Although she played a pivotal role in one of the most acclaimed movies of the past few years, Carole Morison never set out to be famous. An Eastern Shore farmer, she appeared in Food Inc., the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary that took a critical look at the American food industry. In it, Morison gave the filmmakers a tour of the chicken houses on her farm, a big no-no in the agribusiness world. It proved to be a powerful segment. “It is nasty in here,” said Morison, walking through a sea of chickens. “There’s dust flying everywhere. There’s feces everywhere.”
The floor wasn’t visible, and chickens seemed to occupy every square foot of the house, which held approximately 27,000 birds that Morison raised for Perdue. “This isn’t farming,” Morison noted. “This is mass production, like an assembly line in a factory.”
At one point, she began picking up dead birds, then unceremoniously stacked the carcasses in a pile and tossed them into a front-end loader so they could be buried. “That’s normal,” she said numbly, before ticking off a list of concerns that included farmers’ enormous debts and a “degrading” relationship with the parent company.
Morison looked pained as she spoke, and it was obvious she hadn’t drawn her conclusions rashly. In fact, she’d been raising chickens for more than two decades but ultimately came to feel that “something had to be said.”
These days, Morison bears little resemblance to the woman in the film. But it isn’t her appearance that’s different, though her hair is shorter and she wears glasses. It’s her demeanor. Sitting in the kitchen of her Pocomoke City farmhouse, she seems feisty, not on the verge of defeat. The tightness around her eyes and mouth has dissipated, and her eyes sparkle. She laughs easily, and often.
Morison no longer raises chickens, and she no longer raises hell. She embraced sustainable farming, got herself a flock of laying hens, and traded Perdue for Whole Foods. She now sells eggs, lots of them, at Whole Foods in Harbor East, Mt. Washington, Annapolis, and Rockville. In fact, her name is emblazoned on every carton—Carole Morison’s Bird’s Eye View Farm.
The hens, and the eggs they produce, gave Morison a new lease on life, at least on farm life. “Because of how we raised chickens before,” she says, “I wanted to do it different this time. I wanted to do it right.”
Morison was born and raised in Rehoboth Beach. A self-described “beach girl,” she comes from a family of seven children—she’s the youngest girl—raised by an Irish mother and Polish father. Her mother taught physical education and coached girls’ sports (basketball, field hockey, all of them) at the local high school and ran a strict Catholic household. Her father owned and managed various business enterprises, including a nightclub and restaurant, a shopping center, and housing developments around town. Life at home was chaotic, but it helped that Morison’s mother had summers off, when her father was busy with seasonal work, while his schedule eased up during the school year.
No matter the season, the children were expected to pitch in and work. “We did the jobs that needed to be done,” recalls Morison. “When it came to working, there were no distinctions between girls and boys—what you did was based solely on your capabilities.”
It taught her a lesson: “When you want something, you earn it. Nothing is given to you.”
She learned another lesson watching her father give jobs or money to people in need: “Always look out for the underdog.”
Both lessons would come in handy on the farm, which is where she found herself after marrying Frank Morison in 1986. Carole, who had been working for A&P/Super Fresh, moved to the Worcester County property where Frank raised corn, soybeans, and chickens. The couple built two new chicken houses and grew birds exclusively for Perdue.
In the early 1990s, the Morisons began raising issues about the company, its relationship to contract growers like themselves, and its production methods. They felt Perdue dictated nearly every aspect of the process, from equipment upgrades and feed additives to flock size and the disposal of dead birds. The Morisons and other growers bristled that, essentially, the live birds belonged to the company, but any dead birds belonged to the farmer. “I started speaking out in 1992,” says Carole, who headed the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware’s Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance from 1997 to 2006. “Over the years, it was always something.”
Fed up, she let the Food Inc. crew visit her farm in 2007. Not long after, Perdue terminated its contract with the Morisons, because the couple refused to completely enclose their chicken houses, an upgrade that would have put them in considerable debt. “What was the sense behind it?” asks Carole. “We were already outperforming most other growers.”
