At these NOCO farms, humane treatment and high quality go hand-in-hand

by Emma Faust

In storybook portrayals of farms, animals frolic in green meadows and lead peaceful, carefree lives. The reality is often much harsher and more industrial, with stressed-out livestock crammed into tight quarters in factory-like settings.

Gaia’s Farm and Gardens, in Laporte, tries to adhere to the storybook vision. The farm’s hens, ducks and llamas spend their days freely roaming their pastures. Gaia’s mission is to raise its animals naturally, the way they’re supposed to be raised, on the theory that a healthier way of living creates a better-tasting, more appealing product.
“You feel good because they’ve lived a good life,” says Kathleen Miller, who owns and operates Gaia’s. Miller believes consumers benefit greatly from eating humanely raised food. “If they know and get to experience how happy the chickens are,” she says, “that connects them to that product instead of what’s on sale.”

Gaia’s is certified under the Animal Welfare Approved program, which establishes strict standards for humane husbandry and supports farmers who adhere to those practices. AWA is one of several programs that help consumers make informed choices about the food they purchase, while giving producers a marketable label that designates their output as ethically produced. U.S. shoppers increasingly are interested in knowing how food gets from the farm to their fork, and Colorado is at the forefront of this trend. According to professor Dawn Thilmany of Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Colorado is one of the top 10 states in the nation for specialty food markets. Coloradans have a strong tendency to start new culinary trends and support unique products, and NOCO consumers are particularly attuned to food sources and production methods because the region has such deep agricultural roots.

If you want to support ethical treatment of animals in food production, you’ll find plenty of options in NOCO supermarkets. But there are so many different labels and marketing phrases that instead of promoting transparency, often lead to confusion. For example, “free-range” doesn’t always mean that an animal was raised on
pasture throughout its whole life. Likewise, definitions of “cage-free” and “all-natural” vary from one product to another.
Given this lack of labeling consistency, how can you be sure you’re buying food that meets your own definition of “humanely produced”?

Seals of Approval
“Education is huge for consumers, and increasing attention is key,” says CSU’s Thilmany. The main thing to understand is that each certification is slightly different, with its own set of criteria and varying degrees of oversight and enforcement. The three most common certification labels – Global Animal Partnership, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved – all focus on allowing animals to behave naturally and live in environments that promote their well-being. They just have slightly different formulas for measuring these values.

Certified Humane has a direct NOCO connection to CSU professor Temple Grandin, whose pioneering research on livestock handling in the 1980s and 1990s helped spark the trend toward ethical treatment of farm animals. Grandin sits on the scientific committee that wrote the standards for Certified Humane, which generally state that animals can never be kept in cages or crates, must have fresh water and natural food (with no hormones or antibiotics), and must live in environments that facilitate natural behaviors (such as rooting, pecking and wallowing). The specific standards are far more detailed – you can read them online at www.certifiedhumane.org.

“If they know and get to experience how happy the chickens are, that connects them to that product, instead of what’s on sale.”
Morning Fresh Farms, a Weld County egg producer in its 50th year of operation, has more than 350,000 Certified Humane hens. Jerry Wilkins, the farm’s sales and marketing director, sees the certification as an enhanced level of transparency that demonstrates the farm’s commitment to animal welfare from henhouse to home.

“We’ve always been diligent in how we take care of our hens,” says Wilkins. “The certification is just another set of eyes to verify what we’re already doing.”

The Global Animal Partnership utilizes a five-step program that enables producers to attain ever-higher levels of humane certification. They can earn Step 1 rating by eliminating cages, crates, and crowded environments, then advance to Step 2 rating by adding enhancements (such as scratching posts for cattle or play bales for pigs), eventually attaining Step 5 (year-round access to pasture). The system allows producers to gain certification via incremental modifications, rather than going through a complete (and expensive) one-time overhaul of their entire operation.
Animal Welfare Approved, the third prominent certification program, is only available to family farms, not large corporate facilities. All three programs have the same goal and very similar standards, but they differ in specifics. Some are stricter than others about how much outdoor space animals must be able to access, or how much time they get to spend outside. Despite these differences, any of these certifications provide consumers with a high level of confidence that their food was handled ethically before it got to the store.

Paying the Price
“I think [shoppers are] starting to wake up to be educated to where their food comes from,” says Miller of Gaia’s Farm and Gardens. “I think it’s curiosity and realization that we are disconnected from the earth.”

Consumers do seem to be placing greater value on sustainable, organic and humanely raised food. As disposable income increases, they become more willing to pay extra for products that match their ethical values and beliefs – and more conscious of how to drive markets with their dollars. This demand is spurring more farms to consider earning humane certification. But the transition isn’t simple, and it doesn’t fit into every farm’s business model. Certification is best suited for smaller farming operations that make their profits on premium quality and customer service instead of efficiency and mass production.

“When they scale up, it can become more of a challenge entering retail markets, which makes it harder to manage those operations,” says CSU’s Thilmany. Humane production requires farmers to build additional steps into their workflow, pay more attention to detail, and organize production around the certification standards. They must make front-end investments in documentation procedures, superior feed and water, and space that allows animals ample room to roam.

Why do farmers go to the trouble?

“Without proper stewardship toward the flocks, the farm cannot produce a high-quality, farm-fresh egg for the consumer,” says Wilkins of Morning Fresh Farms. In other words, this style of agriculture not only gives consumers peace of mind about how their food is produced; it also results in more natural, fresher, tasting food. And it establishes a sense of commitment that just doesn’t exist when consumers shop solely based on price.

As Gaia’s Miller puts it: “If you pay a little extra price for eggs, you’re making the world a little bit better of a place just by your purchase.”

The Global Animal Partnership utilizes a five-step program that
enables producers to attain ever-higher levels of humane certification.