For years now I have stood in the egg section of the supermarket gazing at cartons and wondering what could account for the two-fold price difference between pasture-raised organic and free-range organic. For sure, both options sounded preferable to a caged existence. Yet I just knew, based on the higher price tag, that pastured was somehow better. But who got to experience this “betterness”? Was it the hens themselves? Was it the farmers? Was it the farm? Was it the supermarket? Or was it me, the eater?
To explore these questions I decided to pay a visit to the Cox family egg farm in Summers, Arkansas. I specifically chose their farm because it happens to have both a pastured and a free-range set-up and therefore offered me the perfect controlled experiment to answer my queries: same species of bird, same location, same owner . . . the only thing that was different was the living arrangement.
After spending the morning in a hazmat suit, paper booties, and a hairnet, wandering in and out of chicken barns, it was clear to me that, were I chicken, I would want to be a pastured one. The free-range hen, despite being cage-less and therefore “free,” was packed in a house with 15,000 other birds with outdoor access limited to one narrow, concrete runway. The pastured hen, by contrast, lived 5,000 to a house, spent her days on a quarter acre of pasture, and still had an intact beak. She also had other amenities not afforded her more packed-in cousins, such as perches and laying boxes.
Apparently, my appraisal of these two farming situations is shared by the hens themselves, since pasturing best meets the criteria developed by experts in animal welfare. By having more leg (and wing) room in the barn and all-day access to peck and dust bathe in a field, these layers are less chronically stressed (of course, being outside is not without its scares, such as thunderstorms and hawks, but these strssors are episodic and fleeting—not the slow grind of the overcrowded hen house). Pastured hens are also more able to exert their behavioral freedom, meaning that they are free to perform normal hen activities. So yes, romping and pecking in a field is better for the hens. But is this improved lifestyle worth spending $4.00 extra per dozen?
Hard to say.
Wait . . . the story gets more complicated. The more I researched the difference between these two housing systems, the more I realized that those extra $4.00 were not just an investment in chicken welfare.
First, there was the health of the farm. By feeding on excess bugs, depositing their manure around the pasture, and working it back into the soil, the outdoor hens served as natural insecticides and soil amenders. By contrast, the droppings from the indoor hens collected and stagnated on the concrete floor and could only be used as fertilizer on other farms. In the meantime, it was stored in large methane-producing piles that most affected those within “nose-shot” but were indirectly harmful to all of us, since these collections of manure that are not worked into the soil are a major producer of the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.
The health of the egg farmer and farm worker offer something else to plug into the value-for-your-dollar equation. From the stifling minutes that I spent in the “free range” Arkansas egg henhouse, I can easily believe the studies reporting that workers in these high-density environments suffer from more lower and upper respiratory symptoms and lower lung function than people in almost any other occupation. In the short term, daily exposure to mites, dust, endotoxins, and gasses causes more asthma and wheezing, and in the long term it leads to disabling lung diseases such as emphysema. While these costs are unacceptably high for the workers themselves, we all bear the burden of these occupational dangers in our higher health insurance premiums and higher health care costs.
When you consider the nutritional value of each egg, the equation really shifts. Studies show that sedentary hens that eat only mash produce a less nutritious egg than hens that forage outdoors and eat grass and worms. Specific nutrients mentioned in these studies include vitamins D, A, and E and omega-3 fats. But in the end, it’s taste that makes spending those extra dollars a no-brainer. Maybe it’s the worms or maybe it’s the fact they are not chronically stressed, but boy those pastured eggs are delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I need many fewer of them to be satisfied. (How’s that for price rationalization?)
In the end, my time on the Cox farm offered me the same lesson that I received over and over during my travels to write my new book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. Doesn’t it make sense that we should treat our farms as if they were an extension of our body? And, at the same time, doesn’t it make sense that we treat our bodies in the same way that any mindful farmer treats his or her farm?