approved list of synthetic substances. But the substances cannot make up more than 5 percent of anything carrying the USDA’s organic seal.

Meat and poultry certified as organic must be fed 100-percent certified organic feed without synthetic hormones or antibiotics and have “access to the outdoors.” All of this is monitored by private companies and some state departments of agriculture that are accredited by the USDA. Small producers that make less than $5,000 a year from an organic enterprise are exempt from inspections but must abide by the standards nonetheless.

Under the USDA definition, organic eggs must be laid by hens fed a diet of 100 percent certified organic feed without hormones and antibiotics. And while those hens are supposed to have access to the outdoors, “they may be temporarily confined. … for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production or to protect soil or water quality.”

At Glenwood Foods, that means the on-site organic flock hasn’t seen the light of day since last fall. “They have access,” explains general manager Scott Akom, “but we haven’t let them out all winter because of the weather. And now we’re keeping them in because of the avian flu.”

Although the company hens are variously described on cartons as “free-roaming” and “cage-free,” Glenwood Foods declined a request by Style — as it does for all outside visitors — to see them. This, Akom explains, is because of strict policy based on bio-security concerns.

Under USDA guidelines, the terms “free-range” and “free-roaming” mean this: “Producers, must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outdoors.” But no entity or certifying agent appears to enforce this rule. The National Organic Program’s outdoor access for livestock requirement, meanwhile, has been effectively negated by its “temporary confinement” clause. As a result, “free-range” and “free-roaming” have taken on a meaning not readily apparent to the average consumer.

“What they really mean is that the birds are uncaged,” says Michael Appleby, vice president for farm animals and sustainable agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States.

“They’re still inside, but instead of being confined in battery cages, they’re confined on the floor. Or they’re on platforms so they can use three dimensions. … It’s one of those situations where the exception seems to be stronger than the rule.”

As Akom puts it, “Free-roaming and cage-free mean the same thing. The chickens are free to go wherever they want. Inside the chicken house.”

From the egg industry’s perspective, inside is better. In arguing this point to the USDA before the agency adopted its organic standards in 2002, producers pointed out that chickens outside are exposed to the elements. An enforced requirement to allow them outside, therefore, would keep producers in colder regions out of the organic egg business.

Chicken health and welfare were other top concerns. In the industry’s view, inside chickens are healthier than outside chickens. Outside chickens might come into contact with migrating birds, rodents, predators or worse. They could catch avian flu or some other highly contagious and economically devastating malady. In the view of the egg industry, the possibility of such a calamity mandates indoor confinement.

Although the industry’s argument didn’t take officially, indoor confinement appears to remain the norm.

Before the advent of factory farms — big eggribusiness — the status of domestic chickens remained unchanged for centuries. People kept them in small household flocks, protected them in coops from nocturnal predators and valued them chiefly for their egg-laying abilities. Only on rare and special occasions did a chicken become anyone’s dinner.

But the luck of the chicken ran out in 1923, the year a Delaware housewife got the idea to raise large numbers of blue hens exclusively for meat. Celia Steele started with a flock of 500 broilers. By 1935, she’d founded an industry. Egg producers followed suit. Over the years, feeding, watering and egg collection became fully automated.

“The poultry industry is an astonishing example of the appliance of science and technology,” the Humane Society’s Appleby observes. “The cost of both eggs and chicken meat has come down remarkably over the past several years because of what is called efficiency in the industry.”

Today, 9 billion chickens are fodder for U.S. factory farms. About 8.7 billion of them are broilers, bred to grow so much so fast that many become crippled or die of heart disease before their time on the planet — roughly 45 days from hatching to slaughter — runs out.

The rest are battery chickens, so named because they spend their lives immobilized, six to eight to a cage, in tiers of battery cages stacked in long windowless sheds. Each lays 250 to 300 eggs a year. In 2002, in Virginia alone, the industry produced 265.5 million broilers and 734 million eggs.

At Glenwood Foods, most of the invisible chickens are Hy-Line hens, bred for egg output, “frugal appetite” and stamina. They are “grown” in the company’s pullet houses where male chicks, of no use to egg production, are culled out and killed after hatching.

Following an appointment with an electric de-beaker, the remaining females arrive in Jetersville at 16 weeks of age. At 18 weeks, they begin to lay. At 49 weeks, the lights go off and the food gets scarce, prompting a forced molt. Only the organic hens escape this fate because of their tendency to lay huge eggs post-molt. There is no market for huge eggs. Consumers are suspicious of them. They prefer just large.

The molt is followed by another year of laying. After that, the hens are spent. More pullets will replace them and the cycle will repeat itself.

Recently, because of the concerns of animal welfare proponents, Glenwood decided to implement gradual, voluntary improvements to the lives of its chickens. One change will increase each bird’s living space from 52 square inches (about half the size of a piece of copy paper) to 67 inches by 2008. A new warehouse, planned to be erected this summer, will contain only 91,000 birds, down from the current average of 100,000.

