Paonia’s Great Chicken Dump raises the question: what to do with all those old birds?
The news infiltrated the High Country News mothership like a cute animal video (which editors Sarah Gilman and Betsy Marston are particularly fond of) and spread through the North Fork Valley faster than a stomach flu. Soon, from the barstools of Revolution Brewing to the ratty couches of the HCN intern house, the Great Chicken Dump was all anyone in town could talk about. More than 100 hens had been found clucking and wandering around a dusty mesa above town, and no one knew quite how they had gotten there.
Not since the infamous 2012 confrontation between the billionaire (Bill Koch) and the hairdresser ("Tiananmen Sid") have the North Fork’s collective feathers been so ruffled.
“THESE CHICKENS WERE CLUELESS HOW TO SURVIVE ON THEIR OWN,” wrote one woman (determined to express herself in capital letters) on Paonia’s unofficial Facebook page, where there are over 300 poultry-related comments and counting. “THE FEW THAT KNEW TO GET INTO THE BRUSH AND NOT STAY IN THE OPEN DIDN'T KNOW TO EAT A RIPE SERVICE BERRY IN FRONT OF THEIR NOSES.” And so a herd of Paonians headed up to the mesa to take matters into their own hands, rounding up the hens and searching in the chicken scratch for clues. For breathless hours, the chicken dumper remained at large.
Then a confession appeared. It was written by Wayne Talmage, a well-established organic farmer who keeps a flock of chickens for eggs but frequently finds himself with a surplus of fowl once the laying slows down. There’s no chicken slaughterhouse in Western Colorado, nor a poultry retirement home. Talmage’s plan was to give the chickens a “noble” end by bestowing their freedom and allowing them to become fodder for carnivorous wildlife. “Is it not better,” he asked, “than being shot and buried in a landfill of human garbage?”
The explanation wasn't sufficient for some residents, who continued to lambaste Talmage and urged his prosecution. Meanwhile, those who had rescued the chickens were deluged with eggs and chicken droppings, and the growth of compost piles across Paonia stalled as food scraps were donated to the orphaned hens.
Regardless of whether Talmage’s judgment was sound in sacrificing his chickens to the foxes, the Great Chicken Dump raises the question: what do to with all those leftover layers?
While Colorado farmers can kill their own chickens and eat them, or sell live birds to customers who can butcher them themselves, they cannot legally sell chicken meat unless the bird has been slaughtered in a USDA-approved facility — and there are only two such facilities in the state -- both on the Front Range.
Colorado is also one of the few states that relies on the federal government rather than local agencies to license chicken slaughterhouses, presenting an even greater challenge for small farmers who want to “recycle” their birds. As one Colorado farmer wrote to the Durango Herald, “Amazing that you can legally buy marijuana but it’s illegal to buy a fresh butchered chicken from the farmer!”
Would-be poultry farmers in Oregon face similar challenges, as HCN reported in 2011. Though licensing there happens at a state level, farmers struggle with the cost and complexity of building their own slaughterhouses, and large-scale facilities are few and far between.
One proposed solution to help suppliers meet (meat?) the growing demand for safe, local poultry is licensed mobile slaughterhouses. The idea has gained traction in New England, but so far only three such units exist in the West.
So what should egg producers do with all those hens? At the HCN intern house, a plan was formulated. The morning after the dump, HCN editorial fellow Sarah Keller and I prepared to do our part to solve the problem and put a welcome end to our poverty-imposed vegetarianism: Sarah searched for a burlap sack to stuff a chicken in, while I sat on the stoop in my pajamas and sharpened my hatchet. But just as I was putting on the finishing touches, the latest news came through: The chickens were gone. Every last one had been adopted into loving homes where they will happily grow into decrepit, noble old age.
I put away the hatchet, and put on some beans to soak.
Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News.