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Episode 752: Eagles vs. Chickens

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Episode 752: Eagles vs. Chickens

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Episode 752: Eagles vs. Chickens

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Warning - this podcast contains profanity - also, graphic descriptions of dead animals. It's a twofer.

White Oak Pastures is in Bluffton, Ga. It's about 2,500 acres. Will Harris runs the farm, which has been in his family for more than a hundred years. And Will was raised by his father and trained in school to be a modern industrial cattle farmer.

WILL HARRIS: When I got out of college, I was excited about a new pharmaceutical product like a hormone implant.

GOLDSTEIN: Why?

HARRIS: It increased production. You know, you were able to do more and more, cheaper and cheaper.

GOLDSTEIN: Will took over from his father, made a profit every year. But at some point, the way he looked at the world started to change.

HARRIS: I wish I had a better story to tell you. I was there was a burning bush or something, but it wasn't like that.

GOLDSTEIN: It was way more gradual than that. And it happened in all these different ways. For one thing, he started to look at the soil differently.

HARRIS: I noticed that the soil just over that fence was way different from the soil right here.

GOLDSTEIN: He saw that the soil on the other side of the fence, soil that had just been left alone, was teeming with life. The soil right here, on his farm, was dead.

HARRIS: Just all the difference in the world. And there's just a fence there, a wire fence.

GOLDSTEIN: And then there was the day he was sending off about a hundred cattle onto a double-decker truck to go to a feedlot thousands of miles away. He realized they'd be on the truck for days. The ones on the top would be going to the bathroom on the ones on the bottom.

HARRIS: And these were animals that we had had on this farm. We nurtured them, took care of them.

GOLDSTEIN: It just didn't seem right. And eventually, he decided to change everything about the way he farmed. He would bring in chickens to fertilize the grass. The grass would nurture the cattle. Shoppers at Whole Foods would line up around the block to buy his meat. It was all so perfect. It was such a beautiful vision of the enlightened, 21st-century American farm. It was, in fact, so perfect that a literal symbol of America showed up at his farm, the bald eagle. But the bald eagle, America's bird, was not on board with Harris' dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GERARD LAWRENCE'S "LEAD ME AWAY")

GOLDSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show - the meat you buy in Whole Foods, the farmer who makes it and a bad-tempered, all-American killing machine. Farmers have been trying to put nature in a cage for thousands of years. What happens when you start to let nature out of that cage?

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GERARD LAWRENCE'S "LEAD ME AWAY")

GOLDSTEIN: Will Harris is 62 - goatee, shaved head, white Stetson hat. He drives around all day in his Jeep, basically running his farm. And a few weeks ago, I tagged along with him.

HARRIS: This house was built in 1870-something by my great-grandfather. The one down there was my grandfather, built in the early 1900s.

GOLDSTEIN: And then, his father took over and ran the farm.

HARRIS: My daddy was bigger than me and meaner than me and talked more like Foghorn Leghorn than I do.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Seems impossible.

HARRIS: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, the Foghorn Leghorn part, not the meaner part.

HARRIS: All three - bigger, meaner, more Foghorn.

GOLDSTEIN: By the way, Will Harris knows we are maybe making fun of his accent, and he's fine with that. In fact, he is also making fun of our accent. He told me this story about when he first started selling his meat at Whole Foods. He would visit the stores to be that sustainable farmer standing at a table handing out samples of his meat.

HARRIS: A guy like you - or a lady - would walk by and take a little sample. And they'd snatch out their cell phone, their iPhone and go - (using affected voice) honey, listen. I'm at Whole Foods, and there's this guy here and he's serving this beef. And I know we said we were going to have salmon for dinner, but what do you think? Beef - what do you think?

Can you imagine what my wife would think if I called her - if she was shopping and called me, I'd go - I mean, shit, just get some food.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: So we're driving down this this four-lane highway that runs through the middle of Will's farm. And at some point, we pull off and go down this dirt road into this really green pasture. You could see there was like a forest off in the distance, really beautiful. And Will turns off the engine to tell me, you know, how he went from being an industrial farmer to selling, you know, pasture-raised, organic high-end meat at Whole Foods.

