The cost of cage-free chickens at Wendell farm
The Recorder, May 20, 2019, by David McLellan
When voters chose to pass Question 3 on the 2016 state ballot, only one farm in the state was directly affected: Diemand Farm of Wendell. Now, Diemand Farm is scrambling to transition all of their slightly less than 3,000 chickens into a cage-free environment by 2022.
And it could be an $80,000 expense — not including added labor costs — for the family farm that’s been in operation since 1936.
“We will have to collect eggs more times throughout the day — between three to six times — and it’s going to be very expensive,” said Diemand Farm’s Tessa White-Diemand. “The biggest thing, though, is that we already care about our animals and we care about the food we make. It’s not like we’re trying to make a lot of money.”
Question 3, titled the Massachusetts Minimum Size Requirements for Farm Animal Containment, passed with 77.64 percent of answering voters choosing “Yes” on the question in the 2016 election.
Diemand Farm now has until 2022 to completely change its business model to include only cage-free chickens. What this means, according to White-Diemand, is that egg prices will go up. Also, she said, the wording of the question contained unfair implications, and, now that it’s passed, could damage her family’s business financially.
“The propaganda the other side put out made us feel terrible,” said White-Diemand. “It made us feel terrible, like people think we don’t treat our animals well.”
White-Diemand, 35, has helped out at the roughly 200-acre farm that sells a wide variety of food products her entire life. She is a member of the Diemand family’s third generation, and is confident she has learned the best practices in keeping livestock from the farm’s owners: her mother, Anne Diemand Bucci, aunt Faith Diemand and uncle Peter Diemand. According to White-Diemand, the notion that the farm’s chickens in cages have been mistreated in any way — a suggestion implicit in the ballot question’s wording, she said — is simply not true.
The law prohibits “any farm owner or operator from knowingly confining any breeding pig, calf raised for veal, or egg-laying hen in a way that prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely.” White-Diemand said the question is misleading to voters because the chickens in cages at Diemand Farm can already stand, move around, spread their legs and turn around. “They can already do all that,” Faith Diemand said.
Also, White-Diemand said, keeping the chickens in cages isn’t inherently inhumane. According to White-Diemand and the farm’s owners, the farm actually switched to cages many years ago from a cage-free environment at the suggestion of consultants who touted it as more humane.
The chickens in cages, with room to move around, are safer from spreading disease, will not defecate on themselves — the cages have a bottom that allows feces to fall through and be later cleaned up off the floor — and their eggs are easier to collect unbroken. Another big issue with keeping chickens together in a cage-free environment is cannibalism, White-Diemand said.
“Pecking order is a very real thing,” she said. “With cages, everything is controlled better.”
Diemand Farm was founded by Al Diemand in 1936. He and his wife, Elsie, had 12 children who include the current owners, who, both White-Diemand and even owner Faith Diemand admitted, are aging and will have to hand the reigns to someone else. With the family members already having more-or-less specialized roles on the farm, it has been White-Diemand and her aunt Faith Diemand generally collecting the eggs, which are frequently sent to businesses, grocery stores and schools. So far, the farm has transitioned one flock — around 800 brown chickens with Rhode Island Red heritage — into a cage-free environment. Faith Diemand admitted that the task of transferring the last two flocks into a cage-free environment will likely be her niece’s burden.
“It’s me looking to take everything on, find who is going to help and to get into these new endeavors,” White-Diemand said.
White-Diemand says having to hire more workers is inevitable, but she doesn’t know who would know enough about raising livestock that would also be willing to work a strenuous job for not much money. That cost will be on top of the $80,000 Diemand Farm has estimated it will cost just to change its infrastructure for chickens.
The 800 chickens — a flock born in January — already in a cage-free environment at Diemand Farm are dispersed across two large connected rooms with roosting boxes lining the walls. The set-up is working, for now, Faith Diemand said, but it’s still too early to call it perfect. “We actually haven’t figured out what we’re going to do,” Faith Diemand said. “We know what we need to do, but we won’t know yet how to do it.” And, White-Diemand said, there is sure to be problems that come up during the early stages of being cage-free, which will either result in further costs or fewer chickens.
“People were already asking (before 2016) about their food, caring for how the animals are kept, which I think is really great,” White-Diemand said. “Before the ballot, we already had went down to one chicken per cage on our own, and they came in behind that and said, ‘No cages.’”
The law also prohibits Massachusetts farms and businesses from selling eggs, or any uncooked cut of veal or pork, if the business owner or farmer knows the animal that produced these products was confined in a manner prohibited by the proposed law. White-Diemand said farmers tried to lobby against the “Vote Yes” campaign, but it was “like David and Goliath.” Several million dollars in funding for the “Yes” side, the wording of the question and the fact that the Diemand family still has to work many hours operating the farm, meant they stood little of a chance persuading enough voters to say, “No.”
“The problem I see is people might not understand the work,” White-Diemand said. “To have other people tell us how to do our job, when maybe they’re not the most informed… I mean reading that law and not knowing about us, you would probably vote for it.”
The Diemands said they don’t know what will happen in 2022, whether a state inspector will come to the farm or not. However, they both said they accept the new law as reality, that the “people have spoken,” and there is little chance of ever overturning it.
“We love raising animals and we love to feed people, and we’re going to keep doing it,” Faith Diemand said. “My customers have been like my family.”
They’re trying to figure things out on the fly, White-Diemand said, to keep having fresh eggs for customers. Eggs are a staple food in America, she said, but soon the eggs at Diemand Farm could be fewer and more expensive.
Reach David McLellan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.