Mickey is jolly and busy and ready to chat about life, farming, society, and poultry. He tells us in detail of how he has developed his model these past few years, how crazy his family thought he was when the first few chicken barns went up, and how the mass-market industry has allowed small family farms to stay afloat. He is upset at media criticism and echoes what we often hear: "this is my business! Who would treat animals inhumanely?" That's not to say he is totally in love with the system as it stands.
I went into this interview very curious and thankful that Mickey was willing to talk to us. Operations like his have fallen under tremendous scrutiny since popular media threw a lot of negative publicity their way and big agriculture has been demonized with a capital D. And having recently seen Food Inc. myself I worked hard to make my mind a blank slate ready to receive information with as little judgement as possible.
Over the course of this interview I saw how Mickey is involved in poultry, though he takes it all in stride. He is attached to a yellow phone that hangs from his belt that rang regularly as he told us his story. It was the chickens calling, or rather the chicken barns, to tell him the obvious: it's hot. This state-of-the-art alarm system works 24/7, ready to alert Mickey if the temperature rises or falls to a certain point or if the electricity has gone off in one of the houses, or any other emergency that could happen.
The chickens are just about ready to be picked up by the processor's trucks and the day can't be here any sooner for the Bowmans. It is just too hot to be a chicken in a barn in North Carolina in June, and Mickey fears that he will lose a lot of them to the heat stress. I can see that he could be the type of farmer that loses sleep worrying about his flocks, and at the end of the day whether or not he will be able to cut his losses and still make a profit. My mind spins when he says that last month he spent $30,000 on electricity for the barns. But for all that he is a man with a loud laugh and easy going way and he supposes he'll make it one way or another, possibly by diversifying his farm more.
As we get ready to go he offers to show us into a chicken house and once again I am amazed that he trusts that we, as strangers, will take what he shows us and represent it realistically and without judgement. He takes us to one of the newer barns; it is a long rectangular building with no windows and fans at each end. He opens the door and the light from outside shines in on the sparsely feathered backsides of a few dozen chickens, and the rest of the barn is dim. I must say, the chickens are not beautiful; they look like we caught them molting and they can't walk very well due to their enhanced big breasts. Or maybe it's a combination of that and the heat, but the fans whir reassuringly in the background.
Mickey is proud of his barns and how he has expanded over the years. But, if money were no object would this be his ideal farm model? "Not really," he tells us. He has always been involved in farming, but as it gets more expensive to be a small-acreage working farm, he is faced with the challenge of how to survive in the business. The poultry companies make it easy, providing plans for the barns and models for how to work and care for the birds. This allows Mickey to support his family in a rural area without purchasing more land or investing in combines, tractors, and harvesters.
The truth is, this is not meat I personally eat much of, but I also know that I have eaten plenty of it in the past when I've been so proud about my dollar savings on chicken, priced at only a dollar a pound. I do not think ill of the Bowmans at all or consider them to be chicken abusers of the lowest level. But Mickey himself feels pulled between the fact of business and how he would choose to run a farm if he could afford it. I think we live in a society that asks farmers to produce food this way, and until we, as the consumer, are willing to pay the farmer more for what they do, we will eat the best they can produce with the feeble amount we pay for their product. When I see the chickens stumbling in the startling light with their featherless behinds aimed every which way, what I think of is, how can I support this farmer so he can farm the way he wants to? Then his phone rings again to remind us again that it's hot, like we could have forgotten.