One of the first things he did was quit using pesticides. But when he did that, these new kinds of grasses started growing in his fields, and the cows wouldn't eat them. So he brought in sheep and goats. He also quit using chemical fertilizer and brought in chickens instead.

HARRIS: We'd buy feed for the chickens, and the feed turns into poultry that we sell. And a byproduct is the manure that goes onto the pasture that makes the grass grow.

GOLDSTEIN: It's genius. The chickens are spread out all over the farm - you know, thousand here, thousand there - and their manure is his fertilizer. And then he realizes if he's going to sell this high-end meat at a premium, he can't just send his animals off to the industrial slaughterhouse with all the commodity cows and chickens. So he decides to build his own slaughterhouse, which is very expensive.

But his sales started growing. He got his meat into a bunch of Whole Foods stores. And Publix, this chain of grocery stores in the South, also started selling his meat. He was paying off that debt. And then about a year after he brought in the chickens, the first pair of eagles showed up.

HARRIS: So I was very excited about it. I thought it was great. You know, I love natural systems, and I love nature. And I thought it was fantastic.

GOLDSTEIN: Will quickly saw that the eagles loved his pasture-raised, organic chicken. But it was OK with him. It was just a few eagles, and he told himself the eagles are like nature's version of quality control.

HARRIS: They don't kill the quickest, healthiest birds you got. So I tell people - you never get a sick bird from White Oak Pastures. Every one you get is - it's the gazelle that outran the lion.

GOLDSTEIN: The thing Will didn't realize is that when eagles discover an all-you-can-eat chicken buffet, the word spreads fast.

HARRIS: The first year, there was - had two or three. The next year, there was maybe 10 or 12. It blew up fairly quickly. The next year, maybe 30 or 40. Last year, they said it was 77.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you have more this year?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think we got more this year.

GOLDSTEIN: And as more and more eagles started showing up, more and more chickens started dying.

HARRIS: And for a long time, some of my employees would say, they are eating our ass up back there. I'd say, ah, it ain't that bad. It's all right. And I wanted it to be all right. But at some point, I had to say, you know, they really are causing economic loss. And then - and the numbers show it. We lose money on broiler chickens.

GOLDSTEIN: Would you make money on chickens if not for the eagles?

HARRIS: I think so.

GOLDSTEIN: Over the past few years, Will says, the eagles have killed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of his chickens. The peak season is winter, right now. And Will says the eagles are currently killing a hundred or more of his chickens every day, thousands of chickens a month. And this is easy to see. You just drive out into one of the fields where the chickens are.

So how - what is there, I don't know, couple hundred chickens here? A hundred? I don't have a sense.

HARRIS: This should be close to a thousand chickens here.

GOLDSTEIN: And there's - some of them are - some around in the grass, some of them are kind of chilling out under this - under a tree over there.

HARRIS: Under the chicken house - they're over eating the feed, drinking the water.

GOLDSTEIN: I feel like these chickens are living the dream but for one thing, right?

Bald eagles - they're just sitting there in the trees right at the edge of the field. They don't make that screeching sound like you hear in the movies. They don't really make any sound at all. But they do look big and beautiful. You know, they look like a postage stamp or something you'd see airbrushed on the side of a van. But right there in front of us, in this chicken paradise we're standing in, are chickens the eagles have killed.

So this what we're looking at here is basically the back half of a chicken, right? There's feet and legs. But the top half is essentially...

HARRIS: He just - he, the eagle, ate his way into the body cavity 'cause you've seen that happening, which I've seen thousands of times, the eagle sticking his head into that body cavity. And if it's a mature, white-headed eagle, it's just pink because it gets all that blood on it.

