We have decided not to raise meat chickens this year, and here we attempt to explain to our supporters and customers why we’ve made this choice.
There’s a lot for a farmer to love about broiler chickens: they are ravenous insect-eaters who can decrease pest pressure in orchards and pastures, their back-end output fertilizes soil, and they’re ready for harvest in a relatively short 2.5-months, providing quicker financial return than any other animal on the farm. So why doesn’t every farmer raise them? And why is Shelterbelt no longer raising them?
The flip side of broilers is that, even on pasture, they require voluminous quantities of feed to achieve the size consumers expect (~4+ lb carcass). Because we feel strongly about not supporting the genetic modification of crops, we either need to purchase expensive organic feed or develop custom rations using non GMO ingredients, which presents other challenges. It is a fact that any soy or corn (the typical primary ingredients in poultry feed) that is not certified organic is almost certainly genetically modified.
Why our concern about GMO’s? Surveys of existing research on GMO health effects in mice, like this article from Environmental Sciences Europe, are enough to cause us concern. But beyond that, we don’t favor any economic model that patents life forms for the benefit of corporations, taking control out of the hands of farmers.
Speaking of economic models, this is another challenge of raising broilers. By the time we buy in the chicks and organic feed, and then factor in processing costs (whether we do it ourselves on-farm or pay someone else to do it) and charge $4.50/lb, our margin on 300 birds is $318, and that needs to cover our labor and contribute to overhead costs. Granted, this also includes keeping 20 birds for our own freezer, but still I think you can agree it’s not a large return for 10 weeks of caring for these birds. Chickens raised on organic feed should more rightly cost $6/lb, but we would rather not charge that much.
The word ‘sustainability’ has gotten worn thin by misuse, so I generally avoid using it. But in this case, it’s appropriate: for the sake of our ability to sustain our farm into a volatile future, we want to produce as many of our farm’s inputs as possible on the farm. Sourcing chicks and large quantities of feed from off the farm for an enterprise that doesn’t contribute significantly to our the financial sustainability of our farm business doesn’t seem to fit.
If something in this equation changes, we’ll definitely re-evaluate our decision, and we’ll let you know if we do! In the meantime, you can buy certified organic chicken from Kingbird Farm or non-organic chicken from other producers at the Ithaca Farmers Market, and also source locally-grown non-organic chicken from Grassland Farms at GreenStar.