Here in Florida, a bill has recently been introduced by Republican Senator Norman (SB 1246) which will make photographing any farm in the state without previous written consent of the owner a felony. The bill defines a farm as “any tract of land cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals, or the storage of a commodity.” In my opinion, the best way for the agricultural industry to protect itself is by making operations transparent. People ought to know where their food comes from and how it gets to their stores. An operation running effectively and correctly shouldn’t have to hide their practices.
Luckily, I happen to live near one farm whose owners won’t be enforcing this anytime soon. Laughing Chicken Farm has an open door policy, and Bill and Robin Popp are happy to show visitors around the farm, and give them a taste of what it’s like to raise chickens. We’ve been buying eggs and chicken from them at our local farmer’s market for months now, so it was exciting to get some time to head out to the farm for a visit to see exactly where our meals were coming from.
It didn’t take much time before we realized that Bill and Robin are originally from the same city we grew up in – and as luck would have it, their son even went to the same middle school where my husband and I first met! Robin personally took us all around the property, showing us each step of the process and answering all of my questions with a friendly smile on her face. She and Bill only moved to this property two years ago, and now support their family entirely from the farm!
The first step in the process is to order recently hatched chicks through the mail. After hatching, the chicks spend the first few days of life sustaining on the yolk they’ve been eating, and don’t have any food or water requirements, so overnight mailing works out perfectly. Then they move into a little chick house, where they start growing. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!
These little guys are ravenous!
- All of these birds are the same age – the broilers just grow much, much quicker than the layers!
- These guys are just too cute not to show off!
Once they outgrow their first little chick house, which doesn’t take long at all, they move out to what Bill and Robin call a tractor, which is a covered, protected coop on the ground. In addition to their specially formulated feed, Laughing Chickens get to enjoy the weeds and grasses and bugs beneath them as they please. Each day, the Popps move the tractors to a different spot, both to keep the chickens in a clean environment and to allow them new forage material – because after one day, they’ll have gobbled up pretty much everything!
A view inside the tractor just before we helped move them to a new foraging spot.
After just 8-9 weeks, the birds are ready for processing. That’s really all it takes! Each chicken eats about 10 pounds of feed in his or her lifetime and ends up weighing 5-6 pounds.
These guys are just about all grown up.
If the birds aren’t processed for food at this age, they’ll very quickly die of a heart attack. Broilers have been selectively bred to grow quickly and efficiently, and part of that is that their little hearts just don’t make it past 9 weeks. Because they grow so fast as it is, growth hormones have never been and will never be used in the industry, because any quicker and the process would be detrimental.
The Processing Area
On Tuesdays, Bill and Robin process the birds. The birds are placed four at a time in clever little boxes that Robin devised out of laundry baskets and closet racks, and they have four cones where the birds are each exsanguinated, quickly and humanely. From that point, the birds are placed in a scalder for a few seconds to loosen the feathers, and then placed into a plucking machine, which removes the feathers within seconds. From that point, the parts you’d rather not eat are removed, and the bird is ready to be packaged and sold.
They also have a bunch of laying hens that enjoy free access to the outdoors and are protected from predators by an electric fence. Robin keeps several different breeds of birds, mostly just because she enjoys the variety.
They also raise rabbits, and had some sweet little newborn bunnies for us to see.
Look at those little pink babies!
The Popps are happy to show off their farm because they said they appreciated all the help they’ve been given in learning how to raise chickens. They have a loyal fan base (they always have a line when the market first opens!), and some happy little animals. If you ever have the opportunity to go and meet a local farmer, I strongly suggest you take it. The learning experience is too important to pass up!
Note: I was not given any payment or incentive to write this post. I simply wanted to share some information about small-scale chicken farming and applaud a couple of farmers that I think are doing an excellent job.