GOLDSTEIN: So there's this guy, which somebody basically ate, right? This is an eaten-up chicken. But then there's this other chicken three feet away that's also dead. But...

HARRIS: This chicken was just killed because it was fun. Nothing has happened to that chicken. I mean, it was - the eagle struck it but ate nothing.

GOLDSTEIN: So it's like a sport - just like, screw you. I'm going to kill one more chicken.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah, we must have pissed him off or something.

GOLDSTEIN: Will Harris has completely transformed his farm to live in harmony with nature. And now, here is nature sticking its head into his body cavity and eating his financial guts out. It's kind of in his face all the time.

HARRIS: That is an eagle. There you go. That's a juvenile bald eagle.

GOLDSTEIN: Looks like full and happy.

HARRIS: Yeah. He should be - his breath smelling like chicken.

GOLDSTEIN: How do you feel seeing all these eagles just coming and eat your chickens.

HARRIS: You know, it's a mixed bag. You know, I could handle it. You see that shotgun right there?

GOLDSTEIN: He's pointing at the backseat of the Jeep here.

I do. Is it - are there two shotguns right there?

HARRIS: It's a shotgun and a rifle - and a pistol.

GOLDSTEIN: He shot at other predators that were attacking his livestock. But Harris says, A, he doesn't want to shoot bald eagles. And B, even if he did want to, eagles have their own special law to protect them, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which makes it a crime to, quote, "pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb eagles." So Will Harris is in a bind. Last fall, he did get some good news from the federal government. He had been granted a special permit - not to kill the eagles but to harass them, to basically try and make them go away.

So he's trying all of these different things to do that. One of the first things he did - he got one of those giant, inflatable people like you see outside the carwash. You know, like, there's some kind of fan inside them, and they sort of bend over and snap back up. He bought one of those and put it up next to some chickens. He says it took the eagles about 15 minutes to figure out that it was just, like, one of those floppy guys and didn't matter.

HARRIS: We still own it. Would you like it? I'll give it to you.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

I actually saw the squiggly man. He was just lying on the ground. The generator that powers him was out of gas. It was about 15 or 20 feet away from a bunch of chickens. And yes, one of the chickens was dead. Will also put sparkly flags out. Eagles didn't seem to notice. He got this big old noise cannon with a barrel, like, 3 feet long. You could hear it miles away. Eagles didn't seem to care. Another thing he tried...

HARRIS: Nets over the top.

GOLDSTEIN: Like a canopy over the open area where the chickens were walking around. But apparently, eagles do not have to attack from the sky.

HARRIS: You know, they just walk on the land and just walk up under the net and get the chickens.

GOLDSTEIN: Will is trying one other thing to make the eagles go away, maybe the most badass of all the things he's tried. He sent me out with his poultry manager, Jeff Lackey, to see it in action.

JEFF LACKEY: There we go. There's an eagle right there.

GOLDSTEIN: Is he going to go - is he just circling around to kill a chicken?

LACKEY: He's definitely eyeing up his lunch.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, he just swooped down.

We drive across this field, get out by a chicken house. There's a couple thousand chickens walking around. And Jeff spots an eagle.

LACKEY: Oh - it actually looks like there's one on the far side of a tree there.

GOLDSTEIN: He pulls out what looks like a little pistol.

LACKEY: This is a cap gun of sorts that takes these two caps in the back.

GOLDSTEIN: Then he opens up this yellow box and pulls out his ammunition.

LACKEY: Take two. Black end goes into the gun.

GOLDSTEIN: So those look like little firecrackers basically.

LACKEY: Yes, kind of small M-80s almost.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. What's it say?

LACKEY: Bird Banger - warning, danger, 15 mm.

GOLDSTEIN: Cap gun has two barrels. He puts one Banger in each barrel, pulls the trigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

GOLDSTEIN: This firecracker shoots out, like, 25 feet and explodes in midair. Then he pulls the trigger again.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LACKEY: And there they go. Did you see on the backside of the tree?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

LACKEY: There goes one right now.

