Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Cane Cutters

My love of chickens and my love for the Island of Hispaniola blossomed at the same time. Farming in New England afforded me a bit of time to travel during the winter and I fell madly in love with the Dominican Republic.  My passion to share a vision in creating a world where we connect with and treat our “food” in a dignified way followed me in my travels. On the Island, I saw on the outskirts of the cane fields the real cost of our sugar through the inhumane conditions in which these workers were subjected.
Segregated in the Batey, the shanty towns where the Haitian Cutters and their families lived, I learned the land and animals are not only ones who suffer in our cold and ruthless quest for cheap food.

This summer, as part of the ongoing, centuries old tensions between the Dominican and Haitian governments, the Dominican Supreme Court ruled to revoke the citizenship of all Haitians immigrants who could not prove their legal status all the way back to 1929.
This has left the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the cane cutters without a country. Born, raised and living in the Dominican Republic, these children of Haitian decent have not rights, no legal way to travel, marry, work or receive an education and as of now, no hope for their future.

Many friends and colleagues have been forwarding me articles speaking to the International outrage over this ruling. The solution being put forth by many in the International community is to boycott travel to the DR and places the blame for the situation solely on the Dominicans. This is not only unfair to the average Dominican citizen, it is unwarranted and continues to absolve the responsibly every one of us plays in this horrific human condition. 

The Dominican government is faced with limited resources on a small Island with millions of people and an extremely unstable situation in bordering Haiti. It does not solely own the cane fields, nor due the resort employees who will be the first to suffer with any kind of significant travel boycott. The Dominican Government is not to blame for the economic reality that sugar that is only available to us through the abuses and inhumane treatment of the workers who cut the cane.

They play part their part, but so do all of us.

As long as we continue to demand full shelves with every imaginable food, at every moment of every day at a hugely subsidized cost, these moral violations of all living beings will continue. Relying on corporations, who are driven only by profit, to provide us with our food, will guarantee the continuation of the atrocities to our land, our animals and our fellow human beings. People are designed to care, but we care in small intimate settings. When we lose a direct connection to our food, we lose our ability to care.

Eating and buying local affords us the opportunity to support a size community for which we can care. Those foods which cannot be supported with the local community should be expensive, rare and hard to obtain. Cheap food, grown harvested, and butchered far away from our everyday experience has made us forget how labor intensive and difficult it is to produce and distribute.

The cane cutters are only one example of the hidden costs in our food. Behind the scenes of this inexpensive commodity is essentially slavery. It always has been.  The plight of the Haitians in the Dominican Republic is not because of a barbaric government, but rather a barbaric world.

We live in a world where we continue to turn a blind eye to our moral compass in our demand for the cheap abundant selection on our grocery shelves.  If we really care about the Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic, or the hens in the layer factories, then the change needs to start with us, and our expectations and relationship with our  food.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Proudly Sewn in the Dominican Republic

What better place to produce such a whimsical and fun product then among the big smiles and island music of the Dominican Republic. A look behind the scenes of the chicken attire production reveals a mission of social change and meaningful employment to a group often overlooked and under-served, the women of Puerta Plata!

Nestled in between the mountains and the sea, Puerta Plata is home to beautiful beaches, bustling commerce and bountiful agriculture. Behind the scenes of this perfect climate, picturesque pasture, and spectacular coastline, live the unnoticed women- the widows, single mothers, and the undocumented descendants of the sugar cane workers, immigrants who have crossed the mountains in hopes of finding a better life, escaping the barren land and desperate poverty of Haiti.

I came to the island years ago as most do, to relax and enjoy the luxuries of the resorts. However, as glorious as the resorts are, it was the people, their music, their smiles, their outlook, who made a lasting impression.  The island is welcoming, warm, fun, and full of love. Venturing outside of the resorts opened up a whole new world for me- a world of lasting friendships, epic adventures, and a love for dancing Merengue.

Despite the magic of the tropical paradise, there is no denying the desperate poverty which surrounds far too much of the population. Connivance's America’s poor take for granted such as flushing toilets, running water and reliable electricity are luxurious for only a few. In stark contrast to the endless all you can eat buffets of the resorts, the children of the hotel workers are living on meals of rice, beans and salami.

