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"Know where your food comes from and how it got to your table. Know your farmer!" says Carole Morison, a proud new free-range farm owner. (Photo: Carole Morison)
When Food, Inc.—a documentary exposing the highly mechanized food industry—hit theaters in 2008, it left many Americans feeling queasy about the unsavory methods that bring food to their plates. Carole Morison, a Maryland chicken farmer under contract with Perdue Farms, was featured prominently in the film. “I’ve just made up my mind I’m gonna say what I have to say,” she says in the film, before opening the door to her henhouse to expose the filthy, overcrowded conditions of her factory-style farm.
Five years after filming, she’s a long way from that moment. When her contract with Perdue Farm was terminated (the company ended the relationship when Carole and her husband refused an “upgrade” that would have closed the chickens off from sunlight and fresh air) Carole and her husband left the factory farming system in the dust and started a humane, free range farm.
So what’s different? Pretty much everything.
TakePart: Five years ago, when Food, Inc. was being filmed, you were already visibly disgusted by the conditions on your farm and the pressures put on you by Perdue. What finally pushed you over the edge and inspired your change?
Carole Morison: Becoming disgusted with the conditions on the farm and the pressures from Perdue was a gradual buildup of things until the final questioning of myself: “How did I get like this?”
I wasn’t born a farmer; I married a farmer. In the beginning I thought that the way we were raising chickens was the only way it was done. About five years into contract farming, I started questioning the conditions that farmers were forced into through the contracts. I learned early that you weren’t supposed to talk about it—at least not publicly. A well-meaning friend of my husband said at that time that I needed to put a lid on it or we would lose our contract. Having not grown up in the system, it was impossible for me to understand that we weren’t allowed to speak or that we had no say over how we operated our farm and the raising of the chickens. Looking back, I can remember us sitting at the kitchen table talking about the system and actually lowering our voices as if someone might hear. It’s humorous now, but at the time the fear was real.
Picking up dead chickens and having to kill many that weren’t thrifty or uniform in the size that the company wanted was a daily chore. It was disheartening. There was never any choice in the matter or the option to give the animal a chance. The culling [killing] of chickens was something that I could never bring myself to do; I always left it for my husband. I do believe in euthanizing animals that are suffering or don’t stand a chance of survival; however, I don’t believe in killing animals just because they don’t measure up to the cookie cutter demands by industry.
TakePart: What other kinds of demands does the industry put on you? Can you describe how they affected your farm?
Carole Morison: Industry mixing and matching of breeds and genetics produces chickens that meet consumer demands, such as large breasts. Chickens which grow at such a rapid weight that they reach slaughter within six to seven weeks enable the companies to produce pounds of meat quickly. Watching these chickens grow to the point that they couldn’t take more than a few steps and then plop down in exhaustion or had bad legs because their bones couldn’t support the weight was normal. Many would flip over and die from heart attacks.
The control over our farm and constant demands for upgrades to housing and equipment infuriated me. It was as if we had turned our bank account over to the company and they had a blank check. If we didn’t allow the company to spend our money for us, the threat of contract termination was used as the enforcer. Many times I had to bite my tongue to not tell the company men to put the contract where the sun doesn’t shine. When both of us had to get off-farm jobs in order to support the farm and put food on the table, it made absolutely no sense to me. It was like we were supporting a very expensive habit that we could do without.
TakePart: How did you cope with something you knew was wrong?
Carole Morison: I became numb to these things in order to cope on a daily basis. If I blocked it from my mind, then I didn’t have to feel bad about the things we were forced to do in order to survive. Pride and stubbornness are farmer traits, and losing the family farm is not on the “to-do list.”
TakePart: So industry demands were obviously upsetting you. What else did you see as problematic about the poultry industry?
Carole Morison: Industry handling of environmental issues over runoff from manure and overloading of nutrients boggled my mind and still does to this day. Absolute denial by industry was followed by passing all of the blame to farmers. I have never understood how the companies can claim ownership of the flock of chickens on the farm (a written clause in the contract) and then take no responsibility of the manure that their chickens produce. The only time that the chickens belong to the farmer is when they are dead. I’ve always said that when the time comes that chicken manure is worth money, the companies will assume ownership.
When antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other public-health issues emerged, I knew in my mind that the culprit was the industry. Finding out that arsenic was in the feed that the company sends (which the farmer has to use—another contract item) infuriated me. It had been going on for years. Unknowingly we were spreading manure containing arsenic on our land as well as being exposed to it on a daily basis from the dust and feed in the chicken house. I went ballistic wondering how our right to know didn’t figure into the equation.
