Organic, free-range, grass-fed. We are becoming more familiar with these kinds of words stamped on our food packaging. We spend $1 to $5 more when we buy these types of vegetables, meats, and eggs, but those words make us feel better about our purchases. On the other hand, spending $1 to $5 less per item, makes us feel better at the check out, when our bill is lighter and our pocketbooks are heavier. For a long time these words have been just that to me, words. For the past couple of months, I’ve learned firsthand why the extra cost is attached to those words.
My husband is producing organic eggs from free-range chickens, and this natural/organic/slow food movement is Hard. Work. Its very romantic-sounding, but there’s not much that’s romantic about the process of actually moving food from the farm to the table. What does free-range mean? Right now, for Gregg, it means building chicken coops from salvaged wood and PVC piping and watching as one of the said coops falls over due to strong gusts of wind. It means setting up an electric fence and hoping the fence protects the chickens from foxes and dogs and birds of prey. It means buying or milling feed to supplement the grass that the chickens eat. During the day, the electric fence is turned off and the chicks freely move in and out of the contained area, scattering around a half acre eating more grass. Sometimes, we recently found out, neighborhood kids chase them with nets when they are outside of the fencing.
At selling time, the eggs will not have “organic” stamped on the side of the crate (he’s actually going to use recycled crates from eggs that our neighbors and friends (we do have a few!) have been saving for us), because he hasn’t been certified by the government. But they will be organic. Also, during their lifetime, the chickens all have beaks and walk around outside and eat grass. Its these conditions that will make their eggs cost more, but their eggs will also be worth more because of the nutrient-richness (made that word up) that results from their way of life. The eggs that are not free-range in the grocery store, and even some that are marked as such, come from chickens with beakless, crowded, indoor lives. Have you seen Food, Inc. or Fresh? Or read anything by Micheal Pollan? These movies and books will change your life. At least, if you can budget for the expense.
On the Eastern Shore, there are two chicken plants. I’ve seen tractor trailers drive down the highway stamped with the company names along with a picture of a sunny farm with a porch, a barn and a shining sun. Then I drive several miles up the road and see the plant with no farm or barn or porch in sight. There is however a stench and a cloud of vultures circling the plant. The plants sell chicken for their meat and not for their eggs, but egg-laying chicken plants, according to those documentaries, look similar to these meat-producing plants.
I was in the grocery store yesterday, and I was drawn toward the sack of onions that said “farm fresh.” The sack didn’t tell me where the onions were from or how they were grown or why they were only $1.30 for 3 pounds. But that “farm fresh,” like the pretty picture of the barn on the side of the truck, drew me in. I wish instead of “farm fresh” or “free-range,” there was a picture of the farmer that raised the chickens or onions or eggs. I’d like to see if he’s inside or outside and if the man in charge is wearing a suit or Carharrt overalls.