Through a window down the hall from his office, Akom can watch the conveyor belt one floor below bearing eggs from the chicken houses into the processing plant. First, they go into the egg washer. Then they go into the blower to be dried. After the blower comes the candler, a kind of metal rack lit from below that detects blood spots and dirty eggs. Eggs with blood spots are pulled for sale to pet-food plants. Dirty eggs are sent back through the washer.

From the candler the eggs move into the crack detector, a computerized machine that finds cracked eggs and “leakers” with an electronic listening device. Leakers go into the trash, but cracked eggs are sold to companies that process and sell pasteurized liquid and dried eggs. After the crack detector comes the scale, which separates the eggs according to size and deposits them into the grader. The grader assigns each egg to an appropriate packer. Once packed and stacked onto dollies, the egg cartons are wheeled into a refrigerated warehouse to await distribution.

In Akom’s opinion, animal rights activists don’t understand chickens. Also, he says, “They also don’t understand that it’s in our best interest to care for them. Some do die from respiratory and laying problems. But they’re removed daily.”

Quite possibly, the most fortunate flock of commercial chickens in Virginia lives in King William County. Carroll Curtis keeps 200 literally free-roaming chickens at Pampatike Farm, about 30 miles east of Richmond. They’re guarded by four Great Pyrenees dogs, three proprietary roosters, a Rottweiler puppy and a company of guinea hens (notorious for making a loud fuss at the slightest disturbance).

These chickens spend their days wandering around 117 acres of pasture and woodland, pecking the ground for worms and insects. They dust-bathe, roost, perch and cluck. They have small open houses for nest boxes and privacy. For entertainment, they have goats.

Pampatike’s chickens lay four to five dozen eggs a day, but produce less in the cold winter months, when the old ones stop laying altogether and the young ones lay only a few. Some of the hens are so old they no longer lay at all — Curtis regards them as retired. Barring an uncharacteristic lapse of luck, they will live for 10 to 15 years before they die of old age. The Jetersville chickens, in contrast, are considered “spent” after two years. They go to a processor where they are slaughtered for use as, say, soup ingredients.

Curtis, 55, has been farming here for 18 years. In addition to the chickens, she keeps 100 goats, miscellaneous sheep, assorted dogs, barn cats and two peacocks. There used to be five peacocks, but three decided they preferred living at a neighbor’s farm and moved.

A biologist and environmental consultant between farm chores, Curtis spent years working in Washington before moving to King William. She radiates health, competence and good sense, wears her brown hair in a ponytail and surveys her kingdom with satisfied blue eyes. “I always wanted a farm,” she says. “My grandparents had one. I’ve always had an affinity for this kind of lifestyle.”

Every day, Curtis wakes at 5 a.m., puts out hay and water for the goats, feeds and waters the chickens, milks the goats and then logs onto her computer for six hours of work. In the evenings, she feeds the baby goats, milks again and puts out more hay.

There is a definite difference, Curtis says, between the egg of an inside factory-farmed organic, or commercial hen, and the egg of an outside free-roaming, grass and insect-eating, Pampatike hen. The Pampatike yolks are a deeper orange and stand “prouder,” or taller than the yolks of the inside hens. Their whites are cloudier because they are generally fresher. And they taste better because of the grass and insects the hens eat.

“It’s a huge difference. In color and in taste,” says chef Paul Keevil of Millie’s Diner in Richmond. “When you cook them, they glow. They’re just iridescent in the pan. Each one is different because every chicken has eaten different things. And the taste is just night and day. That’s true for eggs and chicken. Free-range chickens are much more succulent. The meat is a different texture entirely.”

Keevil said he had some Horizon Organic eggs in his refrigerator. “They’re marginally better, but they’re nothing like the real thing.” Keevil said he didn’t know whether authentically free-range eggs are more flavorful because of the chickens’ freedom to roam or their varied diets.

“You can’t separate the two things,” Keevil said. “There’s a correlation with people. I mean, if you shut a person up and feed them only one thing, what kind of person are you going to get?”

This last point is a matter of some debate. Glenwood’s Akom thinks his eggs taste better because the chickens are supervised.

“People think chickens should be in their natural environment, but what they don’t understand is, a chicken will eat anything,” Akom says. “A chicken will eat bugs and worms. All that goes into the egg.” He shudders.

Wayne Bolton’s chickens eat bugs, too.

They don’t roam as freely as the Pampatike chickens, but they come close. They live on Bolton’s farm, about 30 miles west of Jetersville in Green Bay, in the shadow of their egg mobile. This egg mobile is a moveable shelter, 20 feet wide and 14 feet long. It stands in the middle of a 300-foot patch of gently rolling pasture surrounded by a portable, electric, “feather-light” fence. Every two days, Bolton hooks it up to a tractor, pulls it onto new pasture and re-installs the fence. His chickens, about 70 Rhode Island Reds, spread out enthusiastically onto their newly assigned patch of ground to peck and scratch.

