Can the very people who raise animals for consumption also defend them against the abuses of factory farming? Not everyone agrees, but at Farm Forward our answer has always been an emphatic “Yes!”. Our unique approach is helping to create a united front where farmers, consumers, and animal advocates work synergistically to help end factory farming.
Animal advocacy groups fighting factory farming have traditionally had difficulty building trust with farmers; for most groups, farmer outreach primarily means managing tensions and asking certain segments of the farm community to support animal welfare legislation. We founded Farm Forward with a conviction that our movement needs to enhance our limited relationships with the people who raise animals for food by inviting higher welfare farmers to be both sources of strategic insight and full partners in the fight against the factory farm.
Our work with farmers is focused on three key areas:
- reestablishing highest welfare, heritage poultry as a viable alternative to the factory farm;
- expanding market opportunities for higher-welfare farmers by helping them better reach consumers, retailers, and the foodservice industry through BuyingPoultry and other initiatives; and
- authoring policy and research that creates an environment where an even greater expansion of the market for heritage and higher welfare poultry products is possible.
Reestablishing Heritage Poultry
Farm Forward is playing a pivotal role in rebuilding the market for heritage chickens and turkeys. In contrast with surface-level changes like “cage-free” and “free-range,” heritage poultry has the potential to go beyond mitigating the worst abuses of factory farming and could actually replace the current factory-farmed poultry industry. Because heritage chickens and turkeys are capable of the highest levels of welfare, a heritage poultry industry will mean that chickens and turkeys will once again be capable of having lives worth living. These birds thrive in outdoor environments and can breed naturally—and unlike hybrid genetics, which require farmers to get each new flock from large breeding companies, heritage genetics allow individual farmers to be completely independent of industrial-scale animal agriculture.
The vast majority of poultry farmers—including those raising free-range and organic birds—are victims of the same unjust practices that Monsanto has infamously used to control crop farmers. When farmers first started buying hybrid rather than heritage birds from breeding corporations, they didn’t realize that soon the birds they purchased would be incapable of reproducing healthfully, thereby forcing the farmers, year after year, to go back to those corporations if they wanted more birds. They became trapped. It is this model of mandatory dependence that has allowed the poultry industry to be centrally controlled by a few large corporations with no interest in animal health for its own sake, and the consequences for animal welfare, public health, and sustainability have been disastrous.
This is why better genetics are the key to rebuilding a more humane and sustainable poultry industry. Farmers must have access to genetics that do not force them to pay into the very system that created the current crisis.
In our efforts to support the rebirth of highest welfare, heritage poultry, Farm Forward helped renowned heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese expand his operation to include chickens. We also declared his farm, Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, the first recipient of our Pay it Forward loan program, which enabled Frank to build an additional barn and expand his capacity to raise heritage poultry. Since we began working with Frank, his sales have more than doubled, and the only factor now limiting those sales is the capacity of his farm. And because people who buy Frank’s birds very often buy fewer or no conventional birds, every bird Frank sells is an indication of a significant reduction in suffering. As a result of our work with Frank, we estimate that we have already replaced the purchase of more than 100,000 conventional chickens and turkeys with heritage birds raised in some of the highest welfare conditions in animal agriculture. Finally, we’ve worked to ensure that Frank is spotlighted in the upcoming documentary Eating Animals, and are confident that his involvement with the film will dramatically demand for heritage turkey and chicken sales upon its release.
Farm Forward has also assisted two entrepreneurs in creating Emmer & Co., the first modern company to exclusively sell heritage chicken and commit to a stringent animal welfare policy. Farm Forward consulted with Emmer’s founders on the challenges and opportunities of creating a heritage business and helped forge a partnership with Frank Reese to breed and raise heritage chickens. Within a year of launch Emmer established relationships with major retailers like William Sonoma and VitalChoices.com as well as restaurants in San Francisco and New York. Emmer’s meteoric success has shown that consumers are ready and willing to pay a fair (and much higher) price for chicken that is genetically healthy and produced under optimal welfare conditions. Today, Emmer commands only a tiny fraction of the poultry market, but we believe that companies like it are the future of the industry. As models like Emmer’s demonstrate profitability and are replicated, the market share of highest welfare poultry will similarly grow. In addition, we’ve found that the existence of companies like Emmer appears to create some pressure on the industry to introduce lines of genetically healthier birds, even if they don’t alter most of their practices.
Seeing the power of heritage to improve lives for birds, we’ve also taken steps to help consumers better identify truly highest welfare heritage operations and more easily purchase their products. We’re especially proud to have collaborated with the American Poultry Association and the Livestock Conservancy to introduce the first-ever certification for heritage poultry. By creating a process to recognize flocks of heritage breeds, we can protect this important term from becoming as meaningless as phrases like “all natural.” And by making heritage more visible to consumers, we also make known how pervasive the problems are in the rest of the poultry industry (even the cage-free, organic segment), often inspiring reduction in meat-eating or even vegetarianism in addition to commitments to only buy non-factory-farmed meat.
Expanding Market Opportunities for Higher Welfare Farmers
From its inception, Farm Forward has worked to ramp up demand for higher welfare poultry products. One of our most exciting new projects in this area is BuyingPoultry, the first authoritative rating system and database of nearly every poultry product sold in the United States. BuyingPoultry helps consumers learn about higher welfare poultry products and discover where to find them locally. The response so far has been spectacular: Within months of launch, BuyingPoultry.com is already attracting thousands of monthly visitors who use the site to search for higher welfare chicken, turkey, and eggs.
Further building on this success, our Leadership Circle platform for persuading foodservice buyers to purchase higher welfare meat and eggs has seen several important victories. While still in its pilot phase, the Leadership Circle has already helped the University of California, Berkeley and Airbnb’s Portland office completely reimagine their supply chains. For example, UC Berkeley—which serves more than 5 million meals annually—has committed to purchase 100 percent of their beef and lamb from pasture-raised and grass-fed sources, and we helped connect them with high welfare ranchers to meet that commitment.
Farm Forward’s Leadership Circle is just getting started; as we expand its influence, we’ll continue working with visionary, compassionate farmers to meet the growing demand that our program will generate.
Authoring Policy and Research in Support of Higher Welfare Farmers
Farm Forward also collaborates with farmers to develop policies and research that support our shared mission. For example, working closely with higher welfare chicken farmers across the country, we recently completed a comprehensive cost analysis of raising genetically healthier chickens in higher welfare environments. This analysis will allow us to demonstrate to institutional buyers and the media that genetically healthier chickens are a viable product, thereby leading to increased marketing opportunities for these products and, in turn, paving the way for more farmers to switch to better genetics.
Farm Forward also provided guidance on the Jeremy Coller Foundation report, “Factory Farming: Assessing Investment Risk & Return.” The report makes the case that investing in factory farm businesses is much riskier than most investors think, and argues that the growing demand for completely antibiotic-free chickens could require a total restructuring of the chicken industry.1
One of the major limiting factors on the expansion of the higher welfare animal industry has always been the lack of sufficient funding. More and more financial analysts are beginning to question the status quo, and we believe that a growing number of savvy investors will shift their investments to higher welfare companies as they recognize the need to invest in smarter, safer, and saner methods of farming. This will further accelerate the growth of higher welfare animal agriculture as well as plant-based alternatives.
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