White Buffalo Farm and the Not-So-Great Steven’s Gulch Chicken Dumping of 2013
By Thomas Wills and Paonia Message Board Reporters Corp
The general opinion among those in the North Fork Valley of Colorado who have heard this story is that the chickens should have not been abandoned to die in the woods at all, although there are some who say that only the mistake was leaving the hundred and fifty or so spent laying hens on the main traveled road and not taking them deeper into the forest like a chicken version of Hansel and Gretel minus the gingerbread house.
You can blame it on Facebook. The power of local social media as a tool for community activism continues to grow. About mid-afternoon on August 2nd, Carol Pierce of Paonia reported on Facebook that someone had dumped a good sized flock of chickens about 10 miles out of Paonia up on Stevens Gulch Road, a local National Forest access route. In a matter of minutes several people volunteered to go and help rescue the abandoned birds before predators decimated them. This included good Samaritans and those who simply thought that they could use a few chickens around the place.
As the day progressed, and the story feathered out on Facebook, it was alleged that a local orchard/CSA farm, White Buffalo north of Paonia, had been the one who had disposed of about 150 chickens and that similar “spent hen” chicken dumpings have happened in the past in roughly the same area. A phone call to the farm by one message board reporter apparently confirmed this.
On the positive side there had been an extraordinary response from those willing to rescue the chickens and by dark most of the birds had been rounded up and taken to their new Valley homes. People reported having also seen several dead chickens on the scene. One rescuer noted that his new hens had laid a dozen eggs overnight.
“These girls should work on a farm,” he wrote, irony intended.
By sheer coincidence, Pierce is a longtime neighbor of White Buffalo, but had no idea it was their abandoned chickens she had discovered.
Responses to the incident ranged from outrage to simple curiosity why chickens would be dumped in the woods to die when they would have been easy to give away locally. Some promised retribution in the way of boycotts or the filing of complaints with the authorities. In the meantime several posts appeared showing the rescued chickens in their new homes. One woman who had rounded up 96 of the birds asked that people who wanted them come and get them. In the matter of a couple hours those hens were all quickly spoken for.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, August 4, Wayne Talmage, the longtime owner and founder of White Buffalo posted the following on the farm’s Facebook page, not an apology, but an explanation, or as some would term it, a rationalization of irresponsible behavior.
In Defense of Chickens
by Wayne Talmage (owner – White Buffalo Farm)
Most folks do not farm, but all folks eat the food that comes from the farm. In order to stay in business, farmers have to make more than they spend otherwise the creditors take away your farm. There are many life and death events happening on the farm – especially in the world of animals.
In the world of laying chickens, the purpose is to harvest and sell eggs. In order to buy the feed to feed the chickens to lay the eggs, you must have a large enough number of eggs that you can sell at a highest enough price to keep doing it. Eventually chickens get old and stop laying eggs and one can no longer keep them. One must get new, young chickens and start anew. The problem is what to do with the old hens. This is a real problem when you have fifty or more chickens.
One can try to eat them, but they are very hard to eat because they are old and tough. No one will butcher them (to tough even to butcher) and no one will buy them. The common solution in our area is to kill them all, send them to the landfill and bury them. This is the common lot for dead farm animals in our area. They are not returned to the earth with respect but buried in a garbage dump-an ignominious end for the chicken. Many people love the chickens and appreciate their service to us. They have a good life living on the pasture, drinking fresh-running water, sharing their eggs with us. Now their time is over and we have to make room for the next generation. So, how should they die? This is the question.
We have no recycling center for poultry in our valley. One wishes we did. No animal shelter to take in the thousands of birds needing to be replaced. We are talking about thousands of birds.
Over the years the valley bird flocks have been devastated by bears, bobcats and foxes. Predator populations are increasing and their food supply is decreasing. It is no wonder since it is open hunting season on their food supply by humans. For an inexpensive small game license in Colorado you can shoot the following animals: turkeys, pheasants, bobcats, grouse, prairie chickens, rabbits, raccoons, beavers, coyotes, foxes, prairie dogs, marmots, badgers, etc. There is less and less for them to eat and more and more of them that need to eat.
So, we have these chickens who are noble creatures deserving a noble death and what is more noble than giving them their freedom so they can fend for themselves and often times provide food for the other animals in the wild. Is it not better than being shot and buried in a landfill of human garbage? It all depends on whether you understand the complexity of these issues. End statement.
Several other Valley poultry growers, including Oogie McGuire of Desert Weyr and Paul Chenault of Closer to Heaven Farms who has a commercial egg operation quickly pointed out that dumping chickens on public land is not only illegal and unethical but also gives wildlife a taste of domestic fowl. McGuire worried that once coyotes, foxes and other predators had enjoyed the easy killing of helpless birds the experience would lead to more raids of local farms. That has apparently been the recurring experience in the valley. McGuire reported that a local bear had to be disposed of by the authorities after acquiring a taste for chicken.
It was also agreed among many that the problem of disposal of spent hens from small egg operations is still an issue to be dealt with. Killing and landfilling birds does not seem to fit with the philosophy of “green” or organic operations any better than dumping them in the woods. Larger operations with tens of thousands of chickens, who rotate hens about every 18 months, contract to send their hens to be processed for soup or pot pies.
Talmage, or someone at the farm, later wrote that White Buffalo, the oldest organic farm in the Valley was in the process of changing ownership. It was noted on Facebook that the farm is in a bankruptcy process and is for sale.
The 57 acre farm has been somewhat controversial as a quasi-commune/farm/orchard for several decades and over the variety of worker/guest housing, and guests and workers on the property. The farm is USDA certified organic. All agree that White Buffalo has been an icon of a certain segment of Valley culture since 1974, when it was established.
According to the farm’s website: “Established during the back-to-the-land movement, the farm successfully pioneered organic fruit farming and is one of the last communities of that period. White Buffalo Farm is a member of Federation of Intentional Communities and Global Ecovillage Network.
Spiritual development is a strong interest in the community, although we do not have a formal space for practice or any formal requirements or expectations in this regards. At least a few of our current residents seek to live and work in a way that integrates spiritual teachings with a focus on compassion and self-reflection as taught in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, and Native American Tradition. We draw on the teachings of the Divine Feminine as made manifest in White Buffalo Calf Woman, Green Tara and Mother Mary.”
(This story was instigated, “feathered out” and generally made possible by the amazing group of people that contribute to the Paonia Message Board. Thanks to Carol Pierce (who started it) and all of the chicken heroines and heroes of this sadly amusing incident. I am only archiving this bit of local history for posterity. Tom Wills)