Poultry Farm Ethics

I braced myself for a horrific scene as the Ollen brothers opened the door to their poultry operation. We were asked to put plastic sleeves over our shoes, which they assured us was to protect the chickens from exposure to bacteria and viruses we could carry in on our shoes. I was a bit skeptical – the plastic casing could have also been to protect ourselves from spreading the avian manure through the rest of the facility. The door creaked open, and the sound of thousands of birds flooded my eardrums.

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The dim lighting lent itself to highlight the hazy atmosphere; dust filled my lungs with as I drew in my first breath inside of a poultry house. “Well…at least it smells better than Guano“, I thought to myself as we delved deeper into the half-acre building. I peered through the dust at the tiny birds running away from the cold air blasting through the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes. While the conditions were much better than I had anticipated, I was still disappointed with what I saw. The chickens were mangy – missing patches of feathers, exposing their raw pink skin. The chickens collapse under their own weight, waddling around until their bones cannot support their weight anymore. While I visually absorbed this site, I listened to the facts the farmers rattled off to our group.

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Allen Ollen supplied us with information regarding the growing process of these animals. Their diet consists of a combination of mostly corn, soybeans, and wheat; this concoction successfully allows chickens to grow at an incredibly accelerated rate. In addition to diet, the lighting within the poultry houses is strictly regulated in order to change their sleep patterns. For example, by the time these chickens are 28 days old, the enclosed area only receives one hour of darkness. The idea here is to keep the chickens awake for a maximum amount of time, increasing the potential for the animals to ingest more food, which will allow them to put on more weight. While each batch of 30,000 birds takes 38 days to grow to the desired size, two weeks are granted as a grace period between flock production. But while the group nodded in agreement with Allen’s commentary, I shook my head in disbelief.

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Allen disclosed that the purpose for enclosing the entire structure is to reduce stress for the chickens; they were no longer disturbed by the feeding trucks, and had “no predators”. This statement absolutely blew my mind. First of all, the conditions these chickens are in are incredibly stressful. They develop muscle faster than their bone structure can keep up with, are forced into irregular sleep patterns, and fed a diet designed to have the chickens grow rapidly. Second, no predators? This business is a predator, and a smart one at that for housing the prey itself. I have a difficult time digesting that people are willing to accept this standard of life for these beings, and claim that they are happy. Food and water and shelter is all they need, right?  Source: Google Images

These animals still suffer from neglect, having never seen the sun, and a lifespan of merely 38 days. This process is disturbing, and I am appalled that our society has allowed it to persist for so long. And although this facility is better than most, it disgusts me knowing there are poultry growing sites with worse conditions. This mass production of flesh is an unnecessary means, and will never feed the world as people suppose it can. CAFOs will only ever be the source of world hunger, starving poorer peoples of the grains that could be utilized to feed their families. I can only hope that I will see the day that large scale flesh factories are no longer in operation.

The Mighty Susquehanna

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We scrambled into our canoes, eager to begin our journey on the mighty Susquehanna. I remember Doug imploring us to rip our eyes away from the beautiful landscape and look beneath us – what did we see? Was it the murky, contaminated waters we had been warned about before beginning our adventure? Quite the contrary – the water was clear. Had it been in a water bottle, nobody would have been the wiser, and could have thought it came straight from the tap. But I was immediately overcome with disbelief. If this was the water flowing into the bay, why does this beautiful river have such a bad reputation?

An interaction between Nature and Culture unveils itself here. Our current means of obtaining sustenance is a reflection of our culture, which inevitably negates natural cycles found in nature. Intense manipulation of the landscape is the first problem in the agricultural equation. Tilling topsoil increases the rate of erosion, which increases turbidity of the water. Normally, an increase is viewed as a positive effect, a net gain. However, turbidity is frowned upon, as it is a lack of water clarity. Now, an important point to make is the lack of farming in the area we paddled through. The upper Susquehanna consists of residential communities and strip malls, not agriculture. But the upper part of river did not always appear this pristine. Susquehanna Outfitters owner, Steve, informed us about his childhood experience on the river – which was nonexistent.

Steve shared with us some dark history of the beautiful waterway. Coal mining was an intense business decades ago, and coal dust saturated the river. Soot stained the water black; there was no life in the water. Yet another example of how our culture destroys the beauty of nature. Coal mining was certainly beneficial to society, however, annihilated biodiversity in the river. Steve informed us that many of the islands found on the river are built upon coal dust deposits. This, therefore, could potentially lend itself to contaminating the river water, as the pH level of the water would be negatively influenced by the acid leeching from this widely used energy source. Yet Steve taught us a valuable lesson – inspect the invertebrates of the water to determine its health.

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After dividing into groups, we conquered Steve’s simple assignment:  inspect the underside of as many stones as possible to fill up the immaculate dividing containers bestowed upon us. In simpler terms, put a different organism in each section of the ice cube tray. I couldn’t believe how simple this experiment was, and how crucial it is in order to determine the health of the waterway. We discovered a plethora of species, including crayfish, mayflies, and assorted worms. The importance of the exercise was not simply find the organism, jump for joy that there is sign of life, and move on. Steve broke it down a step further, organizing them by how toxic of an environment they can survive in. The mayfly was the most important, as these critters cannot survive in highly contaminated waters. But the question is, are there mayflies throughout the river, or just at the top?

Had we been able to continue to the lower Susquehanna, I’m positive we would have discovered more turbidity due to agriculture. We came across many individuals throughout Journey Two that claimed the Bay is filthy due to the Susquehanna. There must be some reason behind all of the fuss over this river. But if this is not the case, then we must go back to a smaller source. We must discover the health of the brooks and streams that feed the Susquehanna. Everybody is willing to point fingers at the larger issue in order to keep them from changing their ways.

Agriculture may not back up immediately to the Susquehanna, but to smaller tributaries that feed the mighty river. This would require tighter restrictions and regulations to clean up the issue. While on the Chester River there are buffer zone requirements, these are not always abided by. The same may be true to areas feeding to the Susquehanna. If there is no land and vegetation to deter run off from entering the stream, then obviously contaminated water will find its way to the bay. In order to solve this problem, it must become a community wide effort, and everyone must stop pointing fingers. Nobody wants to point to themselves in the mirror, telling themselves to clean up their dirty farming practices. But this is what must occur in order to see any positive result in the bay.

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Only so much can be accomplished once contaminated waters reach the bay. But if we begin at the source, minimizing the chemicals and sediment seeping into the freshwater system, then the Bay may have some hope. A cleaner Bay may be seen in the distant future. The transformation would not occur over night, but I challenge farmers along this mighty, beautiful waterway to clean up their practice. If you love the Bay, and you want clean water, then you need to be willing to take the first step. Start cleaning up your act today to ensure clean water for the future.