One woman's effort in humane farming
Connie Cunningham walks through a frosty pink dawn, flanked by her lion-sized Great Pyrenees as she crosses a wooden bridge to the pasture. A Pied Piper of sorts, she’s followed by almost a hundred animals: Geese, ducks, guinea hens and chickens, more dogs and a cat follow her inaudible music. It’s not that they’re hungry – they walk past piles of feed on the ground. They’re drawn to her. She talks to them as she walks past, calling some by name. She might call them Jerk or Weirdo with a smile and an affectionate eye roll.
She came to Gosherd Valley Cottage about 10 years ago. It was her mother’s farm, and when she fell ill, Cunningham came to care for her. What was supposed to be a few months turned into years, and that same kind of gravitational pull the animals feel toward her kept Cunningham here. She left her life as a successful organic landscape designer to Chicago’s elite. The pastures, she says, were empty and needed to be grazed.
With the dogs out at pasture, she walks back to her barn at the bottom of the hollow and surveys the sky. The Pyrenees are haloed in light as the sun rises over the trees along the creek. She might get to some of that clearing today, she says, and jokes about how she needs to get goats to chew away the brush along the fences. But goats or cows could take her down. “I could be killed by a cow so easily it’s not even funny. I can’t handle them. They’re just too big.”
When settling here, Cunningham went through the list of grazers from large to small and settled on birds. “We wanted something grazing, and geese are grazers,” she says. “They’re small enough for me to handle. They can’t push me around … much.” They were the animals she could handle as a single woman in a remote part of Gasconade County.
Cunningham set out to raise geese and chickens sustainably and humanely. She succeeded in becoming the only Animal Welfare Approved goose farm in the country. AWA is a third-party labeling system for meat and dairy products grown under the most rigorous environmental and animal welfare conditions. For the past six years Cunningham has held firmly to her ideals and her certification, which means yearly audits from AWA. “They go over your numbers, what you feed them, what’s in your food, what’s in your supplements as far as electrolytes and vitamins. There can be nothing animal-based in it, and that means from start to finish,” she says. “Every step of it needs to be certified as humane. It’s really hard to get.”
AWA is a U.S. label that requires pasture access for animals, an idea Cunningham wholeheartedly supports. “They need space to run, to flap,” she says. “They need socialization with others, to mess with each other – get their pecking order straight, because they’re birds and they have pecking orders.” She also makes little pools around the fields and the barnyard for them. “When they get older, they have to have water because they start mating and you have to have that cushion of water,” she says. “They get to squabble over girls and everybody runs around and flaps their wings and screams at the sky and all of those things. That creates a happy bird.”
A bird’s life on the farm is only one third of the three-part AWA certification process – the nursery, farm and slaughterhouse must all be approved separately for a bird to be labeled AWA. “I had to make a deal with myself before I started any of this, and that deal was that I would not be a hypocrite,” Cunningham says. “That if I was eating meat, I would be part of that system and understand what the animals went through and how they were handled. I didn’t want to be disconnected from it.” Being connected, however, costs.
The first step is acquiring the birds. Shipping alone is $300 because as soon as they’re hatched at the nursery, the goslings are overnighted – as opposed to spending two to three days in big crates delivered through the mail system. Cunningham picks up her goslings from Lambert International Airport. After their lives on the farm, the circuit is complete with a certified humane slaughterhouse.
“The (conventional) method is bleeding them out, shoving their bodies in a killing cone to trap their wings and slitting their throats with their heads through the small part of the cone,” she says. “The other one is electric baths. They’re on a conveyor belt hung by their legs in shackles, which is really cruel for geese because they’re such heavy-bodied animals – incredibly hard on them and terrifying. They’re dunked into an electrified hot bath that stuns them. But too many times they’re moving around and jerking.”
Cunningham has teamed up with Four Quarters Processing in Perry to give her geese another exit. “What you’re trying to do is stop the fear and the struggling,” she says. “You’re trying to make this as calm as possible for the animal, quick and painless.” Together, they bought a new, AWA-certified stun gun for poultry that reliably knocks out the geese. If all this weren’t enough, she added some steps of her own. Transportation can be traumatic for geese in crates made to fit chickens, so she designed and built crates, complete with non-slip pads, to transport her geese comfortably.
Back at the barn Gabri Brochu, a local teen and vet-tech-in-training, is waiting to help treat a small infection on a goose’s foot. Cunningham grabs the goose Lucy from her straw nest in a stall and Brochu stands by with a towel. They wrap her tightly, guiding her feet through holes they’ve cut in the towel, and place her squarely on a bucket of warm salt water. In freezing temps, Brochu supports a perfectly content Lucy on her warm perch for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Cunningham walks across the barnyard to stoke the furnace in the adjacent cottage. She tosses logs into the fire and smoke billows out, forming a ribbon through the valley. Brochu and a handful of other local teens are a big help, but for the most part, Cunningham works alone.
