Our featured farmer this month manages a unique operation in Worcester County, Maryland. Carole Morison, co-owner of Birds Eye View Farm in Pocomoke City has spent years speaking out against the big chicken companies who dominate the food industry and the landscape. Morison is best known however for her role in Food, Inc. a documentary where she exposed the conditions of the chickens and the poultry industry after welcoming camera crews inside her poultry houses while under contract with Perdue. Although it took her three years of chicken free houses, she decided to get back into the industry in a far less conventional way.
It all started after marrying her husband Frank in 1986. The couple bought two chicken houses and began to grow birds under contract for Perdue. Not long into their production she began to challenge the conventional agriculture system explaining that Perdue dictated everything from equipment upgrades, to feed additives, to flock size.
In 2006, the directors of Food, Inc. approached Morison, and despite knowing she would lose her contract--a great source of fear for any contract grower--she agreed to participate in the film, believing that consumers deserved to know the truth.
The Morisons received the Perdue Grower of the Year award in 2007, having outperformed every other grower. But just three weeks later, Perdue ended the Morisons contract due to failure to comply with full enclosure of their chicken houses, a costly upgrade that the Morisons knew would create financial problems as well as additional health problems for the chickens. Their chicken houses were emptied in 2008 by the time the eye-opening documentary Food, Inc. first aired.
Soon the film took off, and Morison traveled across the country and around the world talking about her work and why she was so vocal against the chicken industry. In her time spent traveling, Morison connected with farmers and people who shared successes of their alternative farming operations. And so she was inspired to join the chicken world once more.
After transitioning away from a traditional contracted poultry farm, Birds Eye View Farm is now home to a 600-hen, free-range, pastured egg operation where the Morisons are able to control every aspect of their process as they deem fit.
The houses that used to hold 54,000 birds now serve as a shelter and laying area for the 600 hens. Even when the full flock is inside at night, the birds have more than six times the space the meat birds had during the previous years. Birds Eye View Farm was the first on the Delmarva Peninsula to be certified as Animal Welfare Approved, the highest third-party certification standards in the country.
One of the greatest difference in her work is that she now enjoys it--the chickens are happier as well! They like to follow her on walks and enjoy special treats, especially watermelons. The flock is made up of Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Delawares, all of which are traditional heritage breeds. Each chicken has access to more than 14 acres of pasture and typically lays an egg every other day. The Morisons strive to produce healthier hens and more nutritious eggs.
"First I would tell people to, know your food, know your farmer," says Morison. "I think you will be much more satisfied. Second, make an effort to keep your money in the community and local region. And third develop the local food system by having choices for farmers and choices for consumers."
Today people visit Birds Eye View Farm to watch happy chickens roam and pick through lush green fields. The locals pick up their eggs from the farm while others in Maryland can pick up a dozen from Whole Foods Markets. The success of Birds Eye View Farm is almost as remarkable as the stretch of Morison's advocacy efforts. "I'm not saying that our model is the only way, but I do know that the market is wide open." Morison says she struggles to meet the demand of consumers who want to buy a product that they know is good for their own health, the environment, and their community.
"I started to retire . . . [but it just didn't] happen, so I guess I'm not ready to give up yet." There are some who tell her to consider slowing down, but a woman with this much passion and a genuine drive to connect people to their food is going to be one tough egg to crack.
--Kellie Rogers; Photos courtesy of Carole Morison