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Chicken Paradise

These Parts--Forreston, IL/An uncaged hen is a happier hen, says Phil Wubbena, and a happier hen produces a better egg.

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Phil Wubbena doesn't have the heart to keep his 50,000 hens in cages, like most egg producers do. An uncaged hen is a happier hen, Phil says, and a happier hen produces a better egg.

Wubbena isn't too fond of chemical-laced chicken feed either. He makes his own feed from corn and soybeans grown and roasted on his farm, and claims that his chickens are healthier and their eggs tastier as a result.

Wubbena, who operates out of Forreston, Illinois, about 25 miles southwest of Rockford, has been doing things his way since the mid-1960s, long before most Americans (let alone most American egg producers) had heard of animal rights or the dangers of antibiotics in livestock feed. Now that his way has become politically correct, Phil's Fresh Eggs, as they're called, are selling well in supermarkets around Rockford and Chicago. And under a private-labeling agreement with a Chicago-based animal-rights group called the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), they're distributed under the brand name Nest Eggs to all 209 Jewel stores. ("Why put all your eggs in one basket?" cracks Phil.)

Rod Wubbena, Phil's son and right-hand man, is quick to point out that there's nothing trendy or radical about the way the Wubbenas treat their chickens. "They have a better time than they'd have in cages," Rod says, but it's not like "we've gone completely left wing about this--our chickens don't roam free, or have their own living rooms and couches. We take a middle-of-the-road approach."

The Wubbena approach is best seen in the operation of P-5, a 360-foot-long henhouse built to help service the Jewel account. Constructed at a cost of $250,000, P-5 is heavily insulated in both the walls and in the roof. Ventilators circulate air gently over the area just above the chickens. Rod says the temperature varies no more than one degree anywhere in the building, whether in winter or summer, when P-5 is cooler than outdoors, 90 degrees at most.

A henhouse that contained cages would be one-third as large, says Phil, and cheaper to build and maintain. But he believes in an uncaged henhouse. "I'm too sensitive. To put a hen in a cage her whole life makes her sad."

P-5 shelters 16,000 hens, white leghorns near the peak of their yearlong run at laying eggs. The first sight of them all is awesome.

At 3 AM three rows of small fluorescent lights snap on, and the chickens' 14-hour day begins. They have been roosting overnight on two-foot-by-two-foot planks that cover two-thirds of the floor on either side of the building. They rouse themselves, scratch their feathers, get a drink of water from a red plastic water dispenser, and peck at a metal feeding pan. They cluster together, but not as close as the standard 12-by-18-inch poultry cage would force them to be. Moreover, they can walk about freely and even move down a few inches into the center of P-5--the rec room, if you will--with its corncob-covered floor and containers of calcium-rich oyster shells.

Clustered among the roosts are nests, steel huts with canvas flaps that are dark and cozy inside. The peak laying period is between 6 and 9 AM. A hen that is of a mind walks into the nest and deposits her egg on a plastic-coated wire floor that is pitched downward. The egg rolls onto a conveyor belt, which will carry it to the rear of P-5, where a worker puts it in a big plastic rack. A hen at the height of production lays six eggs a week--which means 96,000 eggs trundle down the P-5 conveyors every seven days.

The chickens' ability to move about in total freedom puts P-5 a cut above Phil's other henhouses. The other houses operate on what Phil calls the "happy hour" system, which pens the birds behind dividers until after the prime egg-laying period; at 10 AM a series of ramps descend, and the chickens can enter their rec room. In P-5, Phil says, "We've put the birds on the honor system. That's why we call it chicken paradise."

The chickens of P-5 squawk all day long. Rod Wubbena calls the sound "singing" and says he can tell just by listening whether the flock is content. "Don't they sound pleased to you?" he asks one morning, bending his ear toward the birds.

