The USDA Visits the Hen House

sayle may11 USDA post.jpg

Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

Ears will be wide open at a "listening session" in Austin this month. USDA is apparently going to listen to us, peasants and corporate captains alike, regarding the long expected, long dreaded National Animal Identification System.

As a peasant--and proud of it--I am one who dreads interference from government in my Hen House. I mean, if the Feds want to send an official to stand guard every night to protect my hens from predators, that would be ok with me. Perhaps I wouldn't have to go out after dark every single night of the year to dig accumulated mud and organic matter out of the Hen House threshold so that the gate will close as tightly as possible. The guard could just sit in an easy chair in the portal and do battle with raccoons and possums from dusk to dawn. Now that's interference that I would welcome!

We are organic vegetable farmers, not chicken "ranchers," but since folks come to the farm for the freshest food, we've noted that they also relish getting really good eggs. And nutritious, rich, golden-yolked eggs are what our free-ranging, broccoli greens- and organic grains- eating hens produce. They are so popular that the supply is snapped up (even with a six-egg limit per customer) in the first 30 minutes of our farm stand market!

This law will affect not only the big egg factories (which it's designed for) but also every single one of us who has even one chicken.

However, after the annual tax tally, I determined that last year I made not one penny on my necessarily high-priced eggs. Now, that poor financial performance is partly due to the fact that I choose to buy expensive organic feed, and also because I have a retirement plan for our hens. That plan is that they get to live the rest of their lives in the Hen House. They are not killed after "henopause." (FYI, henopause doesn't completely end egg laying until the hens are around eight years old.)

In addition to quite a few hens in the eight to ten years range, our oldest hen is 14-year-old Aunt Drop Tail, so named for a hatch defect that left her tail hanging straight down rather than jauntily straight out. She is a very lively hen who specializes in helping mother hens take care of their chicks. When not doing that, she eats, takes dust baths, visits with the other old hens, and rests. Like our other hens, she is a happy hen, as she is at ease about her long-range prospects. I think this spirit adds to the wonderfulness of the eggs.

But what do these elderly hens accomplish for us? Poo de poulet. Their production of manure makes its way annually into our compost pile and is responsible for nurturing our crops, some of which (like the broccoli greens) they help us eat.

And what will the NAIS accomplish for us little farmers and back-yard chickenists? It will cause onerous insults to our privacy (GPS identification of our home), more labor (sending reports of every "event" in Aunt Drop Tail's life, like birth, getting into the neighbor's yard, returning to our farm, or death), and cost. I will have to tag every one of our sixty hens and Rusty Roo, our rooster, and buy a reader "gun" to read their "rfid" numbers. In contrast the owner of a "concentration camp" housing 20,000 hens will have one identification number for the entire flock. Talk about unfair!

This law will affect not only the big egg factories (which it's designed for) but also every single one of us who has even one chicken. I think the USDA is going to get an earful here in Austin, the home of the Funky Austin Chicken Tour and hundreds of backyard hen houses. Hope they don't suffer ear strain, but all they have to do is exempt hens like Aunt Drop Tail, Rusty Roo, and Tootie J. Tootums, and we'll cackle and crow happily.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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