“If you don’t feel like getting up in the morning and going out, if you’re sick and have a cold or the flu, you still have to get out and do it … cause there’s nobody else that’s going to do it,” she says. “It’s just physical work every single day. (Even on a day off), you still have to go take care of the birds; you still have to stoke the stove; you still have to go feed all the dogs.”
After her mother’s death, she put her design skills to work and remodeled the cottage, a process that took nearly three years. The result: a tranquil space that feels like a Vermeer painting. Cunningham opened it as a bed and breakfast a little over a year ago and received warm response – even winning design website Houzz’s 2016 Interior Design Award. Swedish blues, greens and reds lure guests in to rest in cubby beds with windows to the pasture. The silence is tranquilizing; coffee being poured and a ticking vintage clock are the only sounds to be heard inside. Outside, the Pyrenees’ sounding a coyote alarm, and maybe some roosters crowing or guinea calling.
Cunningham’s motive for opening the cottage to the public was originally financial, and she turned part of the barn into her own modest living quarters at that time. “It was supposed to be a supplemental income because the geese in particular have one season. I’ve got about 40 days to sell all those animals – really all your income is only coming in in one month,” she says. “So that makes it incredibly difficult for a solo farmer to make it through the rest of the year. You can’t actually.”
However, the cottage has become more than a financial motivation. “I love having people stay here,” she says. “It attracts a specific type of person. I’ve given up friends, community, like-minded people. I’ve given up having culture and art around me (in Chicago).” She closes the door to the furnace. “(The cottage) conveys what a specific group of people want to see and those are the people who are coming. And they’re quiet and they’re looking for a respite.”
That person is the same who will buy her chickens, which sell for $17 to $25, depending on size. “We put in about $10 per chicken,” she says. “That means the cost of the birds, the delivery of the chicks, estimated electricity for the brooder house, the cedar shavings for the bedding. Then you have the supplemental chicken feed. Also, you have to add in the cost of the dogs overseeing them and the feed that they go through. And they were in there for almost three months.” Because of the rigorous standards and slim profit margin, her chickens are processed by a state-certified butcher and aren’t AWA certified.
She believes that for the most part people want to buy things that are produced sustainably and humanely, but back down when faced with the prices. “People go to the supermarket and say meat’s too expensive. They don’t say, ‘I can’t afford it,’” Cunningham says. “It changes the discussion when you say we don’t make enough money to buy meat at the correct price. That’s an entirely different situation. Saying meat’s too expensive puts the onus on the farmer and the industry.”
For Cunningham, the correct price is one that makes humane, sustainable farming practices tenable, which she acknowledges might change the way we eat. “One chicken can last a week, not one night,” she says. And she admits to being put off by requests for skinless boneless chicken breasts. “I say yes, there are two boneless skinless chicken breasts in every chicken I have, and there are two really delicious thighs, and there’s a nice carcass to make soup stock and the whole thing will last you a week.”
Cunningham makes her way back to the barn where Brochu still sits patient and motionless with Lucy. Together they lift Lucy off the bucket and dry her feet before returning her to the nest where she’ll rest and continue to heal. The middle part of the day is filled with a trip to the vet, a run to the feed store and baking an impossibly beautiful chicken potpie.
As the day matures, Cunningham talks more about the future, a conversation full of “ifs.” A recent weekend number-crunching tells a story: The goose business can’t continue as it is. The expenses are just too high. The chickens, the Pyrenees, the bed and breakfast, the other ideas and dreams Cunningham has for these 80 acres are still an unfinished puzzle with missing pieces.
At nightfall, Cunningham and Brochu wrangle Buffy and Lil’ Weirdo, two geese they’ve identified as Lucy’s friends, from the flock. It’s cruel to isolate herd animals, and she’ll heal faster with companionship, Cunningham says. The sky turns from orange to deep blue, the dogs come in from the fields for dinner and Cunningham and Brochu settle in by the barn’s fireplace.
“My mother would’ve loved what’s going on – that I made it a place where people would come to,” Cunningham says. Outside, the dogs now guard the perimeter. The chickens roost in the shed. The guineas settle into the trees. The white geese glow like long-necked ghosts in inky blue darkness below Cunningham’s window, staying close to their gravitational center.
Gosherd Valley Cottage, 1590 Highway N, Morrison, 888.233.4164
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