John Ingraham writes from Bouquet, New York.
I have been raising poultry for 50 years, and the changes I have witnessed are amazing, testimony to the intelligence and dedication of those involved in U.S. agriculture. It is also a tribute to the efficacy and efficiency of the free market. There are statistics in this story, but I think it will be more interesting if I recount my own experiences first (although I raised laying hens and turkeys, this account will be about meat birds - fryers and broilers - only). In the past, setting hens and home incubators were the methods used to procure chicks, but nearly all the chicks raised today come from hatcheries, where eggs are incubated in their thousands. Fifty years ago there were many more hatcheries than there are today, and as they always have a surplus of unwanted chicks, i.e., an egg-laying breed produces as many males as females, and since such males make poor meat birds, what do you do with them? Also, production doesn't always match up with orders, so what do you do with extra chicks? They were offered for sale very cheap, and in spring there were always ads for them in farm papers and country weeklies. I got some chicks that way in the first couple of years. They weren't really much of a bargain because they didn't put on much weight; if you want to produce meat, you must start with a breed developed for that purpose.
We lived in Massachusetts for nine years, and each year we raised 100 layers, mostly Golden Comets, and 100 meat birds, Barred Rocks, but when we moved to the mid-West in 1971, our practice changed in response to demand: we raised fewer layers and more meat birds. Gradually I built up a business in young chicks from 4 to 6 weeks old (the buyers would then raise them to the desired size), so each spring I raised hundreds of birds bought as day-old chicks, by mail, from a hatchery in Pennsylvania.
Handling so many birds year after year, I was bound to notice differences and developments. We dropped Barred Rocks in favor of White Cornish, a bird that grew faster in a plumper, more compact form, and as time passed I saw that they were growing faster, but they also had problems: sometimes their legs would fail them, and once in a while one would keel over with a heart attack. Then there were a couple of years when they wouldn't go out in the yard but would just sit by the feed trough, stuffing themselves. I wrote to the hatchery, not to complain, but to ask about these developments, and I received an illuminating reply. The man explained that fast food outlets created such a demand for compact, deep-breasted chickens that could be grown quickly to 3 pounds or so, dressed, (good fryer size), that breeders were on their mettle, and what I had been observing over the years were signs of work going forward. Soon, as breeders continued their work, problems like weak legs and hearts and stick in the mud chicks disappeared. Today we grow day-old chicks in 6 weeks to 3 or 4 pounds dressed, a plump, flavorful fryer. All our chicks of whatever breed are much healthier, more robust, and we have far fewer losses, which used to be quite common in the first couple of weeks.
Here are statistics to back up my experience: per-capita consumption of chicken rose from just 1 pound in 1900 to over 80 pounds today, probably because of the relentless decline in production costs from $2.10 in 1945 to 25 cents today. Going back to 1925, the average chicken took 112 days to reach a market weight of 2.2 pounds (live). Feed conversion was 4.7 pounds of feed per pound of gain and mortality was 18 percent. Today a chicken reaches slaughter weight of 5 pounds (live) in 42 days. Feed conversion is 1.8 pounds of feed for 1 pound of gain, and mortality is 5 percent. Improved genetics, poultry health, and nutrition caused most of this, but grain genetics is important, too, because it increased the nutritive value of corn and reduced its cost of production.
As I said before, I think this is an amazing story, and because it has acted itself out in my life I am all the more impressed. What's even more amazing is that there are people who look upon this story with horror and disgust, and they are not merely cranks but a menace, not only to agriculture, but to our freedom and prosperity. I did not write this essay just to tell you about chicken-raising; I want to describe and analyze these reactionaries because they are significant, and I don't think most of us, with our focus on politics and Washington, know much, if anything, about them.
When I first met them in the late 1960s I thought of them as Country Fakes, pointing to a salient characteristic: whether living in the countryside or not, they think of themselves as countrymen or identify themselves and their interests with the countryside. An imagined place, that is, because they know nothing about it and do nothing in it (aside, perhaps, from a garden). They know nothing because, if they live in the countryside it is always in a fake place, a stage setting in places like Vermont. In the second place, they already hold strong beliefs about the countryside, beliefs which bolster their egos. An example: the CF believes that the countryside, in its proper state is "natural" and "organic," so he regards the farmer spreading fertilizer or spraying crops as a despoiler. Of course, it inflates his self-esteem (always high) to look down at the benighted farmer in this way.
CFs are usually well-off, with trust funds or fluff jobs with outfits supported by government subsidies, so they have plenty of time for causes, of which there are legions. Greenism is the most important cause, so CFs are always opposed to development, especially of energy sources (Vermont is the first state to ban fracking). Their defining cause is condemnation of modern agriculture in favor of a mythic past before, supposedly, hybrids and genetic modifications. That agricultural developments are swayed by market forces makes them even more detestable. All food co-ops and country magazines are full of propaganda like this.
Although not doctrinaire lefties, CFs share with them ignorance of basic economics: that we live in a regime of scarcity where we cannot pluck trees for bread but must establish priorities to guide economic decisions, and those priorities are largely determined by demand in the marketplace. Fast food outlets wanted a certain size and shape of chicken, and they wanted it faster and cheaper, so the breeders obliged. CFs condemn not only the market incentive but the result: such chickens are not, cannot be as "healthful" (always big with these people) as chickens bred and raised the old-fashioned way. Such nonsense is preached all day, every day in places like Vermont and in famed agricultural journals like The New York Times.
Do not conclude that they're just a bunch of nuts; they are determined enemies of modern farming (as well as of everything else important to a developed economy, like energy). And they are having an effect: fast food outlets like Burger King have decided, pressed by CFs, to buy eggs only from hens raised outside of cages, meaning more stress on hens and higher costs of production. They have intimidated farmers from growing genetically modified crops. Once-great agricultural colleges, like Cornell, are now full of Green propaganda. It behooves us to pay attention to these reactionaries, to learn all that we can about these issues, and to expose and to confront their dangerous and destructive courses. *