The Country Hen’s evolution to raising hens outdoors

The Country Hen was founded by George Bass after his experiences running a commercial poultry operation, complete with its own feed mill, in Bogota, Colombia. The feed ingredients available were grown using heavy amounts of pesticides and herbicides. This weighed heavily on him and, after reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” he was inspired to produce eggs based on natural and organic principles, making life better for the birds as well as reducing the chemical exposure for humans.

He packed up and came back to the United States in search of a facility and landed in a little town called Hubbardston, Massachusetts. The hens would be fed with natural and certified organically grown ingredients to accomplish a great tasting egg, high in Omega-3s. He worked with poultry specialists and nutritionists to carefully cultivate rations that would meet the nutritional needs of the hens and produce the first organic Omega-3 eggs to market. He also altered the living conditions for the hens, creating a cage-free, free-roaming environment within the houses, allowing the hens to forage, scratch and dust bathe. All of the barns were outfitted with rows of windows, and provided with seasonably appropriate open windows for plenty of fresh air and sunlight. Above all, his goal was to provide as many people as possible with the healthiest and best tasting eggs.  

As a result of a lot of hard work, George’s dream began to take shape, then flourish and begin growing at a remarkable speed. He started to attend meetings regarding the drafting of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), even traveling with four stuffed hens in a typical egg production cage as a visual aid to show how cages should not be allowed in organic production. Many of you may remember him, cage in hand, at the earlier meetings—We can so clearly picture him heading off to the train station, satchel in one hand, cage of stuffed chickens in the other.  He relied heavily on animal science regarding the health and welfare of the hens, and wanted to share that knowledge with the creators of OFPA, working so that all members of the organic egg production community would have established, clear rules and a level playing field for all.  

In March 2000, the National Organic Program placed a proposed rule in the Federal Register. Among the many components of that rule was a section dedicated to organic livestock living conditions. With so many varied production methods in place among all of the organic egg production, providing access to the outdoors became a challenging consideration. We ran some experiments with allowing the hens to have access to the soil at various densities, and each experiment raised additional concerns and questions regarding how to follow the proposed rule and still protect the health and well-being of the hens.

Poultry husbandry textbooks, our past experiences, and even federal food safety guidelines touted the importance of keeping layer hens from comingling with wild avian species. With our farm located directly in a major migratory flyway and in a rural community, it was a regular occurrence to have Canada geese, turkeys, and other waterfowl visit the farm. We struggled with how we would be able to protect our hens from exposure to these wild birds.  

We reached out to our customers. Over 80% of them responded that they would prefer that we not provide the chickens with access to the outdoors. While the results were still filtering in, the idea of porches as outdoors access for this location was floated among the management team. We could build porches onto each building and cover them with bird netting on the sides, and a clear roof that would allow plenty of sunshine, but not wild birds mingling with them. We worked hard on the logistics, getting all of the details right, certain we had found the perfect answer to fully fulfill the law, and still keep the hens healthy and protected.  

Our organic certifier did not agree, and issued a non-compliance and denial of certification, stating that we did not provide access to the outdoors. In danger of being put out of business by this denial of certification, we appealed the decision to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Our appeal was sustained; the certifier was informed that the plan we provided complied with the law, and that they needed to issue us certification. We continued on with business, getting all of the porches built, producing the best eggs, right here on our farm.

Over time, we starting realizing a gradual shift in our consumers’ opinions of outdoor access. More of our customers were calling or writing indicating that while the safety and well-being of the hens was their first priority as well, it would be great if we could somehow find a way to keep them safe AND provide them access to the soil.

With greater resources available to us by this time, we started our research anew, looking into possibilities.

We spoke with egg industry experts around the country, communicated with poultry specialists both in the United States and abroad. We brought in avian veterinarians, and spoke to poultry nutritionists as well, all with the goal of safely allowing the hens to have access to soil without negatively impacting their health and well-being, or that of the eggs or the environment.

During this process, we’ve learned about new nutritional aids to further boost bird health, a lot about organic methods of deterring wild birds from visiting, and pasture management techniques to help protect the environment. We have a solid support network among the company, and felt encouraged and confident that we were ready to take this next step.  

Today, The Country Hen is Certified Humane in addition to being certified organic, and our hens have access to the outdoors on the ground. We’ve worked hard to turn what was once thought impossible at this location, into our new reality. And we are so proud and honored to be continuing to supply consumers with organic Omega-3 eggs using what we believe are the best organic practices. //

This article was written by Bob Beauregard and Sheila TaylorBob Beauregard is General Manager of The Country Hen, while Sheila Taylor is Branch Controller.


EDITOR’S NOTE

In 2002, The Country Hen was denied organic certification because its operation included roofed, screened-in porches instead of allowing hens unfettered access to grass and soil. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, however, overruled that denial. The unintended consequence of this action caused a severe split in the organic industry.

Since then, through an exhaustive, transparent process, a final rule to implement Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices establishing an unambiguous and enforceable USDA organic standard for outdoor access was published in January 2017. Subsequent actions by USDA to delay and then withdraw that rule have resulted in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Organic Trade Association and other stakeholders who seek to see well-defined animal welfare standards in place. This End Piece explains the evolution of The Country Hen’s journey to pursue outdoor access for its hens.

Regarding food safety and egg quality, consistent with the findings of The Country Hen’s process, there is no conclusive scientific evidence or consensus that chickens raised outdoors on soil increases the prevalence of Salmonella in certified organic poultry farms in the United States.