While listening to friends, volunteers, and ex-pats discuss the woes of the island late into the night, the reoccurring theme was always "no jobs"…the lack of well-paying steady jobs. As a lifelong entrepreneur I always had a dream I would be able to give back to an island that had given me so much and these conversations planted a seed which over the last few years has begun to grow.

Pampered Poultry was born almost by accident; it has blossomed through a collective passion for poultry shared by our customers and by our society’s growing interest in backyard chicken keeping and a collective desire to share in the local food movement and a need to be closer to our food, healthy and more in harmony with nature.

As the business grows here in this country, it has also afforded the opportunity to include the women whom I had met and promised to help on the island. Diana, the owner of Suncamp, and a tireless supporter of the Haitian community in Munoz, has been a partner is getting the idea for a sewing co-op off the ground. She has generously opened her apartments for sewing space, shared her connections in the community and through her foundation has helped to start what we hope will on day grow into a self-sustaining organization that offers it members good pay  and educational opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

Right now the group is small, 6 dedicated women, 3 Dominicans and 3 Haitians working side by side. Pampered Poultry is the primary client, but we are working on bringing other companies into the co-op. We are also supporting the women and their children by offering our customers and their friends the opportunity to purchase the required school uniform, which the women will sew and then donate to a child who would otherwise not have the resources to attend school.

We are working together to create a world where all our friends, including those with feathers, can enjoy a good life- as we all deserved to be pampered!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

NPR’s blog “The Salt” recently did a story about chicken diapers, in which I was interviewed. The headline was “Urban Farming Spawns Accessory Lines.” It was a light-hearted article which quietly poked fun at the notion of diapering a chicken…a fair criticism to be sure. The comments overwhelming indicated NPR readers felt pampering poultry was just another indicator of America’s consumer based insanity.

Now, surprisingly, I’m inclined to be the first to agree. In my personal quest for simplicity in an agrarian based lifestyle, the fact I’m encouraging and promoting such decadent frivolousness as clothing for what should be food seems contradictory.  After all, half the world is starving and I’m marketing, as the article says “lingerie for your chicken.”

However, the Backyard Chicken Movement I believe is a revolution of sorts. And just like any revolution, it takes all kinds to make the kind of impact that truly brings forth change. The end game I believe in all of this chicken craze is to help our society collectively “wake up” and understand the inherit evil in our current food systems and the crimes we are all collectively committing in the blind eye we are continuing to afford the practice of factory farming.

All kinds of people with different agendas and different solutions are currently working together (although perhaps unconsciously) toward what has become in the last 10 years the Backyard Chicken Movement.

Animal activists work hard at exposing the horrors, the dreadful conditions in poultry houses where millions of birds are kept and workers wear gas masks when they enter, to the artificial solutions pumped into the meat etc, etc. Breeders are working at saving heritage breeds and promoting qualities that do not focus exclusively on meat or egg production. Political activists are changing zoning laws and city ordinances allowing small backyard flocks to flourish in environments outside of traditional farms. And I, along with others, spreading the word that chickens are can more than just dinner…they can be a valued part of the family. The result, America is starting to listen.

Anything that starts to awaken the cultural consciousness to bring us closer to nature and the source of our food, I believe is playing a key role in the end game, the elimination of factory farms for all animals.

By presenting poultry fashion to the market, I truly believe I am supporting those who treat their chickens as pets, but I’m also helping to bring awareness to non-poultry lovers that chickens are more than a breast or an egg. All chickens deserve more humane treatment then what it is afforded them in commercial poultry operations, where they are not a bird, a part of nature, but purely a commodity. While part of our lives, even if their fate is to be our dinner, all poultry deserves to be pampered.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Escape Artists

The first time it happened, I did not think too much about it. A knock on the door in the wee hours of the morning by the police…but by the third time I was combing the vast fields surrounding my house looking for two very naughty ponies in the freezing cold and total darkness, I was ready to admit I have a problem.

