When I first met Carole Morison in 2006, she and her family operated an industrial poultry facility on the Delmarva Peninsula where they'd been raising chickens under contract with agri-giant, Perdue, for two decades. In her spare time, Carole was an outspoken critic of factory farming, a staunch advocate for farmworkers' rights and an effective organizer intent on exposing the ills of the industrial livestock production system in which she was so deeply involved.
Perdue couldn’t stand Carole. I liked her immediately.
It was clear to me from the start that Carole wasn’t a follow-the-crowd sort of person; indeed, she demonstrates the classic characteristics that make the American farmer great: fierce independence combined with a strong dedication to community, a steadfast commitment to justice and the unwavering resolve to voice her beliefs.
In 2008, Carole was featured prominently in Food, Inc. In it, she described her experience as a contract poultry producer, telling one of the most compelling – and heart-wrenching – stories included in the landmark film. The same year, Perdue terminated the Morisons' contract, leaving them with empty single-purpose industrial poultry barns in which they'd already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the American farmer has always been known for ingenuity and the ability to solve problems through prudence, resourcefulness and innovation – and Carole Morison is no exception. Ultimately, she and her husband repurposed one of their old industrial chicken barns and transitioned the facility into a humane, sustainable farm for laying hens. The fruit of their labor, Bird’s Eye View Farm, was recently certified as the first Animal Welfare Approved farm on the Delmarva Peninsula.
An effective shift from the industrial food system of the past to the sustainable model of the future will require widespread implementation of exactly this sort of agricultural transition. Ultimately, Carole’s is a story of hope and triumph, not just for the Morisons and sustainable food advocates, but for all of us.
In this Our Heroes podcast, Carole discusses her own transition to sustainable agriculture, the challenges currently facing other industrial producers hoping to make similar transitions, the impact of her involvement in Food, Inc. and the joys of raising Rhode Island Red hens.
You can learn more about Carole’s transition to sustainable egg production (along with her outstanding insights into the food system) by reading her blog, Food for Thought.
For those who are unfamiliar with the poultry industry and with your involvement in it, can you give us some background?
We raised chickens under contract for an international corporation for 23 years. It was industrial production… I married into it. When I first started, I was under the impression that that’s the only way you raise chickens. Throughout the adventure of raising the chickens under contract, it became more and more evident that there were a lot of things wrong with the whole system of industrial production. And that kind of led me to speak out about the industry practices… I didn’t like what we were doing, and chickens were like a number. We just counted flock after flock of chickens.
So that led me to speak out about things: environmental issues, public health issues, worker issues. I mean, the industry is just rampant with all kinds of issues and it’s a system that I finally came to understand is not sustainable. I think the biggest problem is that there is no care about how the animals are raised, how they go to market, just as long as we mass produce. There is no concern for the farmers, or the workers, or their welfare; they're just another cog in the wheel that’s going to move these chickens to market... And to me, it’s driven by greed. The corporations that dominate the industry, their bottom line is the dollar, and nothing else matters… There were really no scruples or morals within when it pertained to anything. I think that’s what bothered me the most, was the lack of care for anything.
How did you make the transition from industrial farming to sustainable?
Between 2010 and 2011, I had the opportunity to see a lot of different ways of farming. And you know, it started giving me ideas. Well, maybe we could do this on the farm, or maybe we could do that on the farm. We wanted to do meat – chicken, pasture raised. However, the infrastructure here on the Delmarva Peninsula doesn’t exist to support independent production; everything is owned by industry… So then we came up with the idea of laying hens. There is not a lot to the processing; we do everything right here on the farm. And transportation – we're working that out now; we're going to piggyback with someone who is hauling another load to where our market is. And that way we can cut down on costs.
We were able to retool one of the chicken houses using some of the equipment that was already in there. The major thing was taking off the curtains that were on the sides; they were what they call “dark-out curtains,” which made everything inside really dark. So we took them off and put clear on so the chickens have fresh sunlight and air all the time, unless it’s really cold out. But they still have the sunlight with the clear curtains, which I love.
And we cut access doors so that the chickens could roam in and out freely as they want to during the day. We do put them up at night for predator control; we have a lot of foxes here. So yeah; it was fairly simple. First I kind of looked at it as a real daunting task, but it was fairly simple to do.
Do you get the sense that there are many other industrial producers who would like to make a similar transition?
Definitely…We've already had farmers come to visit individually and take a look at what we're doing. Yes, there're definitely farmers out there who would like to get out of the system they're in. And right now they're stuck simply because, like I mentioned earlier, there’s no infrastructure to help the independent farmer or that the independent farmer can use. There're no government programs that the farmer can go through to get up and running, and there're just a whole lot of roadblocks there.
How did the experience of being featured in Food, Inc. affect you and your work?
I think it made me seek out answers instead of always pointing out the problems. For a long time, even before Food, Inc., I worked on problems within the poultry industry, whether they were environmental, worker related, public health, whatever. However, after Food, Inc. and being in touch with so many different people around the country, it was kind of like, well, yeah, there're problems there; they are not going away. But let’s see if we can’t find some solutions that will give both farmers and consumers choices, instead of being stuck in one system of producing food.
What can people do to support sustainable chicken production and sustainable egg production in the US?
I think the biggest thing that people can do is to support their local farmer – your small farmer who is producing locally... And when you're in the grocery store, if they are not carrying a product, talk to the manager in the grocery store and ask, “Why not?” Or say you'd like to see that product on the shelf. Consumer demand is what’s going to be the ultimate drive... And without the support from the community and the consumers, it’s not going to happen. That’s just point blank the way I see it…
The biggest thing that I'm hearing from potential buyers is that the supply can’t meet the demand. They need more farmers; they need more people producing food to be able to carry the local foods. So we need to find farmers. And I think there're more and more people who are doing it, getting into it on a smaller basis. You can produce a lot on five acres, believe it or not. It doesn’t take hundreds or thousands of acres to be able to do it. So I just think that we're going to see it moving forward, rapidly.