At 4:30 PM the lights down the center of P-5 dim, and the hens, thinking evening is upon them, filter out of the rec room. At 5 PM more lights go off, and by 5:30 it's dark. The hens nod off to sleep on their roosts; the rec room is absolutely clear. When Rod reappears at 10 PM or thereabouts, the two sides of P-5 look like two blankets dotted with spots of red, the chickens' combs.

The chickens defecate principally at night, says Rod. The waste falls down below the roosts and is later collected by a 14-foot-wide blade pulled the length of P-5 by a winch. The manure will fertilize the fields that grow the grain that makes the meal that will feed another batch of Phil's chickens.

The Wubbenas run their egg farm as a vertical operation--they do everything but hatch the chickens. "The whole idea is to control as much of the production as possible so that we can control the quality in the end," says Rod.

The executive corps at Phil's Fresh Eggs is topped by Phil, 62, an avuncular, perpetually busy man given to chicken puns ("I think I'm going to wing that one"). Rod, a strapping man of 35 and Phil's oldest son, winces at his father's humor and directs farm operations with a passion for particulars. Betty Jo Wubbena, 58, Phil's wife, keeps the books.

The family has amassed 425 acres of farmland on the edge of downtown Forreston, which consists of two gas stations, a lumberyard, and a hardware store (population 1,400). The Wubbenas alternate growing soybeans and corn on their acreage.

The corn is fermented, then roasted, a process that keeps the protein level high and heightens the digestibility of Phil's chicken feed, according to Rod. The soybeans are also roasted and added to the corn along with alfalfa, kelp, granular calcium, and wheat middlings. Phil calls the feed as wholesome as all get-out. The fowl are served one of 50 recipes, depending on their age and type--the Wubbenas also raise some frying chickens, white Rock Cornish hens.

The youngest birds--just days old, 13,000 to a flock--begin their careers with the Wubbenas in a special chick house. At first the house is 92 degrees with 60 percent humidity, but as the chicks age the temperature and humidity are lowered. The young chickens receive nine vaccinations against tremors, Newcastle bronchitis, fowl pox, and coccidiosis, a parasitic disease of the intestines. Their beaks are trimmed to prevent them from pecking and hurting each other.

By the time the Wubbenas' pullets are 18 or 19 weeks old and ready to lay, only 1 percent of them will have died. "If you had 13,000 people, wouldn't you lose a few?" asks Phil, who says the chickens succumb to various respiratory and digestive ailments. But the Wubbenas contend that in general their chickens are inordinately healthy. A USDA study shows that 37 percent of chickens leave a processing plant infected with salmonella. "We've never had salmonella here at all," says Rod. The Wubbenas use no antibiotics to combat the diseases they do see. "We don't believe in chemicals or drugs," says Phil. If a flock's ailing, the most the Wubbenas will do is put vitamins in the drinking water.

The Wubbenas' 50,000 laying chickens--organized into four flocks, three months apart in age--spend a year in production, depositing an average 40,000 eggs a day. Afterward it's curtains--the birds are sold off to make Tyson or Campbell's soup or diced meat for school lunches.

Three days a week the eggs are processed in the grading area, a small maze of conveyors behind the farm office. Here the eggs are washed in detergent, then rinsed and dried. As they move across a bed of high-intensity lights, a person called a "candler" examines them for cracks and irregular shapes, pulling off those with imperfections. The ones that pass muster move on to the grader, a sophisticated machine made in Holland. Three mechanical fingers, one spring-loaded, grip each egg, swinging it along and weighing it. A large egg must weigh a minimum of 24 ounces by USDA standards, an extra large 27 ounces, and a jumbo 30 ounces.

Some eggs are put in cartons under the Nest Eggs brand name. Others are packaged as Phil's Fresh Eggs; the Phil's container, made of recycled paper, shows a farm with a friendly Phil in the foreground gripping a chicken as he would a pet--as in fact he often does. The eggs make the trek to market aboard trucks that bear the image of a cartoon chicken and the caption "We give our hens loving care" encircled by a heart.

