Caring For The Truth, As Well As For Our Birds
Sustainable poultry keepers in this group, and right across the country, would have been heartened today by news that the largest egg producer in Australia has been fined $300,000, and found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct in advertising barn laid eggs (with 12 birds per square meter!) as being free range eggs laid by hens which were “free to roam” across “green pasture”.
What the birds had a theoretical access to – with many clustered masses of cramped and crowded fowls trying to make their way through a few small access ports cut in the side of an enormous shed holding many thousands of birds – was, in fact, a barren tract of dusty ground, soon denuded of its cover by that smaller percentage of hens lucky enough to make it through the crush, at the exits.
The scenario outlined in the court findings is a nightmare to contemplate for any lover of poultry who has seen what happens to hens when they are confined and overcrowded in their hundreds and thousands.
As a young, newly married man, trying to raise a few extra dollars for the farm that we were building up from scratch, I once took a job (for three days only!) as a “picker upper” in a large broiler shed that was owned by one of my uncle’s associates, in Western Victoria.
That was my first direct exposure to the realities of modern, intensive, factory based poultry farming.
In a tin shed measuring something like 15 meters by 50 meters, the owner was rearing several thousand broilers at a time, shipping birds in, at a few weeks of age, and then shipping them out, at 12 to 14 weeks, to the killing plant.
There were so many birds all crowded into the space that you could not step across the floor, without walking on a live fowl.
There was so much dust in the air that you could not see more than a few feet ahead, and you had to wear a respirator, to be able to breathe.
My first job, as the picker upper – I found out only on my first morning on the job – was to go into the shed at the start of each shift, to collect the dead or dying carcasses of 6, 8, 10 or more birds which had fallen down, and not been able to get back up, and which had been trampled, slowly smothered, and then either half buried in a rank mix of mingled rice hulls and faeces, or else part eaten by their flock mates.
Looking back on it now, I am amazed that I was able to stomach that job for even one, much less for three days of living horror, moving and working within such a nightmarish place.
The poor creatures were bred to be so breast heavy and lopsided, in the greed driven quest for a larger slab of fillet meat for the trade, that once the heaviest of them had been borne down to the ground – literally dragged down to the litter by the unsustainable mass of their breast – they could not rise again to their feet, and would then be trampled into a slow and long suffering death.
It is from such visions that my lifelong drive to help inform and encourage others to keep fowls in natural, traditional, sustainable open forage conditions in our garden, farm and smallholdings, has risen.
From exactly that same desire was my first idea of a SPKAT born.
This SPKAT facebook group is not just a place for people to share and swap their joyful times, pics and yarns of keeping fowls in a family or farm setting, though it is so good to see so many new people now sharing their passion, and, long may such better, happier things continue, in this world.
The Sustainable Poultry Keepers Association of Tasmania has been established with the multiple aims of encouraging, enthusing, informing and educating all Australians to understand better not only the practical means of keeping poultry more naturally and sustainably, within an open environment, but also to understand better the community food rights and animal welfare issues created by a profit driven, mass production poultry industry which is attempting to subvert the traditional practice and meaning of open forage poultry keeping – in the ever present drive to maximize their gains – through redefining the nature of the free range egg and meat market.
There are moves afoot, even as I write, to have a national free range standard installed, as law, by the commonwealth government, but some of the forces pushing for this standard are speaking of rules which would allow the keeping of as many as ten to twenty thousand birds per hectare, on open ground, under such a binding, national “free range” production code.
I have seen instances where keeping fowls even at stocking densities of 500 birds per hectare have led to serious flock health issues, as well as to soil and land degradation.
We do not all range our birds under a softer, rain kissed, gentle European climate and conditions.
The 750 to 1000 bird per hectare European standard – one taken as a model for best practice free range codes all across this country – is actually a nonsense, in many times and places, where it is used on many of the drier, poorer, hungry shallow soils that are endemic to this great Australian land of drought.
The hard facts are that – even here in Tasmania – there are many farms, locales and soil types where keeping a flock of just 250 birds per hectare, even under the best dry land management cycle, cannot be sustainable, not in the longer cycle – of five to ten to twenty five years – which really defines the true meaning of the term “sustainable”.
One can only imagine the catastrophic environmental potential of allowing 10,000 or 20,000 birds to roam a hectare of dryland pasture, across a run of dry summers and of frost burnt winters, all carried out under the sorts of dishonest, duplicitous, greed driven management as that which has just been condemned by our national courts.
Our job, as poultry lovers, breeders and family flock keepers, is to help educate and better inform our community, our bureaucrats, and our politicians, in seeking to make others aware of the real truth behind an attempted, mass production driven, commercial standardization of the free range egg ideal.
Issues such as egg stamping rise only from this larger push from big business, and their lobby groups, in an attempt to redefine and control both the meaning of, and the means of production for, the open forage hen egg market in Australia.
If you care about these issues, and would like to make a difference, I would urge you to join SPKAT, either as an associate, or as a full voting member. If you would like to attend forums of discussion on key issues around egg branding, and free range egg production, and also take part in the writing of submissions – to help SPKAT become a better representative voice for those who love poultry, and for those who care about our food, and the way in which it is produced, labelled and presented – then please join the group, and help us not only to help others in their sustainable poultry keeping endeavours, but also help us make a difference, for the better appreciation of – and in our community’s caring for – the welfare of all kinds of poultry in Australia.
We would love to have you on board.