While I am snuggled up warmly in my bed, my ponies have decided before the snow comes, they will use the middle of night to travel the countryside in quest of any last remaining grass patches on which they can nibble. They do not escape during the day. Ah no for even they know that is far too obvious, and they are unlikely to graze unseen.  They wait until the coldest, darkest parts of the night, when the roads are empty and even the dairy farmers are asleep.

The first morning, when I was awakened by an officer asking if I was missing any miniature horses, their escape path was clear. I looked out the window and saw the fence was broken. After retrieving them from the neighbor’s yard, who of course had generously provided them with apples, bread and other goodies to keep them from moving on, I fixed their pen and went to work feeling like that was an unfortunate one-time event. I was just happy the ponies were safe and sound, and I was not arrested for animal neglect, neighbor’s Christmas decoration vandalism or any other such travesty that could befall the owner of rogue ponies.

The next night it was closer to 2am when the knock on the door awoke me from sleep. This time an older gentleman was inquiring if I was missing any ponies, as he just saw two galloping down the cornfield alongside my house. I woke up Bridget, threw on some clothes and headed out after them. However, now ten minutes after their last sighting, they had disappeared.

Thinking of the fabulous junk food breakfast they had been served the day before, we headed to the neighbor’s house hoping to find them. Alas, no ponies. An hour later, frozen, tired and crabby, we spotted them grazing in a tall patch of grass not far off the road. Walking them home, sputtering under my breath, we arrive back at their pen to find it perfectly intact, gate closed. How did they get out?

Turns out in talking with other pony owners, ponies, if so inclined, will carefully step through the tape on a paddock, without disturbing the tape. The first time, they were sloppy and left obvious evidence, but now it appeared they mastered the art of a graceful escape.

I would like to say I have solved this problem, but just last night, the dogs started barking and all suspicions were confirmed, as a large dark objects were spotted galloping down the field. Sure enough… no ponies…no broken fence...and another late night of tracking my naughty boys through the dark pastures that surround my house. Covered with burs, and happily munching the last bits of greenery that still survive in the fields, my ponies looked at me, bundled in my coat, flashing my light in their eyes, as much as to say “Come on, we know this will all be gone soon…we just can’t resist the last taste of autumn.”  I never thought I would say this, and those who know me will be in shock, but I truly, from the bottom of my heart, hope the snow comes soon! 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why Pampered Poultry?

The most common question I am asked is “Do chickens really wear diapers?” When I respond yes, the corresponding question is “Why?”

The obvious answer is to keep chicken poop off your clothes, carpet and car. However, the real answer is much more subtle.

When my daughter and I set out to design and sell chicken diapers, it was born not so much out of a need to literally pamper our poultry, but rather to share in the growing movement to bring chickens from an agriculture sphere and into the suburban/urban realm. We wanted to be part of the “Backyard Chicken” movement.

Our experience with chickens has led us down a path of small scale animal husbandry, adding pigs, goats, geese and emu’s to our collection of animals. Yet, chickens are still the most fascinating and practical members of our animal family.

All other farm additions have required significant investment in housing, fencing, land and time. On the other hand, chickens are affordable to purchase, house and feed, while requiring little time.

Yet, despite their economy, they offer fresh eggs, endless entertainment and built-in composting. Each bird has a distinct personality and each breed offers unique characteristics and colors, making them beautiful and intriguing yard ornaments, as well as practical food providers.

 As interest in chickens and fresh eggs continues to gain momentum, more and more towns and cities are allowing for a small number of hens to grace even a well-manicured suburban setting. These small zoning changes are in part because people are treating their small flocks, not as an agriculture endeavor, but rather an extension of their family and feel they should have the same rights as the family dog or cat.

That being the case, a chicken that is sick or the center of attention at a play date, is sure to make it inside the home on occasion.  In such events, certain needs must be addressed…hence the diapers.
Our chicken diapers are practical (or as practical as such an item can be) but more importantly they are a material example of the way in which chickens are entering into the suburban backyard. In a world where most people are completely removed from their food source, often feeling desperately out of touch with natural food production, the chicken offers a practicable connection to both, without evoking a huge commitment of either time or money.