Phil's Eggs end up in supermarkets around Rockford as well as in Chicago health-food stores and groceries such as Treasure Island, Sunset Food Mart, and Dominick's. Jewel orders 252 cases of Nest Eggs a week and stocks them in all its stores. The Wubbenas contend their eggs arrive on grocery shelves days before regular eggs. "We have no egg stockpiles anywhere," Rod notes. But that's not what seems to make the eggs so alluring.

"This product is addressing the customer's concern for the welfare of animals," says Dianne Maffia, consumer-affairs manager for Jewel. "Some people also feel they taste better." David Lipschutz, owner of the Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston and one of the few restaurant buyers, says Phil's eggs have "a more consistent texture, and they're firmer." According to Jay Angel, owner of the Blue Sky Natural Foods Market in Palatine, Phil's Eggs "set the industry standard." He says Phil's eggs are less watery and their yolks are a deeper yellow.

The Wubbenas also supply fertile eggs, the output of a flock of hens and roosters. "People think a fertile egg'll make them more sexy and virile," says Phil. Sherwyn Cotovsky, proprietor of Sherwyn's Health Food Shop on Diversey, suggests the eggs have "a natural steroid that adds imperceptibly to a person's vigor."

Phil doesn't deny that his eggs are crammed with cholesterol, just like other eggs. But he argues that dietary cholesterol has nothing per se to do with blood cholesterol. "Eggs are not the culprit," he says, citing himself as evidence. For 35 years he has consumed three poached eggs every morning ("Why not? They're cheap"), and his serum cholesterol is around 160 milligrams--which is low. But Ann Williams, a spokesman for the American Heart Association, believes there's a definite link between dietary and blood cholesterol, and counsels people to eat no more than three or four eggs a week. "Just one yolk accounts for two-thirds of the cholesterol we advise healthy people to have in a day," she says.

This concern about cholesterol only seems to heighten the appeal of Phil's eggs. "People know they shouldn't eat eggs," says Bill Gerstein, who runs Mr. G Finer Foods in Hyde Park. "So they figure, if I'm going to have one I might as well have a good one." It's the same sort of reasoning that directs buyers to other premium products such as Haagen-Dazs ice cream and fancy coffee beans.

Whether their motivation is better taste, humane concerns, or easing their guilt, shoppers seem to be willing to pay more for Phil's eggs. Neil Burghard, whose firm Burghard & Sons distributes 200 cases a week, says most retailers price Phil's eggs 30 to 40 cents more than regular eggs, though in some stores the price seems to be 70 to 90 cents more. "But then, our customers don't worry about the price on the carton," says Juan Valdez, who manages the upscale dairy section at Treasure Island on Clybourn.

Phil Wubbena grew up in Forreston. He lived with his parents, who were all-purpose farmers, until 1953, when he married Betty Jo and his father bought him a 65-acre farm west of town. "We milked, dairied, and had four children," says Betty Jo. After a few years, however, Phil tired of general farming and decided to specialize in poultry. He sold chicken feed, chickens, and henhouses for a feed company, and then in 1959 decided to become an egg farmer. His father advised against the move, explaining that dealing with chickens was too cash intensive.

Phil was determined. But when he went to the Forreston bank, he couldn't get a loan to build a henhouse, even though his father sat on the bank board. "They said nobody could make a living from poultry," Phil recalls. "They thought chickens were just grocery money."

He then applied to a credit union in nearby Freeport, where the loan officer wanted to know if the couple ate out much and if Phil owned more than one suit. They ate at home, and Phil owned only one suit, the one he'd gotten married in. He got the loan, $11,580.

From the outset Phil ran his farm on the "happy hour" system, normally used only at chicken hatcheries, because caging the birds disturbed him. Revenues were steady but not huge--the big account was an A & P store in Freeport--and the days were long for both Phil and Betty Jo. "A lot of times I'd put the children to bed, and then I'd go out with the chickens until midnight," she says.

