The Plate

Chicken Farmers Make the Leap From Factory to Pasture

It’s never too late to change something that’s not working for you. That’s what farmer Teresa Herman has learned.

Herman’s grandparents raised chickens. So did her husband’s. So did their parents, and just about everyone else they knew in their tiny town of Taylorsville, North Carolina and in rural Alexander* County surrounding them. When she and her husband began farming themselves, in 1996, it was natural for them to turn to chickens too. They built some “houses”—long windowless barns that can hold 30,000 birds at a time—and signed on to the contract-farming system that everyone they knew lived under. Under the rules, laid down in the 1930s, they would own the houses, and  take on whatever debt was necessary to improve them. But the chicken company that held their contract—and brought them chicks, sent them feed and medications, checked up on their progress with field technicians and veterinarians, and collected the grown broilers at the end of their 6-week life—would own everything else.

Herman and her husband saw nothing wrong with the system at the time. Though about 40 companies compete to raise the 9 billion meat chickens grown in the United States each year, they all operate in the same pattern, known as the tournament system. Growers receive all the ingredients of the bird-raising process from the company they contract to, and when each batch of birds is done, are judged by the company on how well or badly they performed. There’s a key extra component of the bird-raising process: When growers are being evaluated at the end of a flock’s life, they are judged, not just on how well their birds did, but on how well birds grew in other farms surrounding them. In every cycle, as they’re called, a grower comes out on top, and gets a bonus, and one of that grower’s near neighbors comes out at the bottom, and loses money instead.

Herman has a degree in animal sciences, and she is an agricultural extension specialist at North Carolina State University; her profession and her passion is teaching other farmers how to grow crops and animals of all kinds. But despite her knowledge and her husband’s long experience, they discovered that no matter what they did for their chickens, they kept falling behind.

“The first year, we lost $30,000,” she told me by phone. “The second year, it was $33,000. We earned, but not enough, because every year, that’s how much our expenses were over what we earned.”

Herman says she had long conversations with the company that held their contract, but never to a successful outcome. They tried working for two others, but found the problems were universal. So, after years of attempts—and debt that, by the end, reached $600,000—they decided to stop competing in a system that seemed never to work for them, and left.

Today, Herman and her husband have cattle and sheep and egg-laying hens, all of which they raise outside on grass and sell themselves, without intermediaries. They’re the latest to join a small but swelling movement in the United States in which farmers reject the industrial models they were raised on, and return to a pasture-based system in which species are rotated through fields to eat plants and insects and break up and  and enrich the soil.

The Hermans feel so strongly about their new path that they agreed to lend their faces and story to a video campaign launched Monday (and embedded above). The video highlights an annual observance that seeks to teach farmers, eaters and chefs specifically about the benefits of pasture-raised chickens, known as Pastured Poultry Week.

This is the fourth year for the week, which is sponsored by Compassion in World Farming, a British nonprofit that focuses on farm-animal welfare. It’s the brainchild of Leah Garces, Compassion’s U.S. director, who is based in Georgia—the leading chicken-producing state in the country, which raises 1.4 billion broilers a year. (If Georgia were an independent nation, its chicken production would rank it just behind China and Brazil.)

This week, 50 restaurants in three cities—New York, Atlanta and Charleston—commit to purchasing and showcasing slow-growing breeds of chicken that are raised outside on grass to high standards of animal welfare. In a phone call, Garces explained that the group’s goal is to change the entire ecology of chicken: the birds themselves, the methods of raising them, the feed they receive, and the ways in which they are processed and distributed.

“We’re trying to promote a more humane, fair and sustainable way of raising chickens,” she said. “This isn’t only about animal welfare. It’s about better use of land, and reducing the amount of soy and maize that are grown for feed. And it’s about a better deal for farmers: They might make only 5 cents per pound for conventional birds, but they can make $3.50 per pound with these.”

“I know a lot of moms that buy poultry, they pay 5 bucks for a pack of chicken,” Herman says in the video. “It’s a cheap way to feed their family. But in reality, is it a cheap meal? What’s the final cost?”

I asked Herman how things would change if pastured poultry became more mainstream.

“It would mean the companies wouldn’t have such a stronghold over farmers,” she said. “Right now they can do pretty much what they want to do.”

By becoming the face of the campaign—a potentially risky act, given her day job—Herman hopes she can help consumers understand how everything is linked: family heritage, land use, farm economics, animal welfare and the meal on your plate.

“People buy chicken nuggets because it is easy and they don’t know any better, but we could change that,” she said. “We can build a better world through our farming.”

*This post originally identified Taylorsville as being in neighboring Iredell County.