The boiling point came when the company hinted at us upgrading the chicken houses and equipment to their newest whim. It was an expensive proposition which we would have never seen a return on and would have only sunk us deeper in debt. Cost was not the only deterrent. The upgrades would have taken away all natural fresh air and sunlight to the chickens and increased stocking density, used three times the electric already being used, and drained more water from a well that couldn’t handle the increased flow. And once again our money was being spent on a company whim. We refused!
Ironically, a few weeks before receiving our letter from Perdue notifying us of contract termination, the company gave us an award for being an “Outstanding Producer.” The question of how this makes sense still remains in my mind.
TakePart: After saying what you felt America needed to hear on Food, Inc., were there repercussions from Perdue? Did you have fears about what would happen to your livelihood?
Carole Morison: Perdue showed up on the farm when the Food, Inc. film crew was here. When the company finally figured out who was visiting, we received a letter threatening contract termination for “violating bio-security.” Their threat stemmed from me not having people sign a log book that the company had placed on our farm to monitor our visitors. On assumption, they also mentioned a second violation of a Baltimore Sun reporter who I talked to; however, that individual never came to the farm. As far as we were concerned, it was none of Perdue’s business who came to visit us. Perdue explained to me that anyone who didn’t normally reside on the farm had to sign the log book. I asked them to send me another letter of “violating bio-security” because I had my grandson come and visit for a week and didn’t make him sign in. They declined.
We knew what was coming, and, of course, there was fear about losing the farm. No matter how much planning is done, preparing to lose everything one owns is scary.
TakePart: Now that you’re free from the factory farming life, it must be hard to imagine having put up with it for so long. What are some of your favorite things about running a humane, antibiotic-free henhouse now?
Carole Morison: What we are doing now is the complete opposite end of the spectrum of raising chickens. The Girls, as we call them, are joyful, and we can always count on them being glad to see us. They love visitors and run to greet anyone who comes near them. They roam in and out of the chicken house at will, and love to forage on grass pastures and eat worms. Bugs don’t stand a chance and are a delicacy to them. They eat a vegetarian diet. We don’t have to feed a steady diet of arsenic and antibiotics because they are not kept in confined, overcrowed conditions. They are Rhode Island Red hens, a traditional breed, and adapt well to any type of weather conditions. Their genetics have not been redesigned to push them to lay an egg every day, which would put a substantial drain on their calcium balance and life cycle.
The most enjoyable thing about them is that their personalities are totally different than industrial chickens. I don’t see depressed chickens lying around, unmotivated to move and behaving as if they haven’t a thought. It’s not hard to spend many hours just watching and laughing at their kid-like antics. We are our own boss and make all decisions.
TakePart: Obviously, you and your husband are happier these days, embracing the change of your new farm. What about your chickens? What differences have you noticed between your chickens now and the ones you used to factory farm?
Carole Morison: At the risk of being attacked for saying that industrial chickens behave as if they’ve got no brain, unfortunately, it is true. From day one, our Girls demonstrated the natural instinct to scratch, looking for anything in the bedding on the floor. It was humorous to see newly hatched chicks running around and scratching as if they were foraging. No one taught them to do this; it was a natural instinct. Learning to fly and accomplishing it is something the Girls learned on their own, as well as perching on everything. I never saw industrial chicks do any of those things or demonstrate natural instincts. Outside, they know exactly what to do. They aren’t fearful of us or anyone who comes to visit them. They need no special attention to thrive. They grow at a natural rate, not coming up lame or crippled—nor do they die every day by the hundreds.
TakePart: For other farmers who want to make the leap away from factory farming like you did, but are feeling intimidated, what advice or tips do you have to offer?
Carole Morison: I well understand fear of the unknown. Don’t let the industry brainwashing of “you can’t do it any other way than the industrial way” rule your choices. Know your market and thoroughly research the breeds of chickens to be compatible with the type of farming you want to accomplish. Ask questions of others already doing what you want to do. You will find that they are more than willing to share ideas. Utilize as much of your infrastructure as possible; it will cut down your cost in converting. Transitional farming is the new buzz word and consumers are looking for alternatives to the mainstream industrial food supply. There is no shame in trying. The shame is not trying.
TakePart: If you could make one statement that every consumer in America would listen to, what would it be?
Carole Morison: Know where your food comes from and how it got to your table. Know your farmer!
A sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, Megan likes writing about food almost as much as eating it. If you don't want to know what's in your fruit/milk/meat, don't invite her to lunch.@babybokchoy