In 1966 the company Phil bought feed from switched the anticoccidiosis chemical in the mix without alerting him. His chickens died by the hundreds, blood flowing from their eyes and nostrils; he lost 40 percent of his birds. He and the feed company later settled, but Phil says, "I decided that if chemicals were that dangerous I wouldn't use them. I got away from anything toxic." He concocted his own feed based on roasted soybeans and later added roasted corn.

Phil began to make runs into Chicago in 1969. He distributed his eggs to health-food-store and food-cooperative operators at the air-freight section of O'Hare until the police told him it wasn't an appropriate place to do business. Sherwyn Cotovsky remembers Phil bringing a few cases of eggs to his Diversey Avenue store in 1973. "He'd stand around and talk, and then go on his way. Afterwards I noticed all these chicken feathers in the store. I took this as an ominous sign--I couldn't figure out where they came from. Finally I spotted some on Phil's clothing. The mystery was closed."

Phil hooked up with a Chicago distributor who went bankrupt in 1977, and he still remembers with bitterness how much money he lost. Phil's Fresh Eggs have been distributed by Burghard & Sons ever since.

In 1981 Phil met Robert Brown. Brown, a biologist and former educator at the Bronx Zoo, had for seven years been the executive director of the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society. He had his successes, building up the budget and membership and constructing a new puppy-shaped headquarters with Stanley Tigerman as the architect. But board members complained that Brown had taken action without board approval, had failed to keep the construction on schedule, and was devoting too much time to the movement for the humane treatment of farm animals. In August 1981 they fired him. "I feel the dismissal was unwarranted," Brown told the Sun-Times at the time. "It was malicious. I think some members just resented my success in operating the society."

The following year Brown resurfaced as the founder of the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT). At his opening press conference he pointed out that while activist groups were devoting their energies to the welfare of the millions of animals killed in laboratory research or put to sleep at pounds, no organization was concerned with the country's 4.7 billion farm animals. Brown bemoaned the crowding of cattle in feedlots--and the caging of hens. "I got into the scientific literature," he says. He emerged all the more convinced that there are "bad repercussions for human beings" when hens are caged.

Fully 97 percent of eggs come from caged chickens, says Brown. According to him, these birds have a higher than normal incidence of digestive and respiratory disorders, and they suffer from what he calls "general malaise" from the stress of being confined five birds to a 12-by-18-inch cage. He also contends that the high use of antibiotics on factory farms has created resistant bacteria, notably camplobacter and a strain of salmonella called salmonella enteritis, both of which get into the chickens' eggs. He says residues of antibiotics and pesticides also wind up in eggs.

Brown was still at the Anti-Cruelty Society in 1981, when he set up a conference on the evils of factory farms, which included a field trip to Phil's place so participants could see a family farmer doing it right. Three years later he struck a deal with Phil to market more eggs under the brand name Nest Eggs--that the eggs had been laid in a nest was proof to the customer that they had been produced humanely. Phil pays 20 cents a dozen, in return for which Nest Eggs supplies the carton, marketing, and promotion.

For a while Brown delivered cartons out of the trunk of his car, but he gradually built up his accounts in Chicago. Then he started in the New York City area, entering into production agreements with farms in New Jersey, Maine, and the Amish region of Pennsylvania. In 1989 Brown approached Jewel, and the chain decided to pilot the brand in select stores. Soon it went to general distribution. Jewel's Dianne Maffia won't talk sales figures, but she does say, "Interest seems steady, though Nest Eggs are not as strong as our other eggs," perhaps because of their price.

Nest Eggs, now a wholly owned subsidiary of FACT, sells one million dozen eggs annually, distributed in Iowa, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Virginia as well as Illinois. Sales for 1991 approached $800,000, though that turned into a $58,000 loss after expenses. Brown isn't troubled by the deficit. "We're a nonprofit organization, interested in improving the condition of farm animals, and we're showing it can be done." But he says that if Nest Eggs were distributing only Phil's eggs and not the high-cost east-coast eggs, the company would be making money.

