MARIETTA — Farming in Cobb County was once done on rural landscapes and wide-open vistas populated by a few far-flung silos and farmhouses. Not anymore. Today’s Cobb County farm is only a few acres and likely to be surrounded by strip shopping centers and subdivisions. When the cock crows at one of these “urban farms,” someone’s going to hear it. When manure is hauled out of a coop, someone’s going to smell it. These two worlds can coexist, say those who follow the organic and eat-local movements, but that doesn’t mean tensions won’t rise on occasion, as they did last week at a public hearing on the county’s chicken ordinance. Today’s health-conscious shopper is looking for “free-range,” “grass-fed,” “organic” and “certified naturally grown” so they may be more willing to endure the potential downsides of the movement. But not all have seen the light.
And at last week’s hearing, tempers flared on both sides. One man was led away in handcuffs.
Foods that ease the conscience
Brooke Schembri, a registered dietitian with WellStar, said the benefits go beyond that of physical health. Eating locally produced food is good not only for the body but also for the environment, and your own conscience, she said.
“I definitely recommend eating organic food whenever possible,” she said.
Schembri points clients to two separate lists that could help them eat better: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15.”
The shoppers’ guides are written by the Environmental Working Group, which is a team of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers who review government data and conduct their own lab tests to expose threats to consumers’ health and the environment while looking for solutions, according to the group’s website.
The Dirty Dozen is a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables that typically have the highest level of pesticides, and the Clean 15 is a list of the 15 fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticides. High levels of pesticides have been linked to cancer, nerve cell damage, infertility and impaired fetal development, Schembri said.
Clucking about chickens
As for the environment, specifically dealing with chickens, she said some people are concerned about what large-scale commercial chicken farms may do to increase pollution or greenhouse gas emissions because they rely on trucks to transport the birds long distances.
Another reason that some choose to raise their own chickens or stick to eating only organic or free-range chicken eggs, has to do with people being upset with how the chickens are raised.
“(Free-range chickens) are in a more natural living environment, as opposed to a chicken house that could have 50,000 chickens packed in,” Schembri said.
Over the last few years, Schembri said these potential hazards and awareness have piqued consumers’ interests and steered them towards the free-range, grass-fed, organic or certified naturally grown routes.
She also thinks people are just interested in supporting their local farmers if they can.
Where the farm meets the public
Joseph Pond is a resident of east Cobb whose family enjoys locally raised meat. He tried explaining the benefits of local food production to the Cobb County Commission in an attempt to keep his backyard chicken coop.
“My wife is a very health-conscious vegetarian who came to me one day and said, ‘I want to raise chickens,’” he said. “I thought she was out of her mind and then two years later, I OK’d it.”
Pond dug into the how-tos of the practice, researched the benefits and even visited a few coops to determine which kind of birds to raise.
In raising his nearly dozen hens, Pond said he noticed the eggs were much larger than store-bought eggs and he personally could taste the difference.
Although the family got rid of their coop about a year and a half ago due to a county ordinance, Pond said they continue to try and buy organic or free-range eggs.
Pond also said he believes there has been a movement towards these routes of picking foods over the last couple years because people are “just more health conscious than they used to be.”
“People are eating better, trying to fight obesity,” he said. “They don’t know what kinds of hormones are put into these eggs, and they either don’t know what the process is, or they do know what the process is.”
An old farm springs back to life
Andy Bray is one west Cobb resident who has been able to keep his coop because he’s living on the right amount of acreage. He operates Bray Family Farms in Powder Springs.
At his 23-acre farm, which has been in Bray’s family for at least three generations, he raises around 300 free-range chickens and collects their eggs. He has about a dozen each of grass-fed cows, goats and pigs, and grows organic fruits and vegetables.
“I’m not certified organic, but we do organic practices,” he said. “I don’t try to buy into that hype. I’m not going to pay somebody $650 a year to say I’m organic.”
He said all his meat is USDA approved.
Bray also said they haven’t been practicing free-range, grass-fed or organic for long but decided to take these routes because they wanted to lean towards providing a healthier product for consumers.
“Across the board, everybody is wanting to get away from the growth hormones and antibiotics used in conventional farming,” he said.
His family recently purchased the old Griffin Farms, a 15.4-acre property on Powder Springs Road, to start up the same type of set-up.
Bray said they will hire interns to live in the farmhouse and help tend to the animals and vegetation and manage a roadside stand that sells directly to the public.
“We’ve already got part of it plowed up to get ready for spring planting but will try to open the farm stand in the next month or so,” he said.
The property will also become an “agra tourism” spot for his family business.
They plan to host farm-to-table dinners, allow visitors to purchase their produce and make it an attraction for people.
“We’re turning Griffin Farms back into a working farm,” he said. “The whole nine yards but with the main focus for the public to come and check us out.”
Hitting the markets
In the meantime, Bray sells his meats and vegetables at various farmers markets throughout the metro Atlanta area, including the Marietta Farmers Market on the Square, and according to the local market director Johnny Fulmer, he’s one of many vendors who have chosen to grow organic foods and raise free-range and grass-fed animals.
“People want to buy local and buy nutritious,” Fulmer said, adding that a majority of his younger vendors are focused on the practices.
“I would personally never go into a store and look to see what’s in a product … but we have customers who look to see what the ingredients are in a peach jelly, how fresh is it or if it has any preservatives in it,” he said.
Fulmer also said vendors who raise free-range chickens and their eggs typically sell them for upwards of $5 a dozen and sell out every weekend. That’s also the case for many of the organic fruits, vegetables and free-range meats.
“The young customers, mostly in their early 30s, are the driving force behind this organic or certified naturally grown movement,” he said. “They have young children and want to feed them pesticide-free foods.”
More coops coming?
Neil Tarver, an agriculture agent with the University of Georgia/Cobb County Extension Office, also said the interest in planting organic gardens or keeping chickens has grown, and he often gets calls about how to start one or both.
“I haven’t heard a lot of people ask specifically about free-range verses conventional chickens, but increased interest in producing your own food in general has gone up,” he said.
“I would say that a good percentage is interested in doing organic because safety of the food is one of their main concerns. They are concerned about what’s going into it, how it’s imported, etc….”
Tarver doesn’t believe the organic or “keeping it local” movements will cut into the pockets of conventional farmers.
“The farmers who were mainly doing it are the small ones and they have such a small portion of the market, they aren’t making a difference competitively to farmers,” he said, adding that it would be very costly and labor intensive if farmers with lots of acreage to go solely organic.
“I’m a firm believer in organic practices,” he said. “But on a large scale, it’s going to be very hard for a farmer to make a profit using organic.”