In 23 years as a contract farmer for Perdue, Carole Morison raised birds that went from hatchlings to full-grown broilers in just weeks. Bred to gain weight fast, her chickens had huge breasts and weak bones - if they walked as little as 15 steps, they'd collapse from exhaustion. Not that they had much room to travel: Morison's two poultry houses held 54,000 birds.
But in 2008, Perdue terminated her contract. Morison suspects this had something to do with the camera crew she'd allowed into her barns to shoot footage for the shocking documentary Food, Inc. It wasn't until 2011 that she and her husband bought 500 Rhode Island Red laying hens - and set about doing things their way.
From the start, the hens were a revelation. They batted around Ping-Pong balls and chased each other to snatch pieces of lettuce, their favorite snack. While the industrial birds had been fragile and identical, the Reds were hardy and varied, with a suborn resistance to disease. Perdue had demanded Morison use the company's proprietary feed, which she says routinely contained chemicals like arsenic (Perdue has said it stopped using arsenic in 2007). She fed her new birds grain, grasses, and clover to complement the worms they dug up on her 14 acres of pasture.
Recently, Morison's farm was certified by Animal Welfare Approved. While she previously "despised" her work - in addition to her guilt over contributing to toxic runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, she says, "I just felt so bad for the chickens" - she reports that "these days I'm having way more fun."
Our food system is broken. Meanwhile, more Americans are asking how they can get involved. Sign up and together we can fix the food system.