“It’s economical, it’s cheap, it gives them a place to get out of the weather, a place to lay and a place to roost,” Bolton says. “We call this pastured poultry.”

Bolton’s chickens produce about six dozen eggs a day. In a system that would make Akom queasy, they follow in the wake of grass-fed cattle, spreading the cows’ manure and picking it clean of parasites. They also do some fertilizing of their own. In the end, the cows help the chickens by depositing parasites. The chickens help the cows by preventing the parasites from reinfecting them and rendering pesticide use unnecessary. Both species fertilize the pasture.

Bolton contends that his chickens are happy. “We have beef from contented cows and we have pork from contented hogs,” he says. He grew up on a farm. Now, at 69, he wants to produce the kind of food he remembers. Bolton has strong opinions about food. And animals. And God.

“Kids today don’t even know where food comes from,” he grouses. “They think it comes from the grocery store. And you can buy that food. You can. That’s your choice. But you should also be able to buy fresh, wholesome food brought up in the fresh air outside. You should have a choice. That’s what we’re offering. ”

The way Bolton sees things, “God designed animals to be outside. If he meant them to be inside, he would have given them the ability to do construction.”

In a related matter, God designed cows to eat grass. He did not design them to stand around in some corporate feedlot all day stuffing themselves with grain. “Have you ever seen a cow plant corn, wait around for it to grow, harvest it and then eat it?” Bolton asks pointedly. “No. You have not.”

Bolton is a disciple of Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer famous for his innovations, his books and his “food with integrity” philosophy. It was Salatin, often referred to as “Virginia poultry pioneer Joel Salatin,” who invented the egg mobile. In fact, Salatin invented the whole pastured poultry concept. He did this while growing up at Polyface, an organic farm in Swoope in Augusta County. He still farms there, raising grass-fed cattle, broilers, turkeys, pigs and rabbits.

Salatin started his first chickens at age 10. His first egg mobile had bicycle wheels. Not originally intended to facilitate egg production, it was “more of an herbivore biological sanitation mechanism,” he says. “The eggs were just a bonus byproduct.”

Used by itself, Salatin says, the egg mobile can result in chicken attrition caused by predation and poultry wanderlust. “So if your objective is simply high-quality egg production alone, we don’t recommend it.”

But he does endorse the feather-light fence model as employed by Bolton. He uses it himself for both layers and broilers, adding a plastic decoy owl to discourage hawks. This method, he explains, “marries the high-tech Western linear reductionist, compartmentalized discovery stuff with the indigenous heritage Eastern holistic wisdom approach” and serves “the chicken-ness of chickens.”

Salatin is the president and founding member of VICFA, the Virginia Independent Farmers and Consumers Association. Opposed to agribusiness and angry about government-enabled “erosion of food choice,” the group started three years ago with six people and now has 300 members. They meet once a month, publish a newsletter and maintain a Web site.

Salatin explains the organization’s viewpoint like this: “Every day when we choose what’s on our plate, we are creating the landscape that our grandchildren will inherit. That’s a responsibility upon each of us that we have to understand. I’m talking about the humane treatment of workers, how we treat animals, how we create a habitat that allows animals to express their physiological distinctiveness. All of that is the foundation for how we honor each other and our neighbors.

“When we take an irreverent attitude towards those who can’t speak for themselves, it’s an incredible abrogation of our responsibility to nurture and steward and husband creation on the part of humanity.”

Sandy Fisher has never heard of the farmers’ and consumers’ association, but he’s heard of Salatin. Brookview, Fisher’s 600-acre farm 11 miles west of Richmond, has six egg mobiles and two hay wagons converted to accommodate about 300 laying hens. Brookview’s egg mobiles are bottomless, portable pens constructed of wire and scrap metal. Each has a lidded shelf of nest-boxes accessible from the top.

Fisher, a Peace Corps veteran who spent nine years ranching in Columbia before settling here in 1980, hooks the pens up to his truck as necessary and slowly drags them to new forage. Cognizant of their impending windfall, the chickens run along inside. They, too, follow cattle in the service of pasture sanitation. Inside their egg mobiles, they lay about 140 dozen eggs a week.

Julie Weissend stood next to an egg mobile in the Fisher’s pasture on a recent Saturday and watched her husband and two children searching the nest boxes for eggs, She talked about chicken welfare, processed food, pesticides, the joy of eating fresh foods in season. Supermarkets, she says, undermine that joy by making all foods accessible at all times.

Weissend is Salatin’s dream consumer, wary of corporate and government control over the food supply and anxious to do what she can to support locally practiced sustainable agriculture.

“Everyone says you can’t make difference,” she says. “But if we all do it, if everyone makes it a priority, how can we not make a difference?” S

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