Back on the farms, some are already putting essential oils into practice. “There are a number of companies that are currently selling plant extracts as feed additive, and large integrated producers are also adding feed additives to their rations to enhance the health of animals, especially their intestinal health, during their production cycle,” Gay says. No one seems willing to readily offer that information, though—and they don’t have to. One farmer who has talked publicly about using essential oils is Scott Sechler, owner of Bell & Evans Farms, a high-end producer of antibiotic-free poultry. Back in 2012, he told the New York Times about his use of oregano oil and cinnamon to fight infection on his farms, which now number about 140 with a total of 9 million chickens at any given time. Though he says the approach worked better than all other options he had tried, he still told the Times, “I have worried a bit about how I’m going to sound talking about this,” adding, “But I really do think we’re on to something here.” He clearly knows about the stigma attached to his approach, despite the fact that it’s working. So,essential oils are truly a secret weapon, an unsung hero being used successfully but not quite openly.
It took Sechler nearly 10 years just to get the people he works with to believe in his method, including farmers, workers at the feed mills, and his own employees, of which there are now around 1,200. He has met his share of skepticism from colleagues, too. For someone who notes that he lacks a formal education, Sechler is at the forefront of some cutting-edge methods (for one, he counts Temple Grandin, the famous animal-science expert, as a friend who helped him implement a humane slaughter system). He has been on the antibiotic-free kick for about 30 years, and he describes his current method in terms of its effects on gut bacteria—another hot topic right now. “We started with a breed of chicken that wasn’t raised to be stressed and overfed and to live in sanitary conditions,” he says. They also feed the chickens high-quality grains enhanced with essential oils, and they avoid the use of toxic chemicals like hexane, which is commonly used by other farmers in processing their feed. “With our chicken breed, housing environment, and feeding program, we’re able to promote healthy gut bacteria—we use oregano oil to kill the bad bacteria and cinnamon oil to support the good bacteria.”
He says his model works for him because he’s not trying to correct a problem that’s already out of control. Some farmers need more powerful weapons because they’re trying to compensate for ongoing problems caused by improper cleaning practices and unsanitary living conditions. They might put baby chickens on the remnants of manure from previous flocks because they don’t properly clean out the barn first, and then they may use chlorine to wash the processed chickens. Whatever bacteria (and antibiotics) that aren’t left at the chicken plant end up on plates. On Sechler’s farms, he says he doesn’t allow these problems to get out of hand in the first place. “You can’t just introduce essential oils into a bad environment and expect magic–—they don’t fix a screw-up,” he says. “But if you meet them halfway by doing things right, they will carry you across the finish line.” People warned him that the bacteria would become resistant to the essential oils, too, but they haven’t yet, and his farms processed over 50 million chickens last year. According to C. Norman Shealy, a Duke-educated neurosurgeon and author of The Healing Remedies Sourcebook: Over 1000 Natural Remedies to Prevent and Cure Common Ailments, it is possible for bacteria to become resistant to essential oils, but it’s unlikely because the oils contain hundreds more chemical compounds than antibiotic medications, making it difficult for bacteria to adapt to the oils.