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Should an organic chicken be allowed to scratch outside in the native earth?

Federal farm experts meeting in Seattle this week are expected to consider this question, and the outcome could impact one of Sonoma County’s two main egg producers.

Petaluma Farms is a longtime supplier of organic and conventional eggs, all produced “cage free,” that is, without the small wire cages that confine most of the nation’s laying hens. Critics recently filed a federal complaint involving the company, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture should require Petaluma Farms to give its organic hens access to soil outdoors, rather than limit their outside space to raised, screened porches.

Petaluma Farms owner Steve Mahrt, a cage-free farmer for almost three decades, defends his methods as superior, and he notes that his chicken houses have passed muster with both a private organic certifier and a leading organic farm cooperative that sells some of his eggs. Moreover, he suggests the public’s image of organic farms often fails to take into account the reality of large-scale operations that provide the food sold in supermarkets and natural food stores.

“People have the expectation that all the chickens are outside,” said Mahrt, standing beside a screened, barracks-like building containing 13,000 hens. “That doesn’t happen. That doesn’t happen anywhere.”

Organic food amounts to a $29 billion industry in the U.S., according to the Organic Trade Association. While it constitutes less than 4 percent of all food and beverage sales, the organic segment grew nearly 8 percent last year, while overall sales grew less than 1 percent.

Congress passed the nation’s organic food law in 1990, and the last two decades have featured regular fights over requirements for the treatment of farm animals. Last year the USDA mandated that organic dairy cows must obtain a significant amount of their feed from grazing in pastures, a move intended to stop the practice of keeping thousands of cows confined in dirt lots.

Now watchdog groups are urging stronger rules on outdoor access for poultry, including near Petaluma, once touted as the Egg Capital of the World. The critics say the tougher requirements are needed because “factory farms” are benefitting from the organic label without letting the birds outdoors in ways the federal law requires.

“This is what we call gaming the system,” said Mark Kastel, a senior farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm advocacy group.

The institute recently filed a federal complaint against Organic Valley, the nation’s leading organic egg brand, because it buys eggs from Petaluma Farms.

Kastel said organic consumers believe they’re not only buying superior food but also a more humane type of animal husbandry.

“They’re not just buying those eggs,” he said. “They’re buying the story behind those eggs.”

What sets Mahrt’s chicken houses apart are their open, screened sides. Walls of his former turkey houses have been removed and fitted plastic curtains, which are lowered by day and raised by night. In contrast, most chicken houses are completely enclosed and use giant fans for ventilation.

Mahrt’s system was key to gaining approval from the 1,600-member cooperative that controls Organic Valley. A committee of farmers toured his operation, said George Siemon, the Wisconsin-based co-op’s chief executive officer.

“What impressed us was Steve provides excellent living conditions for his chickens, lots of sunlight, lots of fresh air,” Siemon said.

The co-op made an exception in granting membership to Mahrt even though his hens don’t ever touch outdoor soil and his raised, roofless porches fall far short of the minimum outside space required of the co-op’s other egg farmers — 5 square feet per bird.

Mahrt insists such systems increase the risk of rodent contact and salmonella outbreaks, such as the ones that rattled the conventional egg industry last summer. As well, Organic Valley wrote on its website that “state veterinarians and the California Department of Agriculture strongly advocate that birds not have free-range outdoor access because of the risk of Avian Influenza transmission.”

However, other organic poultry farmers in Sonoma County and elsewhere in the state provide their birds access to outdoor soil. Some private companies that certify the farms require such access if the farmers want the organic designation.

This week in Seattle the National Organics Standards Board, an advisory group to the USDA, is slated to consider a committee recommendation that all organic poultry receive outdoor access to soil. The final decision rests with the agriculture department.

Siemon acknowledged that his group supports such a rule change, even though it would prohibit Mahrt’s system. Nonetheless, he suggested the change in itself isn’t a magic bullet. He said some large organic poultry farms might meet the rule but their outside areas are nothing but “moonscapes” — the ground so hard that the hens can’t really scratch or peck.

“It’s not as simple as you just have a piece of land out there and a door,” Siemon said.

If the USDA eventually requires access to outdoor soil, Mahrt said he will adapt, but not because he thinks the change would amount to an improvement.

“What I’m doing is what I think is the safest system for our consumers and for our hens,” he said.

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