With us waiting apprehensively, a powerfully built farmer opened the door to his chicken house. We’ve been in such houses before and were overwhelmed by the stench. Sixteen thousand chicks packed in one building seems a recipe for smell.
In this case we were wrong. This farmer in Winn Parish, Louisiana, takes extremely good care of his chickens. He spends hours and hours every day in his chicken houses making sure all his flock are happy and healthy.
Like most sustainable agriculture advocates, we have been very critical of the vertically integrated chicken and hog production systems. We’re among the many who know that free ranging chickens produce healthier and more tasty eggs and meat. We have helped many free range and pastured poultry producers get in business and find markets. We’ll continue to do that in Arkansas and overseas.
But our visits to Winn Parish have shown us hard-working farmer who are part of that system but still striving to produce healthy food. For those who don’t have access to low cost free range chickens, the chickens from factory farms provide an inexpensive source of protein.
We also saw soils which had been vastly improved by addition of manure from chicken houses. Many farmers in Winn Parish don’t need to buy commercial fertilizer because there are chicken houses nearby producing all the nutrients their pastures and fields need. Farmers use rice hulls as bedding for their chickens. After the chickens go to market, the houses are cleaned of the rice hulls and manure. This product, chicken litter, is not a waste but a resource–providing and excellent source of nutrients and organic matter. Far better than commercial fertilizer, whether conventional or organic.
We will never urge people to consume food from factory farms if they can access affordable free range meat. We will continue to work to create systems which provide affordable food produced in resilient systems.
However, our experience in Winn Parish tells us that sustainable agriculture advocates cannot be so dogmatic that they don’t recognize the benefits of systems we hope to one day replace.
The perfect can be the enemy of the good.