Raising Free-Range Animals

West Michigan organic farmer Mike O'Brien walks through snowy fields, envisioning the spring day when green grass will sprout for his animals to eat. O'Brien describes watching the chicks delight and the joy of baby pigs when they realize they are no longer confined and can dig their snouts into the mud.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

You see it on the chicken you buy at the supermarket, the words "free range." What exactly does that mean, though? NPR's Noah Adams found out when he reported a story in southwest Michigan.

NOAH ADAMS: I went to the small towns and some farms close by Lake Michigan. The story was about a local restaurant that closed down, and I wanted to meet some of the suppliers.

(Soundbite of screen door opening)

ADAMS: I love that farmhouse-screen-door sound. Outside, on top of lots of snow, the dogs and goats and turkeys and geese and a mule were having a playful afternoon in the sun.

(Soundbite of turkeys)

ADAMS: This particular farm has been organic since 1971. They sell vegetables and fruits, flowers, at farm markets and stores.

(Soundbite of truck)

ADAMS: And I got to ride in Mike O'Brien's truck to another farm. He raises organic meat. We walked around on the icy paths that his cattle had made. The real ground was maybe a foot and a half below us, but O'Brien could imagine the grass getting set to grow. And when he talked about what would happen in the spring, he was talking about free-range and grass-fed. This is a guy who says you are what you eat, eats, the baby chickens, he said. Put them in the field for the first time and marvel.

Mr. MIKE O'BRIEN (Providence Farms, Saugatuck, Michigan): You know, they're out there on the grass. And for a few minutes, they stand there wide-eyed, kind of looking around, and then they peck at the ground and get their first leaves of grass or clover, and it's - instantly, you realize that that animal knows it's not supposed to be indoors.

ADAMS: And the piglets, their turn will soon come.

Mr. O'BRIEN: We buy our baby pigs from some Amish farmers, but we also buy a few once in awhile from guys who raise them in confinement. And you take those baby pigs and you push them off the trailer and they hit the ground, and they stand there splayed, looking around with big eyes, and then they smell the ground and they just go crazy. Their tails start wagging like little puppies, you know, and down their nose goes into the dirt.

ADAMS: Mike O'Brien of Providence Farms likes to hold these images in his mind. He says he finds it helpful.

Mr. O'BRIEN: You know, when you've had eight feet of snow, and it - lines are frozen and, you know, your tractor gets stuck or won't start, you kind of scratch your head and wonder why you're doing it.

ADAMS: Springtime and new grass in Michigan, just a bit more than a month away.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: That's NPR's Noah Adams, an audio page from his reporter's notebook after a trip to Fennville, Michigan.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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