So the houses were emptied in 2008, the same year Food Inc. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and changed Carole’s life. “I never imagined the film would be so big, and so well received,” she says. “It was a total shock when all the hoopla started.”
The film, which also spotlights food activists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, won widespread praise (The Los Angeles Times called it “essential viewing”), earning an impressive 96% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, the popular film review site, and love from Oprah, who featured it on her show and in her magazine. It also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and upped Morison’s public profile considerably. “I think of Carole as a true American hero,” says Food Inc. director Robert Kenner. “It was a great treat having a hero in my film. I found her to be a real inspiration.”
Others did, as well, and Morison traveled around the country attending Food Inc. screenings, speaking about the film, and discussing the issues it raises. “I’ve been everywhere,” she says, “and the reception I’ve gotten has been truly humbling.”
She especially enjoys visiting schools and fellow farmers. One California farm, in particular, blew her mind. “I saw a lady with 4,000 chickens on pasture,” she says. “I spent the entire afternoon just sitting there watching these birds. I’d raised chickens for nearly half my life, and would you believe I’d never seen them walk around free.”
It got her thinking she could do something similar on the Eastern Shore.
After the chicken houses sat empty for three years, Morison bought 500 laying hens, all of them Rhode Island Reds, and went into the egg business. She set up the new operation to meet Animal Welfare Approved standards and, instead of hiding what goes on from the public, she shows it off to whomever she likes. In fact, it doesn’t take much prodding for her to pull on her boots and lead a visitor to the hen house.
The scene couldn’t be more dissimilar from the film. These birds occupy about a third of one of the old poultry houses, and each one has at least six square feet of space, a sharp contrast, says Morison, to the three-quarters of a foot her chickens used to have. She points out holes cut in the sides of the house that let in light and allow the birds to come and go as they please. Morison also installed long perches, because hens like to perch. In fact, dozens of birds sit placidly and peer out at the barnyard, while others sit on nesting boxes and lay eggs that roll onto a conveyor belt that’s part of an automated collection system. Morison notes that the feeders, drinkers, and heating system were salvaged from their old operation.
Robert Kenner says he’s been given one of these tours and was stunned by what he saw. “Her farm was so different,” says Kenner. “It no longer had the sickening stench. I no longer had to step over dying chickens. This time, my greatest challenge was fending off chickens wanting to sit on my lap or get on my shoulder.”
“This is a whole different experience,” admits Morison, noting that “maybe a dozen” birds have died in the past 18 months. “It’s fairly simple and not difficult.”
She explains that her hens lay eggs every other day. Production increases and decreases cyclically, but she collects between 300 and 350 on an average day. She places the eggs into baskets, carries them to her house, and washes the entire lot by hand at the kitchen sink. She packs the cleaned eggs in custom cartons she designed herself; as an independent contractor, she provides all packaging materials. When asked about having graphic design aspirations, she laughs heartily and cites a more practical motivation. “I couldn’t afford to hire a designer,” she scoffs. “No farmer could.”
Once packed, the eggs are kept in a walk-in cooler until they’re delivered to the city. At present, Morison sells all her eggs to Whole Foods, which has a waiting list of locations wanting to stock them. Jill McCarthy, Whole Foods’ coordinator of mission and purpose for the Mid-Atlantic, believes Morison is a good fit with their customers. “Some people were already familiar with Carole and her story,” says McCarthy. “It’s important to connect our customers to where the eggs come from. Ultimately, however, it’s quality that creates a repeat customer.”
To meet demand, Morison just expanded her operation. She has prepped another section of the poultry house to accommodate an additional 700 birds. “I don’t want it to get much bigger than that,” she says, “because I need to be able to manage the flock and see what’s going on.”
Morison enjoys farming for the first time in years. “I used to walk on egg shells,” she says. “Now, I’m free and can do as I damn well please.”
Her eyes widen, as the stridency of that statement seems to catch her by surprise. “I shouldn’t say, ‘damn,’” she says. “But it just feels so damn good.”