No Chickens Were Harmed In The Making Of This Coop

By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger

In 1955 my parents, having decided that their five children should experience a bit of what farm life is about, purchased a house with forty acres in a canyon near Alamogordo, New Mexico, a fairly short commute to my father’s job at Holloman Air Force Base. A previous owner had operated a commercial orchard on the property, and it still had a number of fruit bearing peach and apple trees. In the course of the following year we acquired a registered brand, two calves, two pigs, three horses, a half dozen turkeys-and a hundred New Hampshire Red chicks ordered through the Sears Roebuck farm catalog. My father built a chicken coop with roosts and brooding nests and enclosed an open area with a wire fence, although we quickly learned that the wings on chickens are fully operational. The wire fence was soon removed and the chickens wandered at will.

New Hampshires are great egg producers, and we regularly collected more than we could possibly eat. So my father bought generic egg cartons and began selling the surplus to the people he worked with. My parents were obviously pleased with their egg-selling experiment because my father announced at dinner one night that he was going to build another coop, this one large enough to house five hundred hens. We were going into commercial egg production.

Over the next few months my father and I worked evenings and weekends building the new structure. It was long and high-ceilinged, with windows all along the side walls. The original coop now looked like a tool shed by comparison. And then, one day, they arrived, not the five hundred New Hampshire Reds I had envisioned, but hundreds of shiny metal cages. They would be hung from the rafters. Troughs attached to the cages would provide food and water and the eggs would roll out the front of the cages for daily collection.

My little sister Carol, who was seven at the time, was the first to react. She was horrified. It was mean and cruel, she said. Animals cannot live in cages. In short order the rest of us voiced similar outrage. Even my mother was sympathetic to our feelings on the issue. It was hopeless, and my father knew it. There would be no chicken gulag. When my father was transferred and sold the property two years later, the cages still sat on the ground in the new coop, a mute testament to compassion over economics.

But if I were to share this story with Rep. Steve King, he would likely respond that my little sister was an incipient animal rights radical and my father a fool.

Rep. King, you see, has had it with what he terms “the vegan lobby” and “radical animal rights groups.”  The focus of his anger is the State of California.  In 2008, 63% of the voters in that state approved Proposition 2, a law requiring that cages for veal calves, pregnant sows and laying hens must be large enough to permit their occupants to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs (or wings, in the case of chickens) and turn around freely. The law is scheduled to take effect in 2015. To make matters worse, the California legislature, anticipating efforts by adjoining states to lure California egg producers to relocate, enacted a statute prohibiting the sale of eggs from out-of-state producers that fail to meet California cage standards.

Rep. King, as it turns out, represents the largest egg producing district in the largest egg producing state in the country. Iowa produces almost 15 billion eggs per year, dwarfing second place Ohio’s 7.7 billion. So he has convinced the House to tack on to the pending farm bill what he calls the Protect Interstate Commerce Act. His amendment reads as follows: “The government of a state or locality therein shall not impose a standard or condition on the production of any agricultural product sold or offered for sale in interstate commerce if (1) such production or manufacture occurs in another state; and (2) the standard or condition is in addition to the standards and conditions applicable to such production or manufacture pursuant to (A) federal law; and (B) the laws of the state and locality in which such production or manufacture occurs.”

The amendment should be renamed the Lowest Common Denominator Act, because that is precisely what it will accomplish if the Senate accepts it during upcoming conference committee negotiations over the farm bill. And the prospects for passage have alarmed states and animal welfare groups around the country. A number of law professors have questioned the amendment’s constitutionality and various state agencies have argued that the amendment would result in the de facto repeal of numerous state and local laws and regulations governing everything from pesticide restrictions to horse slaughter operations. And what about Rep. King’s Tea Party commitment to federalism?  Apparently, states’ rights end at the California border. “Their law happens to be unconstitutional,” he says. “They have zero right to regulate the producers in other states.”

Of course, California cannot “regulate” Iowa egg producers who prefer battery cages for hens any more than it can “regulate” hog farmers who believe that pregnant sows have no need to be able to stand up. But he also knows that California has 38 million people who consume a lot of eggs, and its standards will undoubtedly influence farmers who want to participate in that market. However, the same argument can be made about California’s emission standards for automobiles, or Texas’ adoption of high school biology texts that treat creationism as science.

The truth is that in Rep. King’s worldview the notion of humane treatment of animals intended for human consumption makes no more sense than that nonsense about climate change. It is simply a matter of economic efficiency and farm profits. And he despises those who espouse a different view. In a statement issued to the Drovers Cattle Network in June of this year, he stated that the Protect Interstate Commerce Act “will also deliver a large setback to the Humane Society of the United States and other radical animal rights organizations.”

Yet he does have a compassionate side. According to the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, Rep. King has allowed that he might agree to a compromise in which he drops his amendment in return for larger cuts in food stamps.

32 thoughts on “No Chickens Were Harmed In The Making Of This Coop”

  1. We had chickens when I was growing up. My father inherited a chicken business of several hundred. They were kept in a multi-room coop with areas for egg laying and another for roosting. Hens had “free-range” within their room. As a kid my job was to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. Some hens were very protective of their eggs and I got nipped more than once. My brother got the job of helping dad clean the coops.

