The Evolution of Factory Farming

 

When did factory farming begin? My weekend visit to the Catskills Animal Sanctuary (love!) got me thinking of when “battery” farming—the all-too-common practice of growing too many chickens in too small spaces—began. After all, before populations significantly increased, there would have been no economic incentive to produce more meat. Some googling suggests that factory farming really took off in the mid-twentieth century with the development of antibiotics that would attempt to undo the harm inherent in raising animals in appalling conditions.  

The technology that would enable battery egg farming, however, was in the works much earlier. The 1878 The American Poulterer’s Companion, an extensive treatise designed to inform poultry farmers on the set-up and care of their livestock, records how in China and Egypt they had long used lightly-heated ovens. In Europe it seems to have been attempted as early as the late 18th-century, but by the 1800s, as this book describes, European countries and the U.S. developed their own ingenious ways to hatch eggs sans the inconvenience of mother hens. The French developed the use of this hot-water apparatus:

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    [boiler (a); box or building (b) for hatching eggs; a cage or coop (c) for rearing the chickens; tubes (d) for circulating the hot wateR; a supply tube (h) and funnel (e) and safety tube (f)]

In Pall Mall, London, the Englishman M. Bucknell exhibited his invention, a hatching oven called the Eccaleobion (from the Greek, eccaleo, to call forth, and bios, life). The Eccaleobion was not popularly available. This one ran more for exhibition—at 25 cents a person—than for mass production. It consisted of a “room on one side of which is a large oblong case placed against the wall, divided into eight parts, each one of which is warmed by steam pipes, and which are used for hatching the eggs” (Bement 181).  Delighting in his improvements on nature, Bucknell (in a Treatise on Artificial Incubation) suggests that his apparatus is a way of efficiently harvesting God’s bounty:  

“It must have struck even the most superficial observer, that the extraordinary fecundity of gallinaceous fowls is a wise and most benevolent dispensation of nature, to provide more abundantly food for man; as in those tribes of birds not suited to his table, the female lays no more eggs than she can incubate” (Martin 48). 

(!!!) Capable of ‘bringing forth’ more than two thousand eggs, and of hatching a hundred daily (Farmer’s Register 614), the Eccaleobion proved man’s power over nature. (A power especially proven, history suggests, when men can control reproduction. The National Organization for Men Against Sexism, with the wonderful acronym of NOMAS, has compiled a short but telling list of examples.)  

The texts I found contain plenty of language that illustrates the belief (and pride) at man’s ingenuity. Of a New York egg-hatching machine—another hot water-based apparatus—the writer describes how it was capable of “bringing out the little chickens with all the punctuality of an old hen” (Bement 181).  

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The baby chicks from the English machine would be moved to a coop or box, “with a flannel curtain and covering, where they rest with as much quietness as under the wing of the mother” (Bement 181). M. Reaumur is credited for inventing one of many “artificial mothers” that would provide warmth to growing chicks.   Who needs the actual, living hen?

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Human technology was not just like Mother Nature, butbetter.The two-thousand-egg-capacity Eccaleobion, “unlike the parent bird, never addles the egg” (Farmer’s Register). The line of “artificial mother” apparatuses would allow for chicks to “enjoy a perpetual summer, exempt from all exposure to rain or to cold nights” (Bement 183).

The author of the American Poulterer’s Companion was obviously torn between competing interests. On one hand, he was concerned about humane treatment of animals (e.g., he says it is “cruel” to deny a hen who is “really determined to sit” and counsels farmers “not to be too greedy” [Bement 175]). On the other hand, he is seduced by the wonder of artificial hatching. Conflicted, he comforts himself with the thought that while nature’s way is generally best, chickens were now outside of nature’s laws: “the domestic fowl is in an artificial state, and deviations from the laws of nature are, therefore, to be expected” (Bement 174).

The author was most wrong, however, when he questioned whether such machines would “ever become general” (Bement 178). According to Wesleyan University, 98% of eggs today come from battery-farmed birds.  

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Sources (via Googlebooks):

“Artificial Incubation, The Eccaleobion.” Farmer’s Register 7. Petersburg, Va.: —-, 1839. 614. Bement, C.N. The American Poulterer’s Companion. NY: Harper & Brothers, Pubs., 1878. Martin, W. Our Domestic Fowls. London: The Religious Tract Society,1799?.

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