Chickens come first

Harvesting a more humane egg

Chris Copley with his pasture-raised bounty at Chico’s Saturday farmers’ market.

Chris Copley with his pasture-raised bounty at Chico’s Saturday farmers’ market.

Photo By matt siracusa

Farmer Chris Copley sells his chicken eggs as “pasture-raised”—and he isn’t trying to fool anyone. The Corning-based farmer and owner of Chris’ Egg Farm keeps a flock of 3,000 laying hens on his 11.5 acres. The birds roam free by day, and at night they file back into their cages, which Copley locks only at night. At dawn, he sets loose his dogs and a 900-pound sow named Wilbur (“She’s a great guard dog,” he assures) to clear out the foxes and raccoons before the cages are opened and the birds set free for another day in their free-range world.

But the scenery at most American chicken farms is not nearly so rosy. Of America’s 280 million egg-laying hens, about 95 percent live in cages, according to United Egg Producers. The egg-industry group’s website recommends that a caged hen be given between 67 and 86 square inches of living space—an area of floor space the Humane Society of America described as “equivalent to less than a single sheet of letter-sized paper.”

Worse, according to animal-welfare activists, the industry is largely unguarded from disingenuous advertising claims about animal welfare. Though “free range” and “cage free” both guarantee that birds are not kept in cages, the chickens may still live in vile conditions, according to Erica Meier, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based organization Compassion Over Killing. Meier says that free-range and cage-free hens may have their beaks removed, a common industry practice. And while free-range farms must offer their birds an open outdoor space, she says, this area may be small and without easy access for the birds. In effect, many free-range chickens might rarely, if ever, see the light of day.

Meier suggests that consumers personally inspect farms.

“The best way to truly see if animals are being raised the way the producers claim is to shop at farmers’ markets and even visit the farm,” she said.

Copley at Chris’ Egg Farm welcomes inquisitive visitors.

“People should talk to their farmers,” says Copley, who came to the United States in 1975 and took up a corporate career in San Francisco before deciding to simplify, move to Corning, and raise chickens. “Go and see what you’re eating, for crying out loud.”

Copley denounces the conditions on factory farms, where the debeaked hens are crammed into so-called battery cages where they lay their eggs into conveyor belts for 20 straight months before being killed and replaced. There currently is no legal requirement that producers reveal to consumers such colorful details about life on the factory farm.

But a federal bill now under review by Congress could change that. The bill, introduced in February, would ban battery cages. Moreover, the bill would require that all egg companies clearly label their cartons with one of four labels—eggs from cage-raised hens, eggs from hens reared in enriched cages (roughly double the current space recommendations), cage-free eggs, or free-range eggs.

In the meantime, farmers’ markets may be reliable defenders of honest product labeling. Copley, who sits on the board of directors for four local farmers’ markets, says that market managers inspect each farm that applies for a vending stall. Recently, Copley says, a Corning man who applied to sell chicken eggs at the Chico farmers’ market was audited.

“We found debeaked hens and 17 dead ones with the living birds,” Copley said. The farmer’s application was rejected.

Copley sells his eggs for $4 per dozen—hardly exorbitant yet still double the price of the cheapest eggs of large commercial operations. Copley says the costs of raising chickens by hand, in an outdoor space, on organic feed is very expensive. He pulls in a profit of about 35 cents per dozen, whereas factory farms can produce 12 eggs “for pennies,” Copley says.

Proposition 2, passed in 2008 by California voters, will ban battery cages by 2015 and also do away with veal crates and gestation crates, where female pigs spend years of their lives almost unable to move. Many farmers worry that the new laws will force farmers to raise their egg prices—and while Proposition 2 could quell many animal-welfare concerns, Copley wonders if social-justice issues may arise.

“Some people can’t afford my eggs,” Copley said. “For them, the $1.99 options might be all they have, but how do you tell a man with no job and starving kids that he can’t have a cheap egg? You just can’t.”