Monday, September 20, 2010

The Ugly Truth About "Free-Range"

Conjured up in the minds of many consumers when the term "Free-Range" is used in conjunction with chickens is a bucolic vision of lush pastures and big beautiful birds running freely, folicing, eating bugs and grass and singing beautiful chicken songs of love and happiness.  Well I'm here to pop that little thought bubble over your head and explain just what the ugly truth is!

Let's start with theUSDA Food Safety and Inspection Service definition of requirements for Free-Range Chicken (meat) certification.  Must "have access to OUTSIDE".  Well, that's real explicit... NOT!  And let me tell you, big businesses will exploit every opportunity to take advantage of vagueness in the law.  Outside could mean any of the following things: dirt, gravel, concrete, and the fact of the matter is that these are usually the options used by commercial poultry producers!  As a matter of fact there is NO requirement for access to pasture.  As far as eggs go, there is no legal Free-Range definition in the US, no common standard.  There is no definition for confinement size for meat or egg Free-Range products.  Some commercial producers are using the Free-Range marketing tool because their cages are 2-3" larger than average sized cages - some are even justifying it's use because their chicken house has a window in it.  That's because the USDA gives NO criteria for size of range.  I'm sure you all remember the cute news stories around Thanksgiving where the local news reporter is at the local turkey farm.  Remember those pictures of a large barn PACKED with turkeys?  Guess what... they can be marketed as Free-Range simply because they are not kept in cages.  Still kept for the whole of their lives packed into poultry houses.  In fact the USDA has left the fox to guard the hen house by specifically stating that they rely on the PRODUCER to support accuracy for their claims (in whatever manner the PRODUCER sees fit).

The technical term used for commercial poultry operations that pack their poultry into houses without the use of cages is "high density floor confinement".  Guess what, all of the following terms can and are being used by the industry for these situations: "Cage-Free", "Free-Running", "Free-Roaming", and "Naturally Nested".  Think back to that vision you had in your head about what these terms meant.

In all fairness the USDA Agriculture Marketing Services proposed (emphasis on "proposed" - note that I've not seen it become a requirement) in 2002 for the terms "Free-Range", "Free-Roaming" and "Pasture Raised" to explicity mean livestock that have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle (with the exception of swine who must have it for 80% of their life cycle).  Unfortunately the egg industry spends millions each year to fund the American Egg Board to promote their own interests.  Obviously the proposed definitions are not in their own interest.  We all know about how powerful well funded lobbyist are. 

Take, for instance, the case of Proposition 2 ballot inititive that came up in 2007 in California to stop the most inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals.  Prop 2 proposed a new state statute that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.  There is an organization you have probably heard of called the American Egg Board (AEB).  They are the owners of "The Incredible Edible Egg" campaign.  This is their mission as stated on their web-site:

The American Egg Board (AEB) is the U.S. egg producer's link to consumers in communicating th value of the incredible egg.  Our mission is to increase demand for egg and egg products on behalf of U.S. egg producers.

AEB is funded by a national legislative checkoff on all egg production from companies with more than 75,000 layers. The board is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and consists of 18 members and 18 alternates from all regions of the country who are egg producers nominated by certified state and regional organizations representing egg producers.

The USDA is charged by law to oversee the AEB and AEB is prohibited by law from undertaking any activity designed to influence voters, legislatures or ballot inititives.  In 2008 the Humane Society of the US uncovered documents showing that the AEB was diverting $3 million of federally provided funds to stop the California Anti-Cruelty Ballot Inititive (Prop 2) in 2007.  The claims were backed up by recovered emails between AEB officers and USDA staff showing that the AEB intended to spend these funds to stop Prop 2 from passing and that the USDA knew about the activity and did nothing to stop it.  Lucily Prop 2 had broad voter support and the inititive won with more votes than any other citizen ititive in California History.

Specifically taking on the case of eggs, Mother Earth News in 2007 conducted an egg study in which they had an independant accredited lab in Oregon test eggs from 14 small true free-ranging, pastured flocks across the US and compare the nutritional data to that provided by the USDA data on commercial flocks.  The results were quite striking:

Pastured eggs contained on average
1/3 less cholesterol
1/4 less saturated fats
2/3 more Vitamin A
2 times more Omega-3 Fatty Acids
3 times more Vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene

You can read more about the study an Mother Earth News' results here:

Now here is where you have to "follow the money" to find out why these results have not made front page news. 
Start with the factory farms (those with more than 75,000 layers) - they give the AEB more than $20 million each year to fund AEB research to convince the public that their eggs are no different than pastured raised.  And guess what - the AEB states that "nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised Free-Range or in floor or cages."
I, personally, find it ludicrous that the AEB expects us to believe (facts or no facts) that a chicken kept in a cage so small it cannot turn around or spread it's wings for the whole of it's very short life time and fed a diet that my chickens won't touch (laying crumbles) lay eggs with the same nutrional content of those that run freely, have access to sunlight, fresh air, a natural diet of grass, seeds and bugs and are allowed to nest in the place of their choosing.  

In the end it's up to us to choose responsibly.  I encourage you to get to know your food producers, visit their farms.  Yes, these producers products cost more but personally I choose to support humanely, responsibly raised meat, egg and dairy products.  If you are really interested in seeing what goes on at factory farms, visit the HSUS site( though I caution you about watching some of the videos.  I have been a lifelong advocate for stopping the cruel practices that put veal on the dinner table and thought progress was being made.  The following report that just occurred this year in Vermont, to just put it plainly, makes me mad as hell.   But the veal debate is for another day.

