By Nina Furstenau
FOR CENTURIES, chickens were at home on the range, free to peck, preen,
and make their own feast even in hardscrabble times. Flocks roosted with the
moon and laid eggs with the light of the sun. People and poultry happily coexisted.
Hens recycled leftovers, garden weeds, grass clippings, and slugs, and with the addition of a little poultry mash or sometimes a bit of corn, turned them into tasty eggs.
Chickens are alchemists. They churn all that glimmers and much that does not into
gold on the plate. And farm-fresh eggs do indeed redefine the color yellow with the brilliance of their yolks. Those yolks sit tall in the pan and the whites cling to them. Store-bought eggs, often already several days or weeks old by the time they are on the plate, spread limply, pale in a frying pan.
Chickens are raised not only as egg-layers, of course, but also as meat birds, especially since World War II. Before the 1940s, broilers were a by-product of the egg industry; chicken, therefore, was more expensive than beef www.freshchickenandturkey.com. pork. Then, technology and efficiency transformed chicken into a manufactured unit, and it became cheap.
A native of Southeast Asia, the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) is the ancestor of today’s domesticated chicken. It was first raised in captivity 5,000 years ago in India and arrived in Europe around 700 BC. There are more than 200 breeds today, but few people have heard the names Wyandotte, Welsummer, Cochin, or Derbyshire Redcap, among many others. Those breeds and others can have combs, wattles, and ear lobes. Their feathers can be barred, frizzled, laced, mottled, spangled, and penciled. They are, in fact, beautiful. In past years, you could go to the market and buy a Rhode Island Red