Diemand Farm Opposes Chicken Confinement Ballot Question
The Recorder, December 12th, 2015, by Richie Davis.
The 3,000 hens in the Diemand Farms “laying house” are making a clucking racket as two humans enter at the Mormon Hollow Road farm, but it wasn’t over a Massachusetts ballot question that would ban “extreme confinement” of egg-laying hens.
“I come in here, I don’t hear distress,” says farm co-owner Anne Diemand Bucci. “I hear contentment.”
Bucci, 59, remembers working as a young child with her brothers and sisters on the farm her father and mother, Albert and Elsie Diemand, started in 1936, collecting eggs four or five times a day and finding chickens that were cannibalizing one another or that were piled up in the corner together, scared by thunder.
“When I was even younger, Dad raised them for meat and had them on the range,” she recalls, “There was weather, there were predators. It wasn’t pretty.”
The ballot question, which will face voters 11 months from now, is proposed by Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, a coalition of organizations led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). It would prohibit farms from confining animals “from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely,” according to a summary of the measure that would take effect in 2022. But Bucci points out that chickens stretch their wings by extending them one at a time back to their legs, almost as if they were doing yoga. And although they reside in wire cages, maybe 12-by-18-by-18 inches, with an overhead nipple system supplying water and a feeding system regularly supplying grain from outdoor bins, Bucci says, these birds are well cared for in the only commercial egg farm in the state that would be impacted if the ballot question passes.
A similar ballot question in 1988 was rejected by more than 70 percent of the state’s voters.
“This is what the controversy in Massachusetts is,” says Bucci, pointing to the cages where there had been 15,000 birds, three to a cage, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed regulations in 2011 on egg-laying operations of more than 3,000 chickens. The change drastically scaled back Diemand’s wholesale business and led the farm to diversify to emphasize its commercial kitchen and catering and triple its raising of beef cattle.
If the ISA Brown laying hens had free reign of an open space as do about 1,200 young stock in a sawdust-floor room at the Wendell farm — at about six weeks old, 10 or more weeks before they’re ready to start laying — they would knock over water feeders and peck at one another.
“To be honest,” she says, “I think it’s just a matter of time for us to let go of the egg business as it is.”
That would leave just one other commercial egg business in Massachusetts — The Country Hen, which keeps its 65,000 cage-free, hens in four buildings in Hubbardston, with another 30,000 in leased buildings in Westminster and North Brookfield — and plans “a huge expansion” in the next 24 to 30 months because of the expansion it sees ahead in the market for organic eggs from free-range hens.
The Country Hen, which sells eggs in 29 states, mostly almost the East Coast, with other farms in Pennsylvania and Illinois, keeps its “free-walker” chickens indoors, with fenced-in porches available.
Still, general manager Robert Beauregard says he opposes the ballot question and agrees with Bucci that the din in Diemand’s coop is a happy sound rather than distress.
“That means they’re singing, they’re in production, they’re happy,” he says, “If they were quiet, that would mean they’re sad and depressed.”
Beauregard, whose operation started in 1986 with cage-free birds, building on a conventional egg farm that had existed before, said he thinks highly of the Diemand operation and opposes the ballot question.
“My feeling is it’s all about the farmer,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s inhumane to keep them in a cage, but we’ve brought birds outdoors, and some flocks were killed off by disease. If they were to outlaw cages, you wouldn’t be able to supply the market. It should be dictated by consumers, not by a referendum.”
Retailers in the state would need to ensure that any eggs they sold in Massachusetts, regardless of where produced, meet the animal welfare standards set forth in the measure effective in 2022, according to referendum campaign director Stephanie Harris, who is also Humane Society Massachusetts director.
Taking conventionally raised hens’ eggs out of the market would dramatically increase egg prices, Beauregard said. The rise in egg prices around the country because of millions of egg-laying hens infected with the avian influenza virus this past summer shows the impact of taking conventional eggs out of production, he noted, while also pointing to a key reason for the wisdom of keeping flocks indoors.
He adds, “HSUS is all about veganism. Who’s next (to be outlawed)?”
Harris says Diemand Farm is the single known farm in the state that confines its hens, and that while there are no known farms using gestation crates for pigs or veal crates, “We want to make sure that they keep it that way.”
Harris said that in addition to trying to protect animals, campaign backers — including American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its Massachusetts affiliate — are trying to protect consumers from food-borne diseases like salmonella “from factory farms.”
With the help of 1,000 volunteers, she said, the campaign collected 133,050 signatures to put the measure on the 2016 ballot — more than twice the 64,750 needed.
Meanwhile, Bucci says she’s been preparing materials to try to counter the ballot question campaign that’s expected to ramp up next year, and also to counter the attacks she’s felt from people who don’t understand the system her father designed with help from the Extension Service.
“While I’d love to have everything running around free,” she says. “I also know the downside: disease, predators. The pecking order is real.
“To me, education is key,” says Bucci, who has been helped in the past by area legislators who have come out to tour the farm. “Somebody has to have an open mind.”