Internet sales are up at the Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow, and co-owner Carol Clement believes it’s due in part to the Animal Welfare Approved label the farm earned.
The certification is important for customers concerned with how well animals are treated on the farm. Clement said many of the farm’s local customers stop by and see how animals are treated for themselves — an option unavailable to those making a purchase over the Internet.
But when customers see the AWA label on the farm’s website, they know the farm has undergone a rigorous inspection by third-party auditors, who make sure the animals are being treated as humanely as possible.
“When they see our farm is AWA approved, they’re more likely to order from us than the farm that’s not,” said Clement, who, with her partner, John Harrison, raises cows, lamb, pigs, goats, chickens and turkeys.
“There are a lot of people who are making choices on their food based on their own philosophy. This Animal Welfare Approved certification is very thorough, from the moment the animal is born to the moment that the animal is harvested,” Clement said.
Clement’s is one of three local farms with AWA certification.
The program began in 2006 with the goal of improving the lives of farm animals. It’s a division of the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit group created in 1951 to help reduce animal suffering in laboratories, at homes, in commerce, on farms and in the wild.
With its Animal Welfare Approved program, the institute seeks to promote a form of agriculture called “high welfare farming,” which takes the needs of animals into account first, according to its website, www.awionline.org.
The group is working to improve conditions for the 9 billion animals raised and slaughtered for U.S. consumers each year. On so-called “factory farms” and in commercial feedlots, cattle may be administered drugs to promote rapid growth. Chickens might be housed in cramped enclosures, unable to stretch their wings, perch, forage for food or take a dust bath as they would in their natural environment.
The institute also wants to stop the practice of isolating pig sows in small crates, and keeping animals indoors instead of in fields or pastures.
Increased industrialization of milk production, according to the institute, has led to cows being denied access to pastures — their natural setting — and being injected with chemicals to boost production. Bull calves may be confined to small crates, unable to walk around and fed only liquid to produce “milk-fed” veal.
The AWA program certifies that all animals have access to appropriate feed, fresh air and clean water while living in an environment free of stress.
Canajoharie farmer Magda Heydenrych, who raises about 65 beef cattle on the family farm with her husband, Andre, said she can tell the difference between animals confined indoors and those that get to roam as they would naturally.
“You start seeing them play and run and do things that you don’t think that cows would do,” Heydenrych said. “You don’t imagine a cow running and just enjoying life. To me, that is the difference. When you see their personalities, you see how the herd interacts. And you just learn a lot more from them being outside to see what they normally would be like in nature.”
When the Heydenrych farm achieved its AWA certification, Heydenrych said she had a way to allay some of the concerns customers had about animal conditions.
“We have so many people over the many years asking us how are your animals raised, how do they die, all those questions. We thought it would take a lot of those questions and concerns away if we had a third party that can verify our practices,” she said.
Heydenrych said she and her customers want to know where their food comes from.
“You feel better about it because you don’t subscribe to the factory farms and some of the horrible conditions that the animals live in,” she said.
The AWA program has certified 1,500 farms, representing more than 1 million acres, in the United States and Canada, program director Andrew Gunther said. It’s a free program, but it comes with specific requirements, including annual inspections. AWA standards are all available for review on the program’s website.
“The basic premise of all the standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being,” according to the group’s website.
Only family farms are eligible, and animals must be pasture raised, Gunther said.
“I think cattle raised in pastures, raised on the range, they’re certainly healthier,” he said. Confined animals are more prone to feedlot diseases, hoof issues and a frequent need for antibiotics.
AWA animal management guidelines are based on promoting health as opposed to treating disease. Farmers must have a detailed health plan, addressing how they will avoid environmental, nutritional or physical stress, impacts to the environment including manure management, exclusion of predators and pests such as rats and mice, and animal disease.
AWA standards for chickens limit flocks to no more than 500 birds, and they have to be monitored to limit fighting, feather pecking and other negative activity. Chickens must have room to fly, run and stretch, and be able to take dust baths.
AWA has specific standards for most domesticated farm animals, including beef and dairy cattle, bison, goats, pigs, poultry, rabbits and sheep.
Members of the audit team, who inspect certified farms annually, are required to have a four-year degree as well as two years of practice in production, Gunther said.
The fact that AWA is a free program helps ensure its validity, he said.
“What’s really important about third-party certification is if you have no incentive, no reason to approve somebody,” Gunther said.
Besides inspectors, AWA has a marketing team, which helps approved farmers find markets for their goods.
John Garner and his father, Grover, achieved AWA certification at their Heather Hill Farm in Warnerville in February. John Garner said it wasn’t that difficult a process because they raise their Angus beef cattle outdoors anyway.
He said auditors found a couple of things they needed to comply with, such as fixing a fence and making sure there was no foreign debris — such as baler twine or wire — in the fields that could injure the cattle.
Inspectors checked the feed given to the cattle, another simple test because the Garners’ cattle eat mostly grasses and clover, plus a little corn.
“We didn’t feel as though we needed to feed any animal by-products or any hormones to our animals. Everything we’ve done is all by genetics with breeding,” John Garner said.
Garner said he also spends time with the cattle, which helps both with behavior and how they turn out on a plate.
“If those animals have interaction with us on a daily basis, they do a lot better. The more interaction they have with a human, the more mellow the animals are,” he said.
The animals’ demeanor is important, the farmers said, because stress and maltreatment lead to increases in adrenalin and other chemicals that can make the meat taste bad.
Raising cattle on pastures instead of keeping them indoors and trucking in commercially grown feed helps prevent deterioration of green space around the globe, Gunther said.
“I think it’s a way that we’re going to have to farm if we’re going to save the planet. We can’t keep cutting down rain forests to produce soy to feed to cattle for us to eat,” he said.
For farms without enough pasture land, participating in AWA might require spending some money, Heydenrych said.
“From the beginning we set it up so that they are out and they have access to pasture. But some are keeping animals in a barn. For them to then have 100 percent pasture actually could be a cost,” Heydenrych said.
Clement said some farms may not have the time or energy to pursue the AWA designation, but that doesn’t mean they mistreat their animals.
“There are plenty of farms that would qualify for this that just have no interest in it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing something wrong,” Clement said. “It’s a lot of work to get this certification, it’s a lot of time to sit there with the auditor and go through the books, and another farm may not be interested. It doesn’t mean they’re bad farmers.”
Gunther echoed Clement’s sentiments.
“AWA is a voluntary program driven by consumers who are looking for third-party reassurance. Inherently, farmers are good people, so our program is not meant to criticize other farmers,” he said.