Pasture Raised vs. Cage Free
We are largely disconnected from the food we eat. Despite the pastoral narratives our egg cartons depict, the real story behind our eggs is probably much different.
Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm perfers to say that her chickens are "pastured" instead of "free range" because there is imprecision used to describe how chickens are raised. The term "cage free," for example, could be used to mean poultry raised indoors with little or no access to outdoors.
Alexis treats her chickens with love and a real respect for their gifts of eggs and meat. They are raised humanely and given all the room they need outside to be what they really are and, in return, give us the best of what they are.
Deciphering Your Egg Carton with Alexis Koefoed
Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, California, recalls the first time she heard the term cage-free: “I got kind of excited. I thought maybe there were free chickens running around. It took a little research, and I found out it didn’t mean much. Actually, the chickens were still in big huge houses on industrial factory farms. I didn’t think it was anything more than just good marketing, so we think things are nicer and sweeter and kinder than they really are.”
Consumers caught on. They recognized that cage-free eggs only offered a marginal improvement in a chicken’s quality of life. Then the term free-range appeared. “Free-range was a term I really loved,” Koefoed recalls. “I really thought it meant something for quite a long time. Finally, I learned that that term had been hijacked as well,” continues Koefoed. After weighing her options, Koefoed decided that while free-range was confusing, it was still meaningful to put on her egg cartons. Her customers revolted. “People were just so disturbed by the term that we took it off,” Koefoed remembers. “We realized we couldn't fight against the marketing giants who were using free-range as a term to sell more eggs even though they were the same old industrial chicken companies with confined animals.”
Then she discovered the term pasture-raised. “I just love that term,” Koefoed says, “because when you say ‘pastured’ you immediately think of a field so it really explains, very clearly, in one word, that the animals are outside, meaning ‘grass,’ meaning ‘bugs,’ meaning ‘sunshine.’ So I think it’s a really good term to define what someone is doing, whether it’s chickens or any other animal.” Movements promoting “good food” succeed when the messengers become their messages, when their foremost practitioners embody the language of sustainability, and when a farmer doesn't just farm. “We’re small farmers in a new world,” Koefoed concludes. “We don’t just farm. We’re educators and we’re learning to be marketers so we can hold on to the authenticity of words and take them back from the big corporations.” That’s something to think about the next time you buy a dozen eggs.
Alexis Koefed and her family bought the land which would become Soul Food Farm in the late ‘90s. No house, no running water, no electricity. Just 55 acres of prime pasture and farmland in Vacaville, CA, which had been untended for 30 years. Over time, a vision began to emerge. At first, it was simply about feeding people, supporting their family and being able to afford this farm. Over time, subjects that had been on the fringe of their belief system before began to take everyday importance. The family immersed themselves in issues of community land use, the true cost of feeding people, workers’ rights, and the humane treatment of animals. Today, Soul Food Farm has layers of diversity that allows Alexis and her family to harvested sustainable products all year long.
Story Bank: Obtaining Local Food with Alexis Koefoed
Alexis Koefoed bought 55 acres of bare farmland in the late 1990s and created Soul Food Farm. It began as an olive orchard and later a chicken farm was added. It started as a way to feed people, but now there’s a focus on issues of community land use, the true cost of feeding people, workers’ rights, and the humane treatment of animals.
The farm has a growing partnership with Morningsun Herb Farm and is planning to increase diversity by planting a greater variety of fruit trees. The next step for Soul Food Farm is the creation of a farm store where they can sell food harvested on the farm in addition to local food from around the region.
The idea of local products sometimes gets overridden by certifications, leading to confusion for consumers. Koefoed explains her opinion of the importance of local products. She describes challenges that small-scale famers face and suggests ways to increase consumer access to local goods.
DG – Interviewer Douglas Gayeton
AK – Interviewee Alexis Koefoed
DG: A farmer in the south once said to me, ‘Local first, certification second’. What do you think of that phrase?
AK: After these last several years of farming I would stand behind that. Soul Food Farm dropped its certification 2 years ago, after we have had it for almost 10 years. Somehow, there’s more certainty and more conviction when you know the farmer and that it’s a local product. Being certified organic doesn’t actually mean that the farming practices are being adhered to. If you’re shopping in a store, certified organic could mean a large-scale farm in Chile or Mexico. If you’re really interested in supporting small agriculture, local farmers, and healthy food that you can have some traceability to, I think that local, as a first set of standards for yourself is really on target.
DG: Is there any mechanism that can actually allow sustainable, responsible, locally produced poultry?
AK: I think that we need to talk about rebuilding local grain systems so that we are never relying on grain that’s coming from an industrial manufacturer from one location who controls the price. One of the biggest problems that we saw in 2012 was the draught in the Midwest. Grain prices immediately sky-rocketed all over the world, primarily in the United States, and it was one of the key factors for me to close down my pastured chicken farm, because I couldn’t afford the feed anymore. Within 5 months, chicken farms and dairies were closing because they were going bankrupt. They couldn’t afford feed either, so clearly we’re all tied into this bigger system where we don’t have any control.
Building a local grain system would be a huge benefit for creating a more sustainable chicken enterprise. You’d have farmers growing grains locally and getting a better price for selling their grains to a local mill instead of selling them on the commodities market. You’d have local grains that you could control a little better if you’re an applicant for non-GMO. Farmers could have a little more control about the quantity, the quality, and the farming practices of the land growing those grains. I think that would be the key first step.
Without a local grain system, without rebuilding local hatcheries and without having more local slaughtering facilities the extensive inputs of growing chickens for eggs and meat is astronomical and I don’t see how it could ever be sustainable without solving those three problems first.
DG: How do we create a sustainable and equitable local food system?
AK: I think one thing we have to do is come back to the acceptance and knowledge that we need small farmers. We also have to come back to this idea that we have to make land accessible for small farmers so that they can do the work of growing food for us. We have to talk about creating distribution systems so that farmers have a way to move their food into markets that is affordable and effective for them and for the consumer.
People have expectations now that they didn’t have 60 years ago with food availability. People are not going to stop buying the things that they are comfortable and familiar with buying, but if we make food from farmers easier to find, maybe that would sway the balance a little. I can see a time someday where you could live in a city like San Francisco and you could have farms on the outskirts with dairy, vegetables, winter crops, and summer crops that people could access more easily that just waiting for a Saturday farmers’ market. I’ve learned that a better way to connect with consumers and to give them what they’re looking for is to have more farms with available food and more accessibility for consumers to get onto those farms when they need to shop.