It’s tempting to think that a rapid shift away from factory farming isn’t possible, and that individual consumers don’t have the power to force the industry to raise standards for farmed animals. But third-generation poultry farmer David Pitman—the head of one of the largest high-welfare poultry operations in the country—knows differently. As he puts it, “Farmers produce and change their practices based on consumer demand. And this change only takes as long as the consumer wants it to.”
David has centered his business around a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese living on his farms. Based in central California, Pitman Farms is a family-run operation, which lets it make big changes in response to consumer demand more quickly than larger, less-agile producers. As David has said, “We’re ready to make those changes the moment our customers show they’re willing to join us by paying for healthier, happier, and heartier birds.”
Pitman Farms is one of the few non-industrial poultry operations to withstand the rapid industrialization of animal agriculture. When David’s grandfather, Don Pitman, started the farm in 1954, he was raising American Poultry Association Standard-Bred birds—genetically similar to the Heritage turkeys David raises today—who didn’t require antibiotics to thrive. But in the 70s and 80s, when concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) took over and consumers began to rely upon cheaper meat, the Pitman family had to adjust to this new market or else be run out of business like millions of other farmers.
David remembers that time: “First there was the farm to think about—what was the best for us as a family and what was the most compassionate on the farm; and then there was the consumer and what they wanted to buy and eat.” For David’s family, meeting consumer demand required sacrificing hundreds of years of genetic integrity and animal welfare to instead raise industrial turkeys, whose bodies yielded more meat at a lower cost per pound.
But in the early 2000s, while attending a multi-stakeholder meeting with poultry farmers, customers, retailers, and animal advocates, it became clear to David that there was indeed a growing market for the high-welfare animals that Pitman Farms had once raised. Shortly after the meeting, David reinvented his business and once again began raising his animals to meet the highest welfare standards available. Along with these big changes came a new label, “Mary’s,” after David’s mother. As David recalls, “Mom would not stand behind or support the family business until we kicked up our welfare and started doing what was best for the birds and for the health of those who bought them.”
Collaborating with Global Animal Partnership
As Pitman Farms raised its animal welfare standards, it needed a way to guarantee that its conscientious practices would be communicated to its customers. Enter Global Animal Partnership (GAP), whose 5-Step Animal Welfare Ratings Standards have become the largest and most relevant welfare certification program in America. “Step 1” GAP certification indicates better welfare than the average factory farm, but still relatively low welfare. Products rated at “Step 5” represent the gold standard of welfare. By overhauling his operations, Pitman Farms was able to meet some of GAP’s highest standards, and now has an unprecedented 16 GAP-certified chicken farms. David is also the first farmer to get a Step 5 certification in any species! According to GAP’s Executive Director Miyun Park, “David Pitman is leading the way in promoting and putting into practice higher-welfare farming. His heartfelt commitment to continuous improvement in agriculture is truly inspiring.”
What has been good for the animals also has been good for Pitman Farms’ bottom line: GAP certification increased sales of David’s birds more than 100 percent during the first 60 days. Farm Forward Founder and CEO Aaron Gross explains:
This is why Farm Forward has been an advocate of GAP and why we are proud to share several board members with them. Multi-tier animal welfare rating schemes like GAP’s are absolutely essential to progress in animal welfare precisely because they provide an easy path for producers to communicate to consumers about what the level of welfare they have achieved, rather than sloppily labeling animal products either as humane or inhumane.”
David’s concern for animal welfare also extends beyond his own farms; he is at the forefront of a growing group of progressive farmers who understand that animal health and welfare have as much to do with strong genetics as with farming practices. The major limiting factor in poultry welfare today is the sad reality that poultry have been bred to maximize characteristics that improve profitability, like feed conversion (the rate at which livestock convert feed into flesh), while the wellbeing of the birds has been ignored. This approach to breeding has created birds whose genetics make them suffer more bone breaks1, have higher incidence of sickness2, and a slew of other maladies including reproductive disease3—in sum, it has led to deformed, unhealthy birds. David himself came face to face with this problem a few years ago:
In 2004, we were raising alternative, modified-industrial breeds of chickens. One day I was showing my wife around one of the chicken houses. As I proudly talked on and on about how our farm was on the cutting edge of poultry, and how these birds were antibiotic-free, free-range, and organic, etc., she stood, with a tear in her eye, looking at one small chicken. Clearly unable to walk normally, the chick just hobbled awkwardly and then crashed to the ground, over and over. When she asked me why the chicken couldn’t stand despite all the ‘cutting edge’ advantages I mentioned, I explained that if people wanted cheap, boneless breast meat, that meant more breast and a lot less bone for the animal; if you have one thing you have to sacrifice another. It hit me then that we weren’t quite doing enough. We needed to concentrate welfare on better genes.”
Today Pitman Farms is the second-largest producer of Heritage, Standard-Bred poultry in the country. David raises Heritage turkeys, along with several other alternative breeds, and raises chickens whose genetic makeup is between typical industrial birds and the gold standard of Heritage. Because consumer demand for Heritage isn’t large enough yet, he still raises some higher-welfare industrial breeds—at least for now.
David would love to raise more Heritage birds—including Heritage chickens, ducks, and geese—but he has to wait for consumer demand to make that possible. Luckily, that is exactly the direction in which David sees consumer preferences moving. When asked about the future of his farms and Heritage birds, he said: “I think more so than any time before, there is an increasing demand for alternatives to hybrid [industrial] birds, toward truly slow-growing [Heritage] birds. Historically, as people have become more aware of animal welfare issues, and of the relationship between these issues and their health as a consumers, they sought change: first they wanted free range, then they wanted organic. Now, as customers recognize that there is more to welfare than how the birds are raised, they are going to demand birds like Heritage. We’ll be ready to meet that need.”
Please join the Farm Forward mailing list to receive updates and important information about how you can get involved.
- 1. The Humane Society of the United States, “A Comparison of the Welfare of Hens in Battery Cages and Alternative Systems,” 4.
- 2. HJ Barnes, JP Vaillancourt and WB Gross, "Colibacillosis," in Diseases of Poultry, 11th Edition, ed. YM Saif, et al. (Ames, IA: Iowa State Press, 2003, pp. 631-52), 49; AD Anjum, LN Payne and EC Appleby, "Oviduct Magnum Tumours In the Domestic Fowl and Their Association With Laying" in The Veterinary Record, Vol. 125, Issue 2 (1989), 42-3.
- 3. K. Keshavarz, "Causes of Prolapse In Laying Hens," in Poultry Digest (September, 1990), 42; Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, "Common laying hen disorders: prolapse in laying hens," agric.gov.ab.ca/livestock/poultry/prolapse.html.