A chicken farmer’s grandaughter strikes out on her own
Papa maneuvers himself off the tractor, taking full advantage of the running board so he doesn’t risk throwing his hip replacement out of joint. No hand reaches up to help him down. At 80 years old, he produces roughly 2,880,000 pounds of chicken and 500,000 pounds of blueberries a year with about three employees, adding a few more in summer months. Neither his two children nor any of his four grandchildren live or work on the farm these days and he’s been trying to sell it for the past 10 years for far less than it’s worth.
Papa’s situation is not unusual. At this moment, the average age of the American farmer is 59 years old. There isn’t a Farm Bureau meeting anywhere that isn’t dominated by men with grey hair and tired eyes.
The industrialized nature of farming has made it much more efficient and today less than one percent of Americans are farmers, down from the nearly 30 percent in my great-grandfather's day. He farmed his entire life. My grandfather entered the family business only after retiring from jobs in the military and school system.
Papa built his first four chicken houses and got his first load of chickens in 1998 when I was four years old. A few days before the first shipment of chicks arrived we had a community dinner in one of the longhouses. The tractor-sized doors on either end opened to allow a cross breeze and the lanterns were lit between two long tables so we could see each another. Even back then the poultry business was shifting to the closed, suffocating buildings of today, leaving behind buildings with walls that had rolled up to let in the fresh air.
My grandparents had invited the poultry men in the area to come over, along with the other neighbors. They showed up with congratulations and covered dishes. In honor of the occasion, my grandmother embroidered a logo of sorts for our clothes. It was a little yellow biddy surrounded by a couple of blueberries and the words Mims Farm written in blue over the top. Papa wore his on one of his customary long-sleeved denim shirts.
That day was probably the most festive the farm has ever been. The whole place was buzzing with excitement but, looking back, I’m sure the adults in the family felt more than a little trepidation. Building a chicken house to standards set by meat companies, like Tyson and Foster Farms, can cost about a quarter million dollars today. It cost about half as much back then. Papa had a good business plan when he signed up to be a contract farmer but he soon discovered that few industrial chicken farmers ever manage to get out from under debt.
In those first few months everything seemed to go according to Papa’s plan and I remember how happy he was with his new job. Mama kept me out of preschool the first day he got chickens so I could watch. She took me over to the farm and Papa picked me up, “How’s Papa’s girl?” His tan skin was already sticky and wet from whatever he’d been running around doing and I wriggled to get free.
He set me down in the chicken house. “Paigey, now, your job is gonna be to name the biddies.”
I clapped my hands and started spouting off all the names I’d already come up with, ittybiddy, littlebiddy, bitbit. Papa chuckled and I ran to wave in the semi-truck that was pulling up with the chicks.
The workers kept an eye on me while they backed the truck up to the entrance of the chicken house. The tiny birds were held in trays the men unloaded. They worked quickly, dumping the birds from the trays with a flick of their wrists. The birds landed with an audible smack before each man turned to grab another tray. I watched this ritual many times over the years. Somehow it didn't occur to me until recently that they were being mighty rough with the little things.
The chickens peeped wildly and jumped around, flapping their tiny wings and stomping their feet to right themselves. Gande, my Papa’s first farm employee, knelt beside me and tapped the toe of his boot. Tap, tap, tap. I stared at his thick brown finger with its busted nail, unsure of what he was getting at. Gande smiled and motioned towards the door where a clump of biddies had stopped their helpless peeping and begun running, some tumbling head over feet, towards his tapping finger. They piled up around his boot and pecked at it.
His wife, Barbara, knelt on the other side of me and tapped on my tennis shoe. The biddies abandoned Gande’s boot and gathered around my feet. I giggled and picked one up, holding it close to me.
“They think you’re their mama,” Barbara said.
She convinced me to stand up and walk away. The mass of bobbing yellow fluff gave a sharp collective peep and followed me. I believe that was the moment I truly fell in love with the idea of taking care of animals.
this is not my farm
I have always been fascinated by farming. As a child I dreamed about the sort of agrarian lifestyle I read about in books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I took every chance to go to the Agrirama, a living history and agricultural museum in Tifton, Georgia. I remember envying the characters in movies who had a farmer grandad. Because despite the Mims Farms logo on our shirts, “farm” was never the word I associated with my own Papa's place, even as a child.
I don’t remember the exact point in time when I decided I didn’t want anything more to do with Papa’s chicken houses. It might have been somewhere around the time he finally gave in to my pleas for a chicken of my own, sort of. He pulled one out of the chicken house when it had started to exchange its fluffy down for adult feathers, and put it in a pen in the yard.
