My grandfather, Don Pitman, started raising poultry in 1954. From my earliest memories, my father, Rick Pitman, took the time to teach me valuable lessons about life and farming—how to treat animals with respect, the importance of being honest, and striving to always do the right thing—and I grew up working with him on the family farm, driving tractors, tilling fields, feeding turkeys, and trying not to get into trouble.
In the heart of California’s Central Valley, Pitman Family Farms raise chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese—all free-range, all at farms designed specifically for each species, and all within 60 miles of our processing plant in Sanger, which we’re transitioning this year to a higher welfare gas system.
I stepped into the role of running our chicken operation, Mary’s Chickens, named after my mother, and spend most of my day interacting with people who believe in our way of farming—with our customers, listening to their concerns and answering any questions they may have, and with our farmers, working with them to ensure that the values and expectations we have set forth are being met or exceeded. These conversations and collaborations are really important to me because I get to learn so much just by talking with people.
It was during a multi-stakeholder meeting that animal welfare, part of who my family has always been, became the top priority.
We had been selling our birds to Whole Foods Market for some time, so when I was invited to join a meeting at their headquarters in Austin, Texas, to share my thoughts and experiences raising chickens, I didn’t think twice. Sitting in a conference room with other producers, shoulder-to-shoulder with retailers, staff members from animal welfare organizations, and chicken welfare scientific experts opened my eyes to the future.
I went home from that meeting, and we started raising some Rhode Island Red chickens, marketed as our California Bronze.
We are extremely proud that all of our chicken farms have obtained at least a Step 3 rating, with one farm at Step 4 and another at Step 5. While each Step certification we hold is a great accomplishment, our Step-5 chicken farm is truly a dream come true. Our California Bronze chickens enjoy year-around living outside on a pastured ranch, foraging, dustbathing, and perching (a natural and important behavior that many may not know is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most of the commercially raised chickens today to do). They really do live in a truly natural environment.
With the launch of G.A.P.’s 5-Step standards for turkeys, we were excited to bring our turkey farms into the program. We have already had three farms audited and certified, and are really proud to have two farms at Step 3 and another at Step 5.
Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step program has really been a blessing for us! It’s the first of its kind to finally teach consumers the truth behind the food they eat. In this world, it has been too easy for people to say one thing, yet deliver something different. With the different Step levels, this program is opening the eyes of people around the world about the true quality of the food they consume, and we’re really thankful for that.
It isn’t easy being a farmer. We face rising commodity prices, long days every day, and the challenge to get through tough times. And, as a local farmer, we don’t have lobbyists in Washington, D.C., or special funds we can tap into during rough patches.
We’re hard-working people and focus our energy on raising animals in the most humane, natural environments we can and selling quality meat economically so everyone who’s concerned about the way farm animals are treated can afford higher welfare products.
Despite the difficult aspects of being a farmer, I wouldn’t be anyone else. I’m inspired every day by the unsung, dedicated people who make it all happen behind the scenes. The daily responsibilities of taking care of our animals require the highest degree of attention, and I believe my experience as a child working with my father makes me appreciate all of the hard work that often goes unnoticed.
This might be why I’m so thankful for the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards. The program is finally an opportunity for farmers to show the world what hard work looks like.