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Farm Babe: Dialogue can heal disdain over chicken marketing

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Have you ever seen that show, “Billion Dollar Buyer” on CNBC? It’s where billionaire Tilman Fertitta turns to small businesses to meet his customers’ needs. I watch it occasionally, and the first episode I saw was intriguing since they were exploring different ways to source their chicken.

Enter Pasturebird. I loved watching how this farm raised its chickens on beautiful grassy pastures in California. Looks like well cared-for livestock with a good mission to try to give them the best life possible. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The problem I had during the episode was when the discussion turned into their view that traditional, conventionally raised birds that don’t farm like them are raised in cruel, “factory farm” conditions. These are the kinds of falsehoods that we as farmers have to overcome, pretty much on a daily basis. As I’ve written about extensively, a farm should never be judged by its cover or label. Any farm can take excellent care of their livestock regardless of size or label, and most systems put in place for their care are there for a reason. While Southern California can raise chickens on pasture year-round, we in Iowa do not have that option because of winter, snow, ice, rainfall, disease, and predators.

The National Audubon Society shares this article about how 10 percent of the organic, pasture-raised chicken on a Georgia farm are consumed by bald eagles, costing the business $1,000 a day in daily losses. This hurts the birds, raises the cost of meat for consumers, and negatively impacts the farmer’s bottom line. Not to say this is the case for every farm per se, but it’s still an important point. Again, raising birds indoors has its place. Even organic birds can be housed indoors, as it usually provides better care and lower mortality rate overall.

Regardless, there is definitely some truth to livestock having better flavor when they are raised properly. As the saying goes, the better we treat them, the better they treat us. Low stress environments, good genetics, and proper handling and slaughter all affect meat quality and flavor. I’m always intrigued by different standards of care and how it reflects on cost, taste, and other factors.

This is where I reached out to Pasturebird on Twitter and expressed my disdain. It’s perfectly OK to explain why your product is better, but doesn’t mean we should spread myths about the competitor or throw others under the bus. (A reason I don’t get involved in political discussions much, haha). I explained that chickens are generally not raised in cruel factory-farming conditions (myths often perpetuated by organic food companies or vegan activists) and it’s quite commonplace nowadays to raise poultry with no antibiotics, ever. Vaccine innovation and improved husbandry have done great things for modern poultry production, and there are never any hormones or steroids added to poultry, ever. Even some of the largest poultry companies such as Tyson Foods have made leaps and bounds to improve welfare standards.

My tweet to Pasturebird included some of these livestock experts, to explain that we should make sure we are asking real experts about this to learn about these improvements. I wish more people could tour large-scale farms to see firsthand just how well they’re cared for nowadays. What started out as a back-and-forth on Twitter turned into a nice conversation where disagreement doesn’t have to be mean, as so many people can be on social media. It can be a place to share ideas and find a commonground.

It was a great chat, and I must give a shout out and thank you to Pasturebird for sending me a sample of their products! But it didn’t stop there; I wanted to put it to the test! I invited a group of friends over to do a blind taste test to see what everyone’s favorite was so we sampled their chicken along with Tyson Foods brand, Walmart generic brand “Tenderbird,” and Perdue organic. We all took turns feeding each other blindfolded to see what differences we could taste. And we were really surprised at the results! Believe it or not, 100 percent of us found the cheapest frozen generic Walmart brand tasted the best! Kind of shocking, really.

Visually speaking, I will give Pasturebird credit. Their chicken breasts were huge, plump, and juicy looking. Tyson Foods brand chicken also looked very hearty and delicious. The generic brand didn’t look quite as appetizing, appeared to have a bit more fat and wasn’t trimmed as “pretty.” The organic looked a little on the lighter side in color. We cooked everything exactly the same with no seasoning to be fair and not have a bias.

Speaking of bias … I really did secretly want the organic chicken to blow me away with taste. After all, I paid nearly $8 a pound for it! It was definitely the driest of the four kinds though. Most of my friends couldn’t taste a difference between most of the brands. Overall, generic came in first, Pasturebird came in second but very much tied with Tyson, and organic came in last. We were all very surprised.

So why is this? The biggest thing we can come up with is that the frozen generic brand “tenderbird” has chicken broth added. This most likely could explain the juiciness, while other brands may not have this. Strictly consumer preference, all would be safe and healthy for us to eat. This is probably the biggest factor, but overall, buy what you feel comfortable with at the grocery store! Chicken is an excellent source of lean protein and we should celebrate the fact that farmers do a great job feeding the world efficiently and affordably no matter the price point or label.

 

Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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