"This is a bit more confinement than I would like, but it was the only way to stop the predation." The guy from Bittersweet farms turned out to be a really burley fellow with a big beard. He looked kinda bikery, but there weren't any motorcycles, around--precious few internal combustion engines at all. He tills the fields with oxen.
The chickens he was pointing to lived in a small enclosure, maybe ten feet by five feet, which was not fixed to the ground. They ate the grass in the field, and at the end of the day, when they had pecked their little ten foot plot down, they were moved ten feet over. Their feces never built up around them, the way it does in factory farms. Instead, it returned to the soil. They ate mostly grass, which is mostly what they are supposed to eat. They didn't have all the space in the world, but they could move around, and weren't so cramped they had to fight. I imagine that in addition to keeping the predators away, the enclosure is needed to be sure they graze the pasture evenly.
These chickens were being raised for meat, though, so they weren't the ones I wanted to see. I don't eat meat, but I did want to know where my eggs come from. The egg laying chickens lived in a wooden wagon, and could roam around the whole paddock. Their nests lined the edge of the wagon, and little doors gave easy access to fresh eggs. Brian Bennett, the Bittersweet guy, gave me one.
Most of the chickens were red and brown and orange and healthy looking, but there were several coops of white sickly chickens. Brian called them Tyson chickens, emphasizing that Tyson wasn't a real breed name, just a nickname for the kind of chicken preferred by the big industrial growers like Tyson Chicken. The Tyson chickens don't do so well if they aren't in a sterile environment and constantly fed antibiotics, but there isn't much of a market for the darker, gamier meat of the happier looking chickens, so he raises some Tyson birds as well. He does all his own slaughtering ("processing"). He does it on Thursdays.
I'm placing a couple environmental ethics students on the Bennetts' organic farm this semester, and a couple more at the Birdsfoot organic farm (which is also a real live commune!) as a part of the Community Based Learning program. I'm looking forward to working with everyone. I know I'm going to learn a lot.