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Endangered Species

Free-range poultry may be the first casualty in our war on avian flu.



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Ultimately, the best way to know how your eggs are raised is to speak with your supermarket's egg buyer, contact the egg producer, or get to know your local farmers' market egg vendors.

Many Berkeley Farmers' Market shoppers know Art Davis, owner of Ludwig Avenue Farms. On a busy November Saturday, the line at his stand is rarely fewer than three deep. Some purchase his greens, potatoes, or pecans, but most walk away with a box of eggs as well. Davis has owned his operation for more than thirty years, and now runs it as a retirement project. He moves economically, a slight stoop to his back, but he speaks with a quiet graciousness that wins him regulars. Many drop off empty cartons, even if they aren't buying more that day. "He has the best eggs," one customer says. "They have a whole different flavor. You know how people talk about the eggs and potatoes they had as a kid? That's what his are like."

Davis says his eggs, which are certified organic, come from the three-to-four-hundred chickens he keeps in open pens at his two Santa Rosa properties -- some are leghorns, some Rhode Island reds, and he keeps a few araucanas whose blue-gray eggs are in high demand. The chickens roam freely around the pens and the chicken houses, and many make their nests under the open sky. "I like raising chickens," he says. "It's hard to get the [organic] certification, but I know how to raise good stuff, clean stuff." Asked about the USDA's biosecurity campaign, Davis says flatly, "I don't understand it."

Davis has no problem with the fact that large commercial farms protect against disease by keeping their chickens pent up. "If you have 10,000 chickens, you have to have tighter controls to get all your eggs," he says. "It's common sense." As for his flocks, disease may threaten them, but so do hawks and skunks: "If you raise chickens," he continues, "you're going to lose some."

Davis may be less romantic about his chickens than most of his customers are, but both value his "good stuff, clean stuff." How, then, can we hold on to the ideals espoused by farmers like Art Davis, and their relationships with their customers?

"The good news," Carol Cardona says, "is that the people going to the Berkeley Farmers' Market do need to know that H5N1 is not here."

Cardona doesn't want free-range producers and backyard farmers to give up their chickens. "I'm hoping that this epidemic encourages some inventor to develop a way to cover poultry that need to be kept outdoors so they can be free-range and organic but protected from disease," she says, wistfully adding that she wished she knew of any engineers taking on the task. "I know people are going to think keeping poultry covered is cruel, but I think the other side is cruel. In my opinion, we have the obligation to protect our birds from a virus that kills 100 percent of them."

Asked whether the commercial egg producers are trying to force backyard growers to be more like them, Cardona responds abruptly: "I don't work for the commercial poultry industry, I don't work for small-scale growers. I work for good of the people of the state of California. People can develop conspiracies out of anything. I just hope they weigh the facts, and come up with their own conclusions. Me, the United Egg Producers, the free-range producers, we're all saying, let's promote the health of the birds. We just may differ in how we do it."

In a biosecure world, we're all potential disease carriers. Asked for a tour of his operation, Petaluma Farms owner Steve Mahrt says outsiders are no longer allowed in there, and he insists on a phone interview instead.

Petaluma Farms, which produces Rock Island Fertile Eggs and Judy's Family Farms Organic Eggs, may be the Bay Area's best-known supplier of cage-free eggs, which are sold in Safeway as well as many natural-foods stores. Steve and Judy Mahrt, who bought the farm 25 years ago, have raised their laying hens in windowed barns with perches and roosts and have avoided antibiotics since year one.

In addition to nixing tours, here are some of the other precautions Steve Mahrt now takes to prevent disease outbreaks: Three-foot high metal strips around the base of the barns to keep mice out. Netting stretched over all openings to let in light and air but not wild birds. Clothing changes and foot baths for all workers every time they enter the building. A washdown of the trucks that deliver chicken feed before they get close to the barns. Oh, and Mahrt's four kids are forbidden from going to the zoo. "When they were six, eight, ten, they would ask, 'Why can't I go?'" Mahrt says. "Now they understand it's because we don't want our chickens to get sick.

"I've never been a fan of having the chickens run outside, but as far as inside and open-house systems I think we do a pretty good job," he says. "I mean I'm hoping, right? We're choosing to be as careful as possible. After all, I'm not old enough to retire."

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