by  Michael  Pollan


The last stop on my tour of California industrial organic farming took me to Petaluma, where I tried without success to find the picturesque farmstead, with its red barn, cornfield, and farmhouse, depicted on the package in which the organic roasting chicken I bought at Whole Foods had been wrapped; nor could I find Rosie herself, at least not outdoors, ranging freely.

Petaluma Poultry has its headquarters not on a farm but in a sleek modern office building in an industrial park just off Route 101; there's little farmland left in Petaluma, which is now a prosperous San Francisco bedroom community. The survival of Petaluma Poultry in the face of this development (it's one of what were once dozens of chicken farms in the area) is a testament to the company's marketing acumen. When its founder, Allen Shainsky, recognized the threat from integrated national chicken processors like Tyson and Perdue, he decided that the only way to stay in business was through niche marketing. So he started processing, on different days of the week, chickens for the kosher, Asian, natural, and organic markets. Each required a slighdy different protocol: to process a kosher bird you needed a rabbi on hand, for example; for an Asian bird you left the head and feet on; for the natural market you sold the same bird minus head and feet, but played up the fact that Rocky, as this product was called, received no antibiotics or animal by-products in its feed, and you provided a little exercise yard outside the shed so Rocky could, at his option, range free. And to call a bird organic, you followed the natural protocol except that you also fed it certified organic feed (corn and soy grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizer) and you processed the bird slightly younger and smaller, so it wouldn't seem quite so expensive. Philosophy didn't really enter into it.

Petaluma Eggs, a nearby egg producer with corporate ties to Petaluma Poultry, pursues a similar niche strategy, offering natural free-range eggs [no drugs in the chickens' feed, no battery cages]; fertile eggs [all of the above plus the hens have access to a rooster]; enhanced omega-3 natural eggs [all of the above, save the rooster, plus kelp in the feed to boost levels of omega-3 fatty acids]; and certified organic eggs [cage-and-drug-free plus certified organic feed].These last are sold under the label Judy's Family Farm, a brand that until my visit to Petaluma I hadn't connected to Petaluma Eggs. The Judy's label had always made me picture a little family farm, or maybe even a commune of back-to-the-land lesbians up in Sonoma. But it turns out Judy is the name of the wife of Petaluma's principal owner, a marketer who has clearly mastered the conventions of Supermarket Pastoral. Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? Just how big and sophisticated an operation Petaluma Eggs really is I was never able to ascertain: The company was too concerned about biosecurity to let a visitor get past the office.

Rosie the organic chicken's life is little different from that of her kosher and Asian cousins, all of whom are conventional Cornish Cross broilers processed according to state-of-the-art industrial practice. (Though Petaluma Poultry sets the bar higher than many of its competitors, who routinely administer antibiotics and use feed made from animal byproducts.) The Cornish Cross represents the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding. It is the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed, though this efficiency comes at a high physiological price: The birds grow so rapidly (reaching oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks) that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail.

After a tour of the fully automated processing facility, which can translate a chicken from a clucking, feathered bird to a shrink-wrapped pack of parts inside often minutes, the head of marketing drove me out to meet Rosie—preprocessing. The chicken houses don't resemble a farm so much as a military barracks: a dozen long, low-slung sheds with giant fans at either end. I donned what looked like a hooded white hazmat suit—since the birds receive no antibiotics yet live in close confinement, the company is ever worried about infection, which could doom a whole house overnight—and stepped inside. Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud, clucking softly. The air was warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia; the fumes caught in my throat. Twenty thousand is a lot of chickens, and they formed a gently undulating white carpet that stretched nearly the length of a football field. After they adjusted to our presence, the birds resumed sipping from waterers suspended from the ceiling, nibbled organic food from elevated trays connected by tubes to a silo outside, and did pretty much everything chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.

Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (though it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there are no hormones or antibiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer. Though under the circumstances it's not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon.

Running along the entire length of each shed was a grassy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough to accommodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse. Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farm managers want to see happen, since these defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection. This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an industrial system: It is even more precarious than a conventional industrial system. But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have "access to the outdoors," and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petaluma Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.

It would appear Petaluma's farm managers have nothing to worry about. Since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled in their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture out into what must seem to them an unfamiliar and terrifying world. Since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.

After I stepped back outside into the fresh air, grateful to escape the humidity and ammonia, I waited by the chicken door to see if any of the birds would exercise that option and stroll down the little ramp to their grassy yard, which had been mowed recendy. And waited. I finally had to conclude that Rosie the organic free-range chicken doesn't really grok the whole free-range conceit. The space that has been provided to her for that purpose is, I realized, not unlike the typical American front lawn it resembles—it's a kind of ritual space, intended not so much for the use of the local residents as a symbolic offering to the larger community. Seldom if ever stepped upon, the chicken-house lawn is scrupulously maintained nevertheless, to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.