Brown has relocated to Connecticut to keep tabs on Nest Eggs' eastern operations, but FACT is still based in a Lincoln Park high rise. The organization is now fighting against the practices that create drug-resistant bacteria strains in farm animals and that leave drug residues in food. The struggle regularly takes Brown to Washington to meet with federal officials and congressmen, but he finds little support inside the beltway. "These problems are very severe, but it's difficult to get sympathy for them. There's no public call for action. Senators and congressmen don't respond, and I don't know why that is."

Whether the care the Wubbenas lavish on their chickens is more humane than the treatment they'd receive elsewhere depends on who you talk to.

The United Egg Producers, based in Georgia, represents 80 percent of the nation's egg farmers--who keep 186 million of America's 233 million chickens. UEP vice president Ken Klippen acknowledges that most members keep their chickens in 12-by-18-inch cages, though the group recommends 43.2 square inches per bird, or four rather than five chickens in a cage. Klippen says the UEP hopes its advice is being heeded.

But Klippen says that in general housing chickens in cages constitutes humane treatment. He says they're less exposed to bacteria that cause infections and they have a relatively low incidence of mortality, about 10 percent a year. He also says, "In bigger flocks there is also a pecking order, and if chickens aren't in cages they do damage to one another. You'll see birds being pecked to death. Outside of cages chickens are also more subject to panic and mass hysteria." Besides, he says, "chickens are gregarious, and they like to huddle together." He thinks cage critics have anthropomorphic tendencies.

Klippen denies that UEP members administer a lot of antibiotics. "They use them like you'd use them if your child was sick, which is not very often." He adds that if factory egg farmers subjected chickens to needless antibiotics, the FDA would crack down on them. "The FDA doesn't allow any residue at all in eggs," he says.

"I'm not going to say that every egg producer does a good job," he adds. "But they do try to be good stewards of the land and to treat their animals humanely." He thinks Brown's vociferous criticism is "a promotional effort for his own product."

Ari van Tienhoven, a retired professor of animal physiology at Cornell University, says the matter of cages and chicken happiness is largely subjective. "We don't speak the same language as chickens, so we can't discuss this with them. We can't send them to a psychiatrist." Nevertheless, he points out, caged birds are constrained from acting out their normal "repertoire of behavior," including taking dust baths or going into a nest to lay their eggs. "Birds in cages peck at the bars because they are frustrated and scared," he says. Birds who are five to a cage yield 6 percent fewer eggs, according to a study van Tienhoven conducted, and that indicates a higher level of stress.

However, he contends, chickens raised in floor pens face a greater likelihood of getting coccidiosis, lice, or stomach worms. "I wouldn't want a gutful of worms, would you?" he says. Penned chickens tend to lay more dirty eggs, which even after washing are stained a greenish yellow. "Really, the whole thing's a trade-off," he concludes. He suggests the best solution may be the practice of some farmers in the Netherlands, where chickens are housed in cages large enough to accommodate dust bathing and laying in nest boxes.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group based in Washington, D.C., decries the use not only of meat as food but also of fish, eggs, or any dairy product. Robin Walker, vegan campaign coordinator, says PETA denounces chickens being used in food production at all. "Are animals on this earth to use any way we see fit?" she asks. She is particularly offended by the practice of beak clipping. "That's eliminating a chicken's main weapon. It's painful--the shock of the clipping is very, very great, and afterwards the creature can't eat or drink normally." She believes that chickens in cages "are completely stressed," and she doesn't think that letting them run free inside henhouses is much of an improvement. "If chickens are inside their whole lives, they never breathe fresh air or see the sunshine." Better to let them out in a yard, where they can "forage for food and take in the air."

The concept of chickens at large delights Karen Davis, president of a group called United Poultry Concerns. (Like PETA, Davis's group considers chickens sanctified beings, not food, and stages such events as a 24-hour vigil at a Perdue chicken slaughterhouse.) "Chickens are naturally foraging, ranging animals," she says. Her own 11 chickens are "part of our household." They scurry about behind her house in Maryland, where they indulge in dust baths, forage for worms and insects, and take in the fresh air, sunshine, and what she calls "the healing gift of space." At night they're locked up in a wire enclosure behind her house, safe from local foxes.