GOLDSTEIN: Here they come.

The eagle's flying away.

LACKEY: We can move them with the Bird Bangers.

GOLDSTEIN: And then they just come back.

LACKEY: Or they - yeah, they'll go to another spot for now, where we've got more birds and...

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

LACKEY: ...Just circle around the many, many pastures.

GOLDSTEIN: So basically, they're not going to eat these chickens. But they're just going to go eat some other chicken.

LACKEY: Yeah, for the next couple hours.

GOLDSTEIN: Then they're going to eat these chickens.

LACKEY: Then they're going to eat these chickens.

GOLDSTEIN: Will Harris says that, you know, maybe he's losing fewer chickens this year because of the Bird Bangers - it's really too soon to tell. But in any case, he is still losing a lot. He's still losing money on his chicken business.

There is one other way Will might be able to keep his chicken business going. It's a federal program that pays farmers whose animals are killed by protected animals, who are killed by, say, bald eagles.

How much do you think they should give you?

HARRIS: The maximum is $125,000 per year, and they owe me that for '15 and '16.

GOLDSTEIN: Has the government given you any money for the eagles killing your chickens?

HARRIS: No.

GOLDSTEIN: Not one dollar?

HARRIS: Not one dollar.

GOLDSTEIN: He's in this legal fight with the government, this back-and-forth. What's the right way to count the losses? What kind of proof do you need? We did reach out to the government on this. They said the case is under review by the local office, and they are not allowed to discuss the details.

Whatever happens with the government, it's clear that the eagles are not going away. And they are like this living, killing version of a much bigger problem. We want a world where we can restore some kind of balance with nature. But every time we try to do that, we realize how impossible it is. You know, right here on the farm, you just keep seeing this gap between how the world is and how we want it to be.

But Will is resourceful, you know. He keeps trying to cross that gap. At one point as we're driving around the farm, we're next to this field with some chickens in it. And there's a pickup truck coming the other way. Will stops the Jeep to talk to the driver of the truck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello.

HARRIS: Hey, how y'all?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got a picture with the eagle flying off with the chicken. We got some dang good pictures.

HARRIS: I felt like you would. I'm glad you did.

GOLDSTEIN: In the bed of the truck, there's a guy with a camera with this giant telephoto lens, which is apparently pretty common. People now come to Will's farm to see the eagles. He had this special Eagle Day a few days before I was there. He's even built cabins for people to rent out.

HARRIS: Will Harris is getting into the eagle tourism business.

(SOUNDBITE OF HATTIE WHITEHEAD'S "BREAKING ALL THE TIES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You doing an interview?

HARRIS: Yup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What radio station?

GOLDSTEIN: NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It ain't country music, is it?

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Not usually.

HARRIS: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, we'll see you after while.

HARRIS: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We got some good pictures this morning.

HARRIS: I'm glad.

(SOUNDBITE OF HATTIE WHITEHEAD'S "BREAKING ALL THE TIES")

GOLDSTEIN: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. You can find us on Facebook, on Twitter. If you're looking for something else to listen to, try the NPR podcast Latino USA. They just put out this special show. It's a documentary about Oscar Lopez Rivera. He's this controversial figure. President Obama actually granted him clemency just a few days before he left office. The show is Latino USA. You can find it on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.

Our show today was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. The editor was Bryant Urstadt. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF HATTIE WHITEHEAD'S "BREAKING ALL THE TIES")

HARRIS: We also have another squirrel called a fox squirrel. And they do a lot of just sitting up on their haunches. And then, like - and people who are not from here forever can say - (using affected voice) I saw a monkey back there.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

HARRIS: No, you saw a squirrel. (Using affected voice) No, it wasn't a squirrel. It was a monkey.

GOLDSTEIN: Is that how I sound to you? Is that my voice in your head?

HARRIS: Yeah, that's exactly (laughter) - that was a Jacob impression.

GOLDSTEIN: That's good.

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