The Curse of the 3,001st Layer

3,000 Layers.  That’s the limit for my Illinois limited producer license.  3,000.  I’m in no danger of reaching that limit but I think it’s worth discussing.

Why 3,000?  When you get above 3,000 the magical bureaucratic fairy covers your farm with pixie dust and suddenly you have to treat your eggs for salmonella.  I’m sure this legislation is well-intentioned but 3,000 birds?  The number of birds isn’t the issue where chicken and egg health are concerned, population density is.  A farmer can have all 3,000 birds in batteries in a 2-car garage and, from the state’s perspective, that’s no different than 3,000 birds pastured over 10,000 acres.

3,000 birds make around 800 pounds of manure each day.  The unlimited egg producer license is supposed to protect the customer from salmonella but it makes no provision for poisoning the soil under an 1/8th acre 3,001 chicken operation.  “What about the EPA” you ask?  Isn’t that their job?

Nope.  And honestly, thank God.  Remember, the real bad guy in Ghostbusters was from the EPA.

The Illinois EPA doesn’t get involved until you have 82,000 laying hens.  Seriously?  82,000?  Why not an even 100k?  Doing the math, it’s not their concern until your chickens produce 22,000 pounds of manure each day.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not asking for EPA involvement.  I’m saying the pure number of birds is useless outside of a spacial context.  I could easily metabolize the manure from 3,000 chickens on 100 acres.  But a backyard producer on 1/8th of an acre could be well within their legal bounds while standing knee-deep in smelly muck poisoned by nitrogen and phosphorus.

This is where you come in.  Your job, as a consumer, is to be the final inspector.  Drive to your farmer’s farm and ask yourself a couple of questions.

  1. Does the place stink?  If so, why?  Does it stink because you are downwind of the neighbor’s CAFO or does it stink because your farmer is trying to raise too many animals in too little space himself?  Are the animals poisoning the soil?
  2. What do you see?  Do the livestock look slick, healthy and bright-eyed but the farm buildings a shambles?  Overlook the buildings.  The farmer is putting his money into animal well-being and future production rather than pretty places to put stuff he probably doesn’t need.  Pretty buildings aren’t a sign of a problem but if he has pretty buildings and sad-looking livestock you might reconsider your purchase.
  3. Walk around a bit.  How do you feel?  Is this a refreshing experience?  Do you feel energized and inspired or do you feel tired, guilty or stressed?

I think these three questions can go a long way toward vetting out the best farmers.  Healthy tomato plants make nutritious tomatoes.  Healthy chickens make nutritious eggs.

I don’t want to raise 3,000 birds.  I don’t want to retail 1,100 dozen eggs each week.  I don’t want to feed 700 pounds of feed every day.  I don’t want to think about the amount of water I would need or the manure I would have to wheelbarrow around (though the compost would be nice).  Under my current model I would need 40 of my simple hoop layer houses to house 3,000 birds.  I would spend a lot of time moving those across acre-sized pastures.  No thanks.

What I want are healthy birds and a healthy relationship with my customers.  I want an opportunity to make a positive contribution to my community, to my local ecology and to my bank account.  I believe these to be compatable ideas.  But this can’t happen without verification by consumers.  I really hate to channel Regan here.  Trust but verify your farmer.

Think back to your most recent trip to a farm.  How did it smell?  What did you see?  How did you feel?