The meat bird that has been dominant in America since the 1960s is commonly called the Cornish Cross. Cornish Crosses have been bred for faster growth and larger breasts since they were first introduced in the 1930s. Raised in confinement and fed typical modern feed rations, they will grow to a slaughter size of around five pounds within five to six weeks. That’s 35 days. Because of this rapid growth, their bones don’t have time to properly develop and by harvest time they can barely walk. Many die from cardiac problems even before their slaughter date.
It didn’t take long for the bird Papa had set out for me to turn from a chicken into something extraordinarily grotesque. The last time I saw that bird her body was bulbous, pitched forward from the weight of its breast. Pink skin showed in featherless patches and the smell was the ever present, heavy, nitrogenous scent of hot chicken shit. I cried as my chicken waddled around, pecking at the food Papa had thrown out for it. Then he carried me back to his house.
I think Papa threw the bird in the incinerator. It would have been inhumane to keep her alive any longer. Even a Cornish Cross raised on pasture must be butchered fairly early or its insatiable appetite and freakish growth will begin causing health problems. And once they pass the seven week mark the meat becomes much tougher.
There's another memory from that period. I was helping my cousin Skyler wade through the clucking press of feathers to pick up dead bodies. We tossed them into five-gallon buckets to be emptied into the incinerator. The process of picking up the dead birds and properly disposing of them every day, through incineration, burial, composting or some other method, is crucial for factory operations to keep things clean and prevent the spread of disease.
Papa’s chicken houses rarely stunk but on that day, which was close to the time we'd take the chickens to slaughter, the scent of ammonia from the piled up manure made my eyes water and sting. After only five minutes inside I’d had enough, but I kept going because I didn’t want Skyler to think I was a wimp.
Then, after I’d stopped to let the weighty birds shift themselves out of my way, I saw Skyler’s heavy, plastic-covered boot come down on the neck of a live bird. I know it was an accident - I’d nearly stepped on several myself. But seeing the bird squeeze her eyes shut made me want to vomit. I lifted my bucket high and picked my way to the door as carefully as possible. I never stepped inside one of Papa's chicken houses again.
farming My way
Chickens kept in industrial houses are very unhealthy. The heavy dust and fecal particulates get inside their nasal passages, creating lesions in the soft tissue that are highly prone to infection. They’re given pharmaceutical-laced rations to promote their unnatural rate of growth and allow them to stay alive in these highly unsanitary conditions. When they go to be slaughtered and processed they’re run through a mechanized system that drenches their naked bodies in water tainted by intestinal fluids.
A pasture-raised operation like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia tells a very different story. When I visited the farm I saw Cornish Crosses, the same ones that Americans love to eat, kept in bottomless pens called chicken tractors. The pens are moved around to where grass-fed cattle have grazed, which gives chickens a chance to feed on grass, seeds, and bugs. After six weeks of life spent on grass, chickens are cleanly slaughtered by the same people who raised them. Many pasture-based operations also use heritage breeds, meat chickens that grow more slowly.
As someone trying to get into pasture-based farming, I can tell you the economics can be challenging. But my Papa, who struggled to meet his financial obligations, would tell you the same about the industrialized approach. These are vastly different operations with entirely different products. At least in the pasture-based system the farmer is given more autonomy and the money tends to stay local rather than being turned over to a huge meat company.
There are other clear advantages to pasture-farming. For the farmer, there’s no need to pick up dead chickens in a dusty, stinking barn. No need to find a way to properly dispose of the bodies and many tons of chicken manure. Pasture-raised chickens are healthier because they live a good life on grass with lots of fresh air and sunshine. The chickens serve a purpose not only on death but during their lives. While being moved around the fields they help fertilize the soil and manage crop pests by feeding on insects and weeds.
I just started my own pasture farm in Tennessee. I want to humanely raise an amazing, healthy product for myself and for my neighbors. Choosing this way of farming lets me start small, with one chicken tractor and maybe 25 birds, and build. There’s no need to sink ungodly sums of money into a business before I’ve even tested my abilities as a farmer. In fact, anyone with a backyard or access to even a very small piece of land can easily raise their own meat and eggs.
Even if you can't raise your own birds, or just don't want to, there is something you can do to take a stand against the industrialized way we raise chicken: Buy pastured birds from your local farmer instead of grabbing any old chicken out of the grocery meat case. Please.
Paige Smith grew up in South Georgia. After graduating from Georgia College and State University with a degree in creative writing, she moved to Waynesboro, Tennessee where she’s raising sheep and chickens for sale in the local area.