Each morning as you feed the chickens the table scraps from the night before, and collect a couple of eggs for breakfast, if even for a small moment one can experience the joy of knowing your food. It is a small but meaningful way to stop the cycle of commercial food production, and it offers romantic appeal…a small window into the peace and satisfaction of an agrarian life.

Our chicken diapers are our way of embracing and celebrating what we believe is a powerful and important movement, Backyard Chickens. We want to be part of a society that values our food and how it is produced and cares about the lives of all animals. We want to be part of a world where chickens are pampered!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Eggs of Many Colors

It is not hard to find supporters for farm fresh eggs. Everyone loves the idea their eggs are coming from happy healthy chickens, who are lovingly cared for by a farmer.  The dark yolks and clean taste that only a truly fresh egg can provide is seen by many as reason enough to source local fresh eggs.
Today, as I was washing the eggs I had collected from my eclectic free range hens, I was reminded of another powerful reason to support backyard poultry flocks, using all and wasting none.

All of a sudden, when the birds are yours, every egg they produce becomes a gift to cherish and marvel. The demand for perfect, identical eggs disintegrates, as you feel the satisfaction of collecting what your hens have provided for you and your family to eat.
In commercial production, eggs are graded. Only a perfect egg, inside and out, can be sold as Grade AA. Eggs are also sized. Only the eggs that make the “grade” are found in the supermarket.
Any eggs that do not meet the strict requirements for egg grading are often used for non-food applications, thus technically not wasted, but, that only works well in huge commercial operations where it makes sense to source a volume buyer of the “wasted” eggs. For small egg producers this is not practicable.

Many local farmers’ markets have a requirement that eggs must be graded in order to sell. This sounds good, right? We all want to know that what we are buying is good, safe and will work in our baking recipes. However, the unintended consequence to this is it discourages flock diversity and results in waste, often making it impossible for a small scale chicken operation to exist.
 I cannot sell most of my eggs at one of these restricted markets. Even though my family and neighbors love and enjoy the eggs my chickens produce, I could never have enough of one size and grade to practically sell dozens each week.
Case in point, this morning, my eggs were blue, green, chocolate and white and all varied in size. The eggs from my bantam hens were small, the egg from my old hen was wrinkly, and the egg from my Copper Maran was 1/3 larger than the one she laid yesterday. One had some freckle spots and one was long and narrow compared to another one laid by the same breed.

Now you might be quietly thinking to yourself, wow, she has reject chickens, but that is just not true! Each hen in her own right is a beautiful representation of her breed. However, some are 2 or 3 years old and Misty, my girl who lays wrinkly eggs 2 or 3 times a week, is over 7. Some lay perfect eggs 5 days a week and one day, it just comes out a bit funky. This is the reality of backyard chickens.

Those perfectly sized eggs, in completely uniform color are the result of young birds, with a close generic makeup and still represent only a fraction of what was originally laid in the factory.  Those birds that lay perfect eggs for a year are killed to make room for a new batch. Even though they might lay strong for another couple of years, a factory can’t suffer the loss of productivity as the hens go through their annual molt. Plus, when you consider these factories are housing millions of birds, the loss in productivity of even 10 or 20 eggs a years is significant and ensures a death sentence for all hens over 12 months in age.

Perfect uniform eggs might be what people want, and what the government demands, but that is not what happens on a healthy, bio-genetically diverse farm.

I, for one, love my mixed basket. Each egg tastes delicious in my breakfast or in my custard for dessert.  I smile when I crack open Misty’s egg, although wrinkled and ugly on the outside, inside it has a bright yolk that reminds me of how she is enjoying her later years, foraging for a variety of delicacies in my garden and the nearby fields, living her life fully, and contently, while still providing, albeit a bit less, for my family.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Roasted Griffin

I am not a vegetarian. That is not to say I don’t spend a fair amount of time thinking I should be. Eating animals is a way of life for me. I grew up in a house where a squirrel stealing from the bird feeder ended up in a meat pie for dinner, venison and grouse were a fall tradition, and tours of my father’s family slaughter house started around four years old.