Thank you to everyone who does their part to stop factory farming practices with their buying power.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Recipes from Pennwood Farm: Blueberry Buckle

While I can't take credit for this recipe I have made it for years and it's one of my favorite desserts.  While preparing to write this blog I wondered just what a "Buckle" was - where the term came from.  I ran across this website ( and decided after reading it that I had to cook my way through it!  They list all sorts of deserts like pandowdy grunts, slumps, croustades and bird's next or crow's nest puddings.  How could I resist making all those wild sounding things?!
What it says is that the term "Buckle" basically comes from the buckled appearance that the streusel  topping makes.  A buckle is really nothing more than a rich cake batter with any seasonal fruit folded in and topped with a streusel. It apparently has been around from colonial days and was most prevalent in New England.  The traditional buckle was made with blueberries which grow wild there and are very delicious!


Streusel Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 T granulate sugar
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 T unsalted butter, soft but cool
Cake Ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 10 T unsalted butter, soft but cool
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
To Make the Streusel:
  • In a stand mixer with a flat beater, combine flour, sugars, cinnamon and salt on low speed until well combined. 
  • Add butter and mix on low until mixture is sandy looking with no large pieces of butter remaining.  Set aside
To Make Cake Batter:
  • Whisk flour and baking powder to combine and set aside.
  • In a standing mixer with a flat beater, cream butter, sugar, salt and lemon zest at medium high speed until light and fluffy. 
  • Beat in vanilla until combined.
  • Add eggs while the mixer is running.
  • Gradually add the flour mixture.
  • Mix well until batter is heavy and thick.  Scrape sides to ensure everything is mixed.
  • Fold in blueberries until evenly distributed.
  • Line a large 14" round cake pan with parchment paper.
  • Spread the batter evenly in the pan with an offset spatula.
  • Squeeze handfuls of streusel and gently break up as you scatter on top of the batter.
Bake at 350F in the lower middle position in the oven (away from the heat source) for about 35 minutes.
Cool until just warm and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Recipes from Pennwood Farm - Roasted Chicken with Pears and Parsnips

I love to cook and unfortunately I'm not much on measuring or writing my recipes down.  I know we are halfway through the year but perhaps I could make this a "mid-year" resolution!  So let's start with a PEAR recipe! lol!  I've fidgeted with this recipe a number of times and can make a few suggestions.  If you are feeding fussy children, replace some of the root vegetables with carrots and you may want to replace some of the thighs with chicken legs.  I almost always use chicken thighs for this recipe because they are relatively inexpensive and very flavorful.  Xio is wild about chicken legs and can strip one down to clean dry bone in about 2 minutes flat.  I don't know where she learned to do that and sometimes it's quite shocking to watch.  I should videotape it and replay for her wedding! lol!  Anyway, hope you enjoy it!  It makes a wonderful "showy" meal if you are having guests too! 


1 Large Parsnip cut up
1 Large Turnip cut up
2 Large Onions cut into wedges
2 T Red Wine Vinegar
2 T Olive Oil
Several sprigs of fresh Thyme
2 T chopped Parsley
Sea Salt
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 lbs total of Chicken Pieces, I always use thighs 
1 T Honey
3 Large Cooking Pears, peeled, cored and cut into wedges

  • Preheat oven to 375F
  • In a large bowl toss the root vegetables and onions with vinegar and 1 T of the olive oil.  Add some of the thyme and salt and pepper.  Place this on a large rimmed baking sheet or a large casserole dish.
  • In a small bowl combine the parsley and some more thyme, salt and pepper.  Lift the skin off the chicken without completely removing it and put the parsley mixture between the skin and the meat.  Season the outsides with the mixture as well.
  • Place the chicken down the center of the dish or baking sheet and place the vegetables around it.
  • Roast for 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile place te honey in a small bowl and whisk 1 T of olive oil into it.
  • After 30 minutes remove the dish from the oven and drizzle the honey mixture over the chicken.  Place the pears around the chicken and return to the oven.
  • Roast for an additional 30 minutes or until internal temperature is 175F.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Mad Dash for Pears

We have on our farm a beautiful old pear tree that has the most delicious cooking pears that you could ever imagine.  Each year as soon as they start to fall the goats go into "crazy" mode and will stand under the tree eating the fallen pears that are so unripe they make my mouth pucker just thinking about it.  They will eat and froth at the mouth until the ground under the pear tree is picked clean.  As fall starts to approach I sample the pears every few days waiting for them to hit the "just right" stage.  Friday seemed to be the day that hit that magic moment.  Since I sell soap at the farmers market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I had to wait for today.  As I took Xio to school this morning I made a mental note to pick the fallen pears up BEFORE letting the goats out to graze.  Since my mind is easily distracted I, of course, forgot my well laid plans and upon returning from the school drop-off drove by the pasture gate and released the goats.  It took a mili-second for me to remember the pears as they all flew out of the pasture and across the front yard with a singular purpose of PEARS! I went running as fast as I could in my (now dew wet) Birkenstocks - a feat not easily done - and arrived at the tree just after the goats. 

It took them no time at all to pick up the pears and take a bite out of as many as they could - almost as if marking the "once bitten" ones as their property.  I joined in the "festivities" picking up and stuffing my t-shirt with as many pears as I could.  I dove left and right among the goats even grabbing a few right out of their mouths!  I think I must have been one bizarre sight and I think I even saw a few goats back up in fright from my maddened "grab-for-the-gold" attempts.  I finally decided that I had enough pears for dinner tonight and would try again tomorrow to get the pears before the goats do.  Maybe I'll put a big post-it note on my windshield to remind me!

Even now as I write this the goats are all laying in the sun under the pecan tree, bellies packed full and chewing their pear cuds.  A few have already nodded off, perhaps dreaming of tomorrow's juicy pear breakfast - perhaps I'll leave just a few for them tomorrow.