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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

12000 Chickens.

2011 has been a slow year for blogging so far! I'd like to think it's because I've been keeping busy...

After the Idli party, I spent a few more days with Sadhana friends, then took a couchsurfer from Colombia, Jorge. A really nice, cool guy. He stayed for a week and we hung out a fair bit; I really had nothing to do except study Korean, write another article for Daegu pockets, translate it, and eat the candy he brought as a gift. After a week or so, he and his friend Isabel (who was staying with another host) found their own place near another university, where they're going to TA for Spanish classes while taking an intensive Korean course. I have already told them that they can repay my kindness by cooking me an occasional vegan Colombian dinner. Next semester is shaping up nicely...

I had planned to head off on my farming excursions around the beginning of February, but as Lunar New Year fell on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, the farmers asked me to postpone my visit until the following Monday. So, I spent Korean New Year alone recuperating from about 5 weeks straight of being excessively social (Christmas group trip, New Year's group trip, continuous Upo wetlands camp prep meetings, early January visit to see friends in Seoul, various environmental things in Daegu, Tobin's visit, Idli party, Couchsurfers), napping and reading and studying Korean and cooking and such goodness.

So, come Monday the 7th, I came out to NunbiSan Maeul (Snow-Rain-Mountain Village), a chicken farm about 3 hours northwest of Daegu. I found out about Nunbi not through WWOOF, but through Seon-ju, a Korean friend I met in Sadhana. She spent most of the last 5 years visiting different kinds of communities - Buddhist, self-sufficient, sustainable, et. al. - in Japan and southeast Asia, and she knows of some stuff here in Korea too. She hadn't been here yet but asked me to check it out.

"Chicken farm" isn't exactly the best way to describe Nunbi, but I don't know what is. I can't post any pictures now, but later I'll show you the 7 buildings, each divided into 10 or 25 smaller rooms, holding a total of abotu 12,000 chickens. You could walk a circle around the whole set of buildings in about five or ten minutes; it's not too big, but it's big enough that the chickens have ample space to walk, jump, exercise, and do their chicken culture stuff.

The design for the coops was apparently invented by a Japanese farmer named (something like) Yamagasi - I've only heard the name in passing and haven't seen it written yet. Wooden beams run the length of the back of each coop; the chickens jump up onto them to sleep, and since they're about a foot off the ground, the chickens can poop without stepping in it and dragging it all around. The water is in a tray at the front of the coop, far from the feces. The space in the middle has some troughts for food, and on the left and right side, hanging off the walls, are big triangular boxes. The base of the triangle is filled with hay, and the hypotenuse blocks out sun and light, so that the chickens have a dark, soft, warm place to lay their eggs. When the farmers/workers/members of the community come in, all they have to do is open up the hypotenuse, grab the eggs out of the hay, and move on. Because the boxes are so nice, the chickens hardly ever lay eggs on the ground, which mean few get stepped on, missed, or wasted.

The eggs that Nunbi produces are fertilized, which means that if they were left alone they'd hatch into baby chicks. This may sound a little cruel - actually, the chairman of the community, when he heard about my veganism, said that he'd rather eat unfertilized eggs than fertilized ones, which is an argument I understand - but the truth is that fertilized eggs mean happier chickens. Here at Nunbi, the ratio of roosters to hens is about 1:12-15, which gives an egg fertilization rate of about 95%. I'm not sure what the "natural" ratio would be, but in many standard (sterile) egg operations, the hens never encounter a male and thus never get a chance to mate or have a child. To me, this looks like their ability to express one of the fundamental traits of animals is being denied. Not only the physical acts of mating, conceiving, and laying, but also the social acts of courting, competing, showing off, or however chickens get on with it. I don't think one has to know the details in order to acknowledge the justice of allowing them some amount of freedom. Furthermore, even if roosters were present in most egg-laying operations, mating would probably be impossible, since the conditions are so cramped that the chickens can hardly move around, let alone strut, play, or mount one another. Fertilized eggs don't guarantee that the chickens have space to move, but they raise the likelihood. Finally, chickens in standard egg operations don't even live through full life cycles. After being caged and manipluated and worn out (by antibiotics, "enhanced" feed, and non-natural light cycles), they're killed as soon as their productivity drops. Most of these chickens, bread for egg-laying ability and not survival capacity, wouldn't even survive if let loose, even into good conditions; their bodies are weak, and since they never saw adult chickens foraging or mating, they have no clue how to get by. Fertilized eggs mean, at least to some degree, that the chickens have been allowed to express some of their chicken-ness. And there's no such thing as animal welfare without this freedom.

