Marilyn and James Hammon: Local Farmers Saving the Chicken

(SAVANNAH) All-natural or organic farmers have one of the most challenging jobs today, but this occupation also rewards their conscience. These green growers never partake in antibiotics, pesticides, or animal by-products in their animal feed. Before the industrialization of agriculture, these practices were common and used by every farmer. ‘Going green’ is one of the fastest growing markets today, averaging billions of dollars every year. Here in Savannah, green farmers have concentrated their efforts on serving their local community, not Whole Foods. One such couple is Marilyn and James Hammon.

They set up their tent every Saturday morning under the shade of the oaks in Forsyth Park. They sell eggs here, kept cool in coolers. A notebook on the display table features the very hens those eggs came from. Each customer that day will be buying eggs that were gathered the day before. These hens are happy and humanely treated, and their feed contains no animal by-products. “It’s not organic feed,” James says, “We go through a ton of feed a week, it’s not cost efficient.” Their regular customers know this, but have no concerns about the eggs they are buying.  James says they keep nothing back, and it only improves their sales. “The public changes. They’ll buy from them [another vender] one week and then us the next week,” he says. “But we sell more eggs than everybody else. Our regulars know us and know what we feed to our chickens.”

In 1999, Marilyn and James bought the family farm from Marilyn’s parents. Both had grown up on farms, but sought careers elsewhere. James was a truck driver, and Marilyn worked in a post office. James explains that life was a little blasé after both retired. “We were just sitting around, thinking this isn’t gonna do us any good. We wanted to do something we both like!” Together they purchased 300 hens and built a run to serve the Savannah Co-Op. The Forsyth Farmer’s Market and the city of Augusta were soon beckoning for their business too, and they bought another 600 hens and two other runs. Their eggs end up all across the Coastal Empire, from ending up in omelets at SCAD from lunch and dinner at Bobby’s Diner.

This diverse business requires hard work from the Hammons. They wake up at five o’clock every morning to feed their cows and chickens and complete other necessary tasks. They gather eggs five times a day “so they can be as fresh as possible,” James said. This one task gobbles up 45 minutes each time. There are also the numerous hen houses to manage and clean. “I don’t want to smell anything bad in my chicken house,” James asserted, “If I can smell it, they’re living in it.” Their chickens have unconditional access to the outdoors, where they can scrounge for protein-rich bugs and scratch in the Georgia clay. These eggs may not be certified organic, but they come from happy hens.

This is one interesting aspect of the organic food movement. Some chicken farmers operate only by organic standards. Others operate differently, such as Marilyn and James. The best evidence of this is visible along the egg aisle in the local Wal-Mart: organic, free-range, cage free, and all-natural. These can be confusing to the consumer, who does not know what each means for their own health. Free-range can mean anything from chickens having complete full access to a yard, to only a small uninviting door stuck in the wall. USDA regulations do not have a specific definition for free-range. An organic label means that the chickens receive no antibiotics in their feed or as medicine, and their feed is certified organic. All-natural can mean whatever the producer wants it to mean. Buying locally benefits the consumer. Marilyn and James can tell each customer that their chicken feed has no animal by-products, no antibiotics are administered, and the chickens have complete outdoor access. They even buy their feed locally. “We can only get the feed we want from Albany, GA,” James said.

Marilyn and James are finally doing what they love. Raising hens humanely for their natural eggs may seem old-fashioned, but these food practices served the population for thousands of years. Surely, mankind is not too good for them now. Technology and medical advances have improved our quality of life significantly, but there are only so many things one can ‘fix’. Caged egg-producing hens have to be de-beaked; they pluck their feathers off, and have short life spans. They have been ‘fixed’ by advanced breeding practices. Marilyn and James’ hens lay for three years, and have no natural tendencies stripped from their lives. Technology can improve nature only so much; the Hammons instead expound upon nature’s goodness.

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