Pay the Farmer or Pay the Doctor


eggs from our backyard chickens 

Most of us agree that when a processed food label has a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, it’s probably best to avoid what’s in the package. However, I seem to get confused by labels on even the simplest of foods. For example, here’s what I have concluded after perusing several brands of egg labels:

Labels can be meaningless. What does it mean to say an egg is “healthy” or “nutritious”? The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t defined these terms, so no matter how a chicken is being raised, a corporation can entice us with these terms.

Labels can be confusing. You have probably seen egg cartoons proclaim that their chickens are “free-range,” and “vegetarian.” This combination makes me chuckle, because our backyard flock (who refuse to stay in the backyard and are instead all over the farmyard and gardens) are certainly not vegetarians. They are scavenging for bugs and worms and there is a joyful cackling when they succeed. Excuse me, corporate people, but if your chickens are truly outside where there are plants and insects, they are not vegetarian.

Labels can be deceitful. Most people have become aware that our grocery-store eggs came from chickens that have been confined in crowded cages for their life-times. As the demand increases for eggs from kinder and healthier sources, the corporate world has begun to label their eggs “cage-free.” This is not a lie, but it is deceitful. To produce eggs in large numbers, the hens are crowded by the thousands into large hoop-houses. They stand, wing-to-wing in feces, without direct sunlight or grass, their beaks cruelly clipped, all so we can have “cheap” eggs. The “free-range” chickens that have access to only a dirt yard don’t fare much better.

If we can’t decipher or trust labels, how are we to find healthful food? As redundant as I am in saying this, we need to find and grow our food locally. When we eat eggs from chickens that are raised in smaller numbers and foraging outdoors, the eggs will cost more than commercially grown eggs. At the same time, our health as well as the health of our environment and communities will improve.

Why are eggs from backyard flocks better for us? When a chicken has daily access to sunlight, grass and insects, her eggs are much higher in nutrition. In fact, cholesterol in eggs is only the “bad” kind when it comes from birds raised indoors on grain. Look at these differences: True free-range eggs have one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat. They also have more of the good things: two-thirds more vitamin A, twice-as-much omega-3 fatty acid, three-times more vitamin E, three to six times more vitamin D and seven times more beta carotene. Needless to say, they probably don’t contain the salmonella bacteria that result in repeated egg-recalls from confinement birds. Nature knew what she was doing when she created animals to be outdoors in the sunshine! (See full details of the test results at

Chickens aren’t the only animals that give us healthier food when they have access to the outdoors, pasture and sunshine. The meat of cattle and hogs are also superior in taste and nutrition when they have been raised naturally, outdoors. Even the milk from cows that graze on pasture is more nutritious than the standard grain-fed cow.

Food grown locally in smaller numbers is healthier for us in other ways. Raising animals in smaller numbers outdoors prevents contamination of streams and water used to irrigate crops. We therefore avoid the other health risks of lettuce and spinach contaminated with the E. Coli bacteria that has mutated to a lethal form in corn-fed feedlots. My great-nephew spent last summer on kidney dialysis from this bacteria. The cost was huge in heartache, health, time and money.

An added benefit to growing our food locally is that it makes our communities healthier economically. If we want food from local animals that are treated humanely, we also want our farmers treated fairly. We want them to get a fair wage for giving us healthful food, and for not polluting our streams and drinking water.

This all sounds good, but it actually presents a dilemma. We have learned that it is “smart” to buy food at the cheapest possible price. I suspect corporate agri-businesses taught us this because they benefit most when we “buy cheap.” Now we’re learning that a low price tag comes with many hidden costs.

How can any of us individually affect changes in our unhealthy food system? You know what I’m going to say; Buy and grow local food. As budgets get tighter, choose away from money and time spent for doctor visits and medication. Choose to pay local farmers and not the doctor.

It’s time to get out those seeds and plan your garden. If you have room for some chickens, why not raise eggs for your family and perhaps for some others in your neighborhood? Think about swapping produce with others growing food.

Get to know and support people in the community who grow food for others. Buying local means you can see how your food is grown. Support farmers who avoid chemicals and who treat their animals and the land with respect.

We don’t have to accept corporate food which is designed for their profits and not for our health. Take steps every year to eat healthier from local sources. 

Photo by Mary Lou Shaw 


Mary Lou Shaw
3/4/2011 1:48:53 PM

It is interesting how many different views we can have depending, I believe, on what our backgrounds and situations are. I wrote this article as a homesteader but also as a physician for the past 30 years. As an M.D., I watched antibiotic resistance grow to what I thought was over-use with human patients. It was quite a wake-up call to find out more antibiotics are being used routinely with livestock than with humans. Then I had to deal with bacteria as they became resistant to antibiotics. There's everyday occurences, but the methicillin-resistant staph still is a big one. The E.Coli that I refer to in this article IS related to the E. Coli in our guts, but this one is a mutant that scientists agree comes from confinement beef lots. It gets carried from feces to water to irrigating crops and then to your supermarket. Perhaps the specific facts are not as important as the fact that most of us agree that we want healthful food for ourselves and our families. Being able to know our food--its nutrional value and safety--is what I'm arguing for. Remember that large corporations mainly create the food we eat and mainly control the press. That means we all have to examine what we read and believe. One reader suggests we can't feed the world organically. Leaders in sustainable argriculture argue otherwise. Interesting. Rather than arguing at all, or reacting from fear, let's work together as communities to provide all of us with healthful food. Mary Lou Shaw

t brandt
3/3/2011 5:50:21 AM

Mary Lou: E.coli O157:H7 is a naturally occurring strain and has nothing to do with feed lots or use of antibiotics. Our bowels are full of E.coli and they don't get thru our intestine walls because our immune systems keep them in check. O157:H7 has different markers on its surface that allows it to avoid detection by our defences and thus it can invade and cause damage. Please note that 70 deaths per yr are reported due to O157:H7. But also note that over a hundred billion servings of beef are eaten here each year. One death per 14 billion meals. Is it a big problem? ps/ wash your lettuce too, if you're still worried.

t brandt
3/3/2011 5:28:43 AM

Jessie-(a) you are misinformed about the effect of prophylactic use of antibiotics in feedlots: antibiotic resistance is not the problem. Most animal pathogens arenot human pathogens. Pathogenic strains of E.coli has to do with our own immune systems, not the bugs pattern of antibiotic resistance. There is also a "washout period" when the antibiotics can't be used prior to slaughter, so they are essentially undetectable in the meat we finally eat. Antibiotics incfrease yield, thereby, again, reducing the number of animals required to feed us. More good than harm is done by using them. (b)The dead zone in the Gulf is naturally occurring and has to do with the great deal of dirt dumped by the Miss.R. Chemicals are not of significant impact. Waste is handled in feed lots so there is minimal runoff. Runoff can be a problem from "Pasture-fed" stock, advocated by TreeHuggers. (c) Cropland fertility is maintained by fertilizing. Yield has tripled in the past 50 yrs. How bad can "depletion" be? New plowing techniques have allowed zero erosion in several MIdwest states over the past few yrs. (d) New pesticides are not "stronger." They just work at different enyzme points than previous ones. Plants can develope rsistance just like bacteria. That's how GMO "RoundUp Ready" works: the genes for resistance from one species is transplanted to the crop species, so now we can use the "old" pesticide. It's evolution in action. BTW- the pesticides used attack plant enzymes, not anim

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