    I hated the killing of the hens that we sold. The actual killing made me sick. I didn’t do much better picking pin feathers but I couldn’t get out of that. Candling the eggs was an ok job.

    There was a brooder coop near the house for the baby chicks. They needed special care. We kids knew that you moved quickly through the door so the chicks wouldn’t pile on each other to keep warm, smothering those underneath. Then there was the visiting kid next door who just had to see the chicks. He was unsupervised. We lost a lot of chicks.

    Food is probably the biggest item in my budget. It’s well worth it to buy organic. I don’t eat much meat but when I buy it, I go to the co-op that knows, and audits, the farms/farmers that raise the animals. They are great supporters of local fruit and vegetable farmers.

    While the organic label means no pesticides, it doesn’t mean the food is nutritious. If your fruits and vegetables rot rather than dry out, they are lacking in sugar, the indicator of good nutrition.

  2. I might add the eggs from free range humanely treated chickens are noticeably better tasting than concentration camp ones.

    On a side note there was a small dairy near where I used to live that still sold milk in glass containers. The made a good niche market by doing what they could to make “real” milk. The milk was remarkably better tasting all around.

    It’s better to pay $1.25 more for real eggs. Funny how people will balk at the price of free range eggs but will at the same store buy expensive wine to impress their friends at dinner.

  3. PR:

    no, I once tried some purple basil though. I just grow the garden variety plain old sage and basil.

    Maybe next spring I will get 3-4 different kinds and try them. I grow the herbs in pots on the back deck. The local greenhouse says they only need water once in awhile as they arent used to hopped up soil since they originally were grown in poor soil areas.

  4. Po: That sounds delicious! We’re big fans of balsamic vinegar, too. I haven’t roasted veggies with vinegar already with them yet, so I’ll try your recipe.

    Bron: We really like roasted Brussels sprouts with olive oil and garlic, though they are also delicious with dijon mustard. I will have to try them with some balsamic vinegar.

    We grow herbs, too. Some of our favorites are parsley, leaf celery, and salad burnet (tastes like cucumber). Bron, do you grow any unique varieties of basil or sage? I’ve only ever grown plain ‘ole sage and basil, but I know there are other varieties out there.

  5. Po:

    that sounds great, thank you.

    We are big fans of balsamic vinegar.

    You ever roasted Brussel Sprouts with balsamic vinegar? It is the only way I will eat them now. They were meant for roasting.

    I grow, sage, rosemary, oregano, mint, basil and thyme [the first 4 winter but the others dont]. What sort of dried herbs do you put on the veggies?

  6. Speaking of roasted veggies, Bron, here is my recipe:

    Cut up carrots, zuchini, shallots, tomatoes (must be ripe ones), whole garlic, sweet peppers, dried herbs (I make my own), sea salt, olive oil, a little quality balsamic vinegar (or not), put in oven heated to 400/450 for 20/30 minutes until roasted through and a bit crispy on top. Serve over quinoa.
    You can also grill them over a fine meshed grill top, in that case add more balsamic vinegar, which caramelized, brings out the sugars and the flavors.

  7. Bron,
    “The meat would cost more so we would eat more veggies although fresh veggies are going through the roof. 3 bucks for a bunch of kale.”

    Gotcha. 🙂 Yes, fresh veggies are very expensive right now. My husband is making me some cold frames so we can extend the season and get less expensive kale from our backyard! We do eat a fair bit of frozen veggies because of the high cost of fresh.

  8. Prairie Rose:

    roasted veggies are the best, a little sea salt some good olive oil a little garlic and there you go.

    The meat would cost more so we would eat more veggies although fresh veggies are going through the roof. 3 bucks for a bunch of kale.

    I think the First Lady is doing good work on educating people about how to eat properly or at least putting the idea out there.

    1. It is true that people think that eating healthier (humanely raised meat and more veggies) costs subsequently more, and that is true in the case of meat. It is not always true however when it comes to vegetables. $40 buys me a week’s worth of fruit and veggies from my local farmer’s market. Not everyone can afford the uptake that comes with buying the half of beef I get, for a pound of ground beef costs me $4 compared to the $.99 at the supermarket. But this extra expense makes sure that I eat less meat, which is overall a good thing. Furthermore, between the hormones, the antibiotics, the mistreatment and the stress of the animal. combined with the e coli, I see it as a bargain to spend a little more in order to get a better product.
      The great thing is that here in my side of Cali, there are enough animal lovers and organic farms to make it easier to eat healthy without breaking the bank.

  9. “If we demanded free range eggs we would have them. Same for grass fed beef.”

    Problem is, most folks don’t know about the conditions CAFO animals are kept in. It isn’t on their minds at all. Michael Pollan, I think in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggested putting photos of actual animals on the labels or near the meat section so people could make informed choices.

    “And paying a few more bucks in the process would probably make us eat more vegetables.”

    ??? How so? Because a free range chicken eats vegetable scraps? 🙂

    The people I know who don’t eat vegetables don’t eat them because they’ve only ever had them out of cans or boiled or steamed to death with salt and pepper, so they think they don’t like vegetables. They also don’t know how to cook with herbs, spices or other techniques like roasting.

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