Our commitment at Electric City Butcher is to support transparent, responsible sourcing. We want to know that our animals come from California and are raised humanely, sustainably, and without antibiotics, hormones or any other chemicals that shouldn’t be in our food. For us—and for many of our farmers—we can achieve these goals without the organic seal of approval. So does organic really mean that it’s better? I posed that question last week to our straight-shooting farmer friend, Paul Greive.
As CEO of Pasturebird, not only does Paul have some of the tastiest pasture-raised poultry in the country, but his Murrieta, CA chicken ranch (recently featured on CNBC’s Billion Dollar Buyer) uses one of the most sustainable, regenerative and humane—but not always organic—farming methods. Also, business is good, and Pasturebird is quickly becoming known as some of the best chicken in the country.
So is Organic the Gold Standard?
“Far from it,” says Paul during our recent chat.
The founding fathers (and mothers) of the organic movement had the right idea: food should come from local, renewable sources that conserve soil and water, and improve the environment. But then the established food industry discovered they could increase their profits by getting on the organic bandwagon. That’s when things started to go “crazy,” according to Paul.
“Most organic chicken farms today look the same as the biggest, gnarliest industrial farms. And that’s not good.”
Imagine a 600-foot windowless confinement building, like a really long airplane hanger. Now fill it with tens of thousands of fluttering chickens all scratching at a bedding of pine shavings that cakes into a meter-thick ammonia loaf. Massive fans at either end of the barn push dust clouds of chicken shit and dander from one end to the other. The birds drink water from galvanized pipes and dine on organic feed corn that’s more likely to come from India, than Indiana. Does this sound like the organic operation you had in mind?
In fact, the industry has turned so far to the Dark Side that the Organic Trade Association just filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture to require better organic animal welfare standards.
But aren’t organic birds free-range? And doesn’t that mean they can go outside?
Not really. Paul explained that if your food and water are all inside, and there’s this tiny door that opens onto a concrete slab baking in the sun, would you go outside? “Yeah, neither do they.”
But, there are rules about density. Organic farming requires roughly three square feet per bird, right? Certainly, that’s enough to keep them happy and healthy indoors.
Not necessarily. Enclosed bird barns are moist, dark, and densely populated, literally a “breeding ground for disease.” Because of this, some sources suggest that organic poultry operations might even see more deaths than non-organic facilities because they’re not using prophylactic antibiotics. Paul adds how frustrating confinement really is, “when 10 seconds of sunlight is enough to stop a virus like Avian Influenza dead in its tracks.”
Ok, but organic is still better for the environment, right?
Actually, not always. High-density chicken farming has “huge impact on the rural communities where they’re found,” Paul explains. The smell, the water pollution, the manure dust, all of this makes it hard to want to live anywhere near one of these operations.
“We have to figure out how to raise animals responsibly,” continued Paul. “Instead of trying to fight nature, we need to look at nature’s model as the solution.”
Dan Flores’ fantastic book, American Serengeti, describes the beauty and grandeur of the North American Great Plains. For thousands of years, tens of millions of bison, elk, pronghorn and deer were constantly roaming the country looking for food or running from predators. These animals would seasonally mow down the lush grasses of the prairie, leave behind nutrient-rich manure, and—most importantly—move on to greener pastures. The results were a prairie soil so dense and rich with organic weight that people built houses out of the stuff.
“With livestock, manure can be your biggest asset or your biggest liability, explains Paul. “In nature, animals are not stationary, they move. In industrial agriculture, which includes organic poultry, the birds stand still. They live in their own manure and because of that, they get sick. Mobilizing livestock means manure becomes your biggest asset and the best fertilizer mankind has ever known.”
Paul rotates his birds across acres of Southern California grassland using chicken tractor coops (they look kind of like green houses on skis). These open-bottomed houses expose the chickens to their favorite foods: bugs, worms, seeds, and, yes, blades of grass. When the birds have their fill, Paul hooks up his Jeep Wrangler to the front of the coop and pulls it over fresh fields. Each tractor leaves a contrail of muddy earth pecked and scratched clean, but Paul assures me that by the time the chickens are back over that same patch (in about 90 days), the grass is almost too tall for them to get through.
Right now Paul raises thousands of birds every month, but he realizes this model is just a “stepping stone.” How do you pasture-raise more than 8.5 billion chickens a year—the average number of broilers raised in the US annually?
Maybe they can share the land with cattle.
“Absolutely! In nature, beef or bison would always graze the environment first, followed very closely by birds because they would uncover all these bugs and insects and worms that the poultry can get to.”
Paul’s already experienced this reality on his own farms. “It turns out chickens don’t like tall grass,” he explained. “It was either buy a huge lawn mower, or introduce some beef.” Turns out, beef tastes better. So this year, Paul put a few head of cattle and grass-eating Kunekune pigs on his lands, and everyone seems to be getting along.
Ultimately, Paul wants a ‘closed-loop’ where some of the grains he feeds to his chickens could be grown on the land, harvested before the cows mow down the leftovers, and then fed to the chickens to start the whole process again.
So that’s the new standard, I ask?
“It’s the new (old) standard. It’s called Regenerative Agriculture.”
More on that in the next post….
Next Week we’ll continue our conversation with Paul Greive of Pasturebird to learn all about regenerative agriculture.