Pleasures and Perils of Poultry

The population of Chert Hollow Farm just went up by 28, as our first chicks arrived early this morning. We intend these to form the base of our egg flock, and they should start producing some time in late summer. These chicks are unsexed, so we will learn over time what ratio of roosters/hens we have. The former will be raised as meat birds, and the latter maintained as layers.

These chicks came from SandHill Preservation Center, a wonderful small farm in Iowa that specializes in maintaining rare heritage breeds of fowl. These birds may not gain weight quite as fast or lay quite as many eggs as a commercial hybrid, but they’re real chickens, the kind any real farmer around the world would recognize. They will be an integral part of our farm’s landscape, eating insects and excess produce while fertilizing the ground and supplying us with eggs and meat. Visit SandHill’s site to learn more about the value of heritage breeds.

Unfortunately, starting these chicks also exposes us to a danger facing many small farmers: the Federal Government. For years the USDA has been pushing for something called the National Animal Identification System, which is fine in concept and truly frightening in practice. In short, the government wants to require that every animal (livestock or fowl) in the country be fitted with a Radio Frequency ID tag, and that any change in that animal’s status be reported to the USDA within 24 hours (death, slaughter, movement to a different location, exposure to other animals, etc.). This is intended as a food safety measure to allow the USDA to track back disease outbreaks and contain them. That is a noble goal, but in practice it will be devastating for small farmers and independent animal owners, who have neither the time nor the money to put up with such an intrusive and bureaucratic system. It is a one-size-fits-all system, meaning a backyard flock is treated the same as a 10,000 bird Tyson feedlot, despite the fact that the latter can far more easily afford the time and expense of such tags and tracking requirements than a small independent farmer.

It’s an unfortunate situation. There are real food safety and disease concerns out there, such as bird flu, that require some form of attention. Also, small farmers and backyard raisers can certainly follow poor practices that might increase the chances of a disease outbreak or other problem in the food supply. But the reality of this approach to the problem is really dangerous; do we want to encourage a safer food supply by driving small farms out of business, and by making it prohibitive for individuals to keep their own animals? In my opinion, most of the dangers from disease and food safety come from the large industrial operations, and we should be focusing our regulatory efforts there rather than persecuting small farmers who sell their goods locally and are not part of the national/international industrial food system that makes disease outbreaks so frightening.

I strongly encourage you to read more about the NAIS; it may be the single largest threat to the small farm/slow food/local food movement yet. This really could drive many farms out of business, or prevent many more from attempting to raise animals. We’re taking our chances, hoping that sanity will prevail and enough farmers and consumers will revolt against this well-meaning but effectively horrible system.
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