What Does “Free-Range” Really Mean?

Rocky Casillas blog

The term “free range” on a label can be highly misleading. When most people think about “free range” chickens, they imagine chickens running around in wide open green spaces, eating bugs, and soaking in the sun. In some cases, that is far from true. According to USDA, to use the term “free range” in your product, “producers must demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” That’s it. There are no requirements on the amount of time chickens spend outdoors, square footage per chicken, nothing else.

So, in practice, this could mean that the chickens spend most of their life outside, retreating to their coop only when they want to or need to because of weather or predators… OR it could mean that chickens spend their life cramped inside their coop with a tiny door that allows them “access” to the outdoors for five minutes. Two completely different scenarios, yet both meet USDA’s definition of “free range.”

At our farms, chicks stay in their coop for warmth and protection for the first few weeks – this is when the birds are most fragile and vulnerable to the elements. After the third week, we open the paddock doors shortly after sunrise and close them back again at night to keep predators out once all of the chickens have gone inside to sleep. On average, our chickens have 15 hours of outdoor access, and 24 hours of freedom to be and do as they please.

All of the chickens we raise are treated humanely and given the best possible living conditions. We will never compromise the welfare of these animals for any reason. They have fresh food and water every day, plenty of space to stretch their wings, run around, bathe in the dirt and curiously peck and scratch their way around the coop and paddocks. They are not pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, but instead given vinegar, herbs, and other natural ailments when illness strikes. Heck! We even play soft classical music (WCPE 89.7) for them. It’s true! We have a radio in all of our coops because we’ve found it helps keep the flock calm.

As a farmer, be transparent about the way you’re raising your animals. Producers who work with integrity have nothing to hide. As a consumer, do some research on the kinds of practices you’re supporting. Ask questions. Don’t just settle for reading the words “free-range” or “cage-free” on the package. If you’re able, purchase locally instead of from large companies. You’re more likely to get to know the product, the farm conditions, and the producer a lot better.

If you’re in Southeast Minnesota and are interested in learning how to raise free-range chickens, consider taking our Agripreneur Training this fall. Classes start October 18 from 6-8pm at our downtown office in Northfield. For more information contact our Training Director, Bob Kell, at bkell@mainstreetproject.org or call 507-786-9900.

Consider supporting our work and purchase a chicken CSA today!

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