So, for 2 days, I woke up at 6:30, put on some nice tall boots, and went outside to pour hot water on the faucets, which freeze every night. Once they faucets are operational, the water is turned on so the chickens can drink. (In the non-freezing months, it's always on). Then I went through the coops with the young chickens, who haven't quite adjusted to the "don't lay your eggs in your own poop" system. I would throw a few handfuls of seed into the corner, and and with the chickens distracted and scattered, I was able to clearly spot and pick up the eggs that had been laid on the ground. If I saw a chicken preparing to lay an egg anywhere other than in the egg box, I picked it up and moved it to the egg box, both for its own comfort and ours. After a time or two, the chickens pick up the habit, and by the time they're six months old, they hardly lay on the floor at all.

Breakfast at 8:00, then back to the chickens at 9:00. We opened up the rooves to let the sunlight in, then one more round picking up eggs from the floor - yes, they lay them that frequently - then gathering from the egg boxes. A room with 100 chickens might produce about 50 eggs overnight. The eggs are set into temporary cartions, and then we drive them down to the little factory, where they are stored for the moment. Then we weigh out a bag of feed for each room (10 to 20 kg depending on the size of the room and the age of its inhabitants) and set it out in front of the door. Then we head in for lunch and a nap.

At 2pm, back to the chickens. They have a special long coo for when they're hungry, which I don't think I can transcribe. The tone is kind of plaintive (maybe that's just me projecting) and moves from low to high. Entering the coop, I'd toss some feed in one corner to get them out of the way, flip over their troughs to empty them out (chickens are not the brightest animals and often stand and poo inside the trough while eating), and then fill them with new goodies.

After that, miscellaneous time. On the first day, we made a special snack out of the eggs that were too ugly or damaged to sell. We boiled several hundred defective eggs, then mixed them (shells and all) with some organic nutrition supplements and some rice husks, and then I donned my boots again and stomped on the stuff until it got kind of pasty-clumpy. It was like taking a bath in a tub of scrambled eggs; I was half salivating and half ready to puke. Then we distributed it to the young chickens as a sort of protein supplement.

The idea of feeding eggs to chickens struck me as somehwere between stupid and inhumane. But, actually, if you watch chickens, you'll quickly see that if you accidentally break an egg in their presence, they race over and gobble it right up; this has been explained to me as an attempt to recover the protein and other nutrients that their bodies jettison each day in the process of laying. They won't break intact eggs open - that would be a truly stupid, maladaptive habit - but eggs that have no chance of developing into chicks are fair game.

The next day, for the older chickens, we fed them something one of the farmers called "corn kimchi." They had grown corn the previous summer and kept it fermenting for months and months, kernels and cobs and stalks and all. The rancid, rotten, stinky smell means that the corn is full of little living bacteria, probiotics, which are good for the chickens' digestion and overall health around this time of year. They loved it.

After that, one more round of picking up ground eggs. Then all the eggs are brought to the factory, which has fifteen meters of conveyor belts that bring the eggs through six or seven different machines. The machines wash the blood, feathers, dirt, and poo off the eggs, sort them according to size, enter all sorts of statistics into the computer, and then drop them into cartons.

While the people in the factory are setting up the eggs for distribution, the people outside get the chickens ready for bed. Turn off the water, close the roofs, lower the windscreens, and coax the chickens into their sleeping spots (stragglers who attempt to sleep away from the flock often catch colds, so it's important to put them all together). Once the sun sets and the chickens are OK, the workers can head in for dinner.

Nunbi has an interesting dynamic. About ten or twelve people work here; some of them are alone, living in the dorm, eating communal meals, while others live nearby with their families. Together they produce between eight and ten thousand eggs a day, all of which are sold to Hansallim ("One Life," or maybe "Korean Life"), an organization that runs a chain of environmentally-friendly supermarkets. Regardless of his or her role, each worker receives an equal share of the profits, after some has been set aside to donate to local causes and for the development of the facilities. The people who stay in the dorm - actually, "research center" - hang out together in the evenings, drinking tea and chatting and reading and practicing "Guk-seon-do," a reportedly ten-thousand year old Korean style of Tai-chi/yoga/martial arts/meditation on Wednesdays.

I've only spent 3 of the last 10 days at Nunbi and have a lot to write about Heuksallim (Saving the Soil), the organization where I spent the rest of my time. But, it's nearly lunch time, and after I eat, I'm heading off for another ten days of noble silence. That's right, my second Vipassana of the year! I didn't think I'd have another chance until next summer, but the founder of Nunbi knew about an unlisted course happening not to far from here and set me up. I'm not sure whether I'll volunteer (i.e. cook, clean, etc, meditating only about 3 hours a day) or whether I'll full-on participate (ten or twelve hours of meditation daily), but either way, I won't be back until just about March. See ya then...