Killing animals was never woman’s work in our family, cooking them was. Preparing meat has always been part of cooking and I, like most people, go out of my way to distance myself from the reality that pork is really a pig, beef is really a cow, and boneless chicken breast is really a muscle cut from the body of a once live, feathered bird.

All that started to change when I began farming. I started my farming life with chickens, the egg laying sort-  happy hens who peck in the yard and provide beautiful blue eggs every morning. My chickens provided breakfast in exchange for treats and shelter. They did not sacrifice their very being for dinner.

However, as fate would have it, we ended up with one too many roosters.  Both our roosters, Griffin and Shadow, were gorgeous boys, but they fought. Over time it became clear one had to go. It seemed the most logical thing to do was prepare one for dinner.

It was decided that Griffin would be the one to grace the table that evening. I wish I could say it was I who had the personal courage to be the one to end the life I had so caringly raised. I still to this day find a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in my inability to kill an animal for food, yet I eat them on a regular basis. Although that is not entirely true, as I have mastered killing a chicken, but it is still a dreaded task, one that makes me weep in sorrow as soon as the head hits the ground.

A friend served as the executioner that day, leaving me the task of preparing the body. After plucking, gutting and cleaning, I was left with a scrawny four or five pound bird, certainly not the Perdue to which I was accustomed. Still, determined my family would enjoy and thoroughly appreciate the sacrifice Griffin had made for the nourishment of my family, I carefully seasoned and put the bird in the oven.

Here is where it all falls apart. I roasted Griffin with all the love and respect I had and it was horrible. He was tough and skinny. The amount of meat on his body was barely enough to feed one, which was fine because barely one person was interested in eating this awful tasting bird.

I was devastated. All my build up over producing my own meat and living the dream of eating food I raised and cared for myself, outside of the awful, cruel realities of the slaughterhouse, was crushed in one harsh blow. What happened? What went wrong?

It became my quest to understand why my chicken was so awful and why a Perdue was so juicy and tender.

I have over time, learned the answer. It is not pretty. My chicken was not a meat bird, but rather the useless male of an egg laying breed. Unfortunately the fate of these males in the factory farms, is death at birth. On backyard farms, the males might make  it to the dinner table, but only if they are young and only in a stew pot, never as an oven roaster.

Grocery store meat birds are no longer a natural breed. They are unable to reproduce and if not slaughter within 8 weeks, can no longer walk and often will die to an exploded heart. On top of this gruesome fact, our tender juicy Perdues are injected with a salt water solution. Even the manufactured Frankenstein birds are not juicy enough for our palette and are artificially flavored and enhanced.

Roasted Griffin never stood a chance. My desperate desire to feel an intimate connection with my food, ended in a reality far worse then simply my lack of ability to be the executioner. It forced me to understand the challenges we face as a culture in regards to meat production and consumption are not so easily solved. 

For me, the whole experience made me think hard about my relationship with meat. Although I still have not made the commitment to a purely vegitarien diet, I am much closer then I was. I try to eat meat sparingly and when I do, I make a conscious and concerted effort to prepare it with care.

Animals play a key role in sustainable agriculture. Their waste is invaluable fertilizer, and their offspring provide much needed income during non-vegetable seasons. Their presence on the farm is also an endless source of inspiration, without which, farming for me would be incomplete.

The reality that our reliance on factory farming to feed our population’s unrelenting desire for large quantities of meat has created a system of highly processed and medicated meat of which that production can not be reproduced on any small humane farm for a price considered affordable by the masses is heartbreaking.  Unless as a culture we collectively value the animals and demand dignity to their life from birth through slaughter, and adjust our diets and budgets accordingly, factory farms will continue to be the ethical abomination of our society. One that  I, who spends many hours fretting over such issues, still play too large a part.

Every day I get up and take care of my animals, some who are destined for the table, and I dream of a different future. I know if we all become vegetarians, maybe the world would be a better place. But in that world my pigs would have no future. I instead prefer to dream of a future where meat is sacred and we all consume small amounts of this precious gift from the earth, always remembering the sacrifice made for our meal, while rejoicing and being thankful for the place we hold in the circle of life.