Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Down on the Chicken Farm

Back in the summer, I had the chance to visit  two different egg farms. The first one was a free range/run farm out here in Chilliwack, and then second a caged farm near Aldergrove.

I wasn't sure what to expect at the caged farm. You hear all kinds of things about how food is produced and animals are treated, and I find it hard to make my own decision about things unless I go and see it for myself. So one sunny day in August, off I went to see Jon at Paragon Farms and to walk through his barns full of chickens.

chicken barn

A commercial farm doesn't look like a farm that you're used to-the barns aren't those cutely painted red buildings but instead are built to do a job-and like the other barns I toured, they are also completely automated. From food to water, warm temperatures and more, the chickens want for nothing.

When we first arrived, we walked into a large room where the eggs actually are processed. A conveyer belt brought out all kinds of eggs, and they were packed into flats by a machine. It was very much like watching "How It's Made" seeing all the eggs motoring towards us down the belt, ready to be processed. When they are laid, the eggs roll down onto a little belt in front of the chickens and are gently carried away by machines to end up here, out in the packing room.

conveyer belt eggs

Want to see the machine in action? It was pretty cool.

Hundreds of thousands of eggs are produced on this farm, and we could see scores of flats waiting to be picked up over in the cooler by the grader, ready to be packed into cartons and make their way to store shelves for us us to pick up and eat for breakfast. Okay, so I could see the eggs, what about the chickens?

layer farm

Rows and rows of clucking chickens greeted us, curiously peering out the cages and their eggs sitting on the belts in front of them, waiting to be taken away and packaged.

Caged farms are the norm in BC, and how most of our eggs are produced. At this farm, the chickens were housed about seven to a cage. They were nervous to see us (mostly they didn't like my camera flash) and preferred to just be left alone. Even though the barns are automated, the farmers are always walking through their chickens, making sure that everything is okay and that production is good. The chickens like to be in the dark and lay their eggs somewhere fairly private, so the barns are quiet and dark for them. They cluster together in their cages, where there's plenty of food and water at the ready for them. At first glance, you almost want to say, "But these are animals, who need fresh air and space and ...don't they?" Well, yes and no. I mean if you were providing food just for your family, that's different. It's hard to think of how to provide food for millions of Canadians and be able to do it safely and efficiently. In a farm like this, the chickens are not interacting with each other as much so none are pecking others to death, and there's less spread of disease. There also IS fresh air, but the chickens are kept at an optimal temperature in total comfort so they can do what they do best-lay eggs.

The chickens seemed fine but I still wondered, because there didn't appear to be a lot of room. While there are standards that farmer's have to follow regarding how much room per chicken, it looked cramped to me; however, I'm not a chicken. Remember how at the other farm, they all flocked together to feel safe? They do much the same here and seemed completely content to be cozy in a cage. Plus, again chickens don't have feelings. You tell if they are 'happy' by their egg production, and in this farm, it was at 98%. Also, I have to tell you that it's hard to really get a sense of how big these cages are from a photo. The chickens actually have more room that it appears, which I noticed when I got much closer.

Eventually, cages are going to change. Farmers will be required to have ones that are bigger and allow the chickens more places to move, dust bath, etc but that's not coming for awhile. Since barns cost so much to build, farmers also won't be required to just change all their barns over, but instead if they build anything new they will then be required to have the new dynamic caging systems, which makes sense.

As I read online, there's a lot of controversy about the use of battery cages, but I can say from actually being at a farm, it was obvious the farmers cared about their birds and wanted them to be healthy and well taken care of. There are some real challenges when you are feeding hundreds or thousands of people, and doing it in a way that makes everyone happy. Not everyone can get their own chickens to raise the way they like, and while some attempt it, that has become an issue as well.

The chickens that I saw appeared to be healthy and happy, with their feathers and beaks intact, hanging out in their cages eating and drinking to their hearts content. I think sometimes, when reading one has to remember that not every farm is the same and sometimes what you read about may be a massive farm in the USA, not a smaller operation in Canada.

Farming is a huge amount of work, and when it comes to feeding people, there are no easy answers-but like I've said before, it's very obvious that the farmers are passionate about their animals and what they do. They have to be, it's how they literally put food on their own tables as well. If you're ever curious about where your food comes from, the best thing to do is to get to know a farmer and straight out ask.

I'm sure he or she will be more than happy to tell you.

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