"Now that's a little radical, a yuppie thing," says Rod Wubbena, as he drives away from P-5 in his pickup truck. "Picture a chicken outside. It's raining, it's pouring, and that chicken's pulling worms and bugs out of the ground. And there are foxes running around. That chicken's health will be jeopardized, whereas in one of our henhouses there's food, ventilation, water, and no risk of predators." He defends beak clipping, saying it doesn't affect a chicken's ability to get food or water and the initial pain "is no more than taking off a fingernail."

Phil's Fresh Eggs is flourishing in spite of the controversy. Annual revenues stand at more than $1 million. Phil's picture is emblazoned on thousands of egg cartons, and though fame eludes him he still makes vague references to being like Colonel Sanders or Jimmy Dean.

The Wubbenas are a religious family--Phil and Betty Jo are active members of the independent Forreston Grove Church and have "Glory Be to God" emblazoned on their garage. "We try to practice our Christianity in business," says Phil. "We treat our employees like family, although we don't have income sharing or anything."

Phil and Rod have similar perfectionist personalities, and they sometimes argue. But Phil leans heavily on his son. "I'm fortunate to have a son as capable as he is. Obviously I couldn't do this without him. Some farmers find themselves with sons who aren't interested in the business or who aren't up to the job, but Rod shines. He isn't married. He devotes practically all his time to the business." Phil's reliance on Rod has increased in recent years. In 1989 Phil had his left hip joint replaced, and a year ago he fell in an Elmhurst parking lot and broke his right arm and hip. He's only just getting back to normal.

Rod studied business management at Western Illinois University in Macomb but was forced back to the farm for two semesters when a couple of key farm employees quit. He took extra courses, graduated on time, and then returned to Forreston permanently.

Phil's youngest son, Keith, lost his right leg in a tractor accident when he was 18 and has become a computer specialist in Rockford. Phil's daughter Chris and her husband, Mark Strich, who were working for Venture in Chicago, returned home to help out after Bob Brown secured the Jewel account. It didn't work out. Strich, says Phil, "wasn't a farm boy," and he and Chris returned to Chicago.

Rod, however, is a farm boy to the bone. "Man was made to farm and watch the seasons go in and out," he says. But the Wubbena style of farming has forced him to learn more and more about soil conservation, engineering, mechanics, chicken nutrition, and marketing. "I'm busy year-round," he says. The only time he gets away is in February, when he likes to ski in the Rockies. Otherwise he's on the farm, sunup to sundown. Rod has his own house, but he eats all three meals with his parents. "Lunch turns into an executive session," he says.

The Wubbenas' office consists of some file cabinets and three desks. "King Rooster" reads the sign on Phil's desk. "Queen Hen" reads the one on Betty Jo's. In March the two of them were vacationing in Florida when Phil had a dream about a bear being in their bedroom. He bought a stuffed black bear, which he named Nightmare, and now he props it up in the office or buckles it into the seat next to him when he drives. "We're under high stress around here," he says, "and this helps."

The Wubbenas have neither a computer to track their 200 accounts nor a postage meter for the mail. Betty Jo, with Phil's input, prepares the payroll and the income tax records, which go to an H & R Block office only for some buffing. "We had an audit recently, and we came through it nicely," says Phil with pride.

The family's office extravagance is the phone system. They have a Watts line, an 800 number, a cellular phone, and two private lines. "We get five bills a month," says Phil. "We consider phones much more important than a computer."

The Wubbenas are grateful to Bob Brown for securing them the Jewel account. "We didn't have the marketing ability to do what Bob did for us," Rod says. But he says neither he nor his parents are aiming for the stars. "There has been slow, steady growth for us over 30 years, and I hope there continues to be. We aren't trying to conquer the world. We want to make a living, to put our feet up in the evening, and look back on the day and feel satisfied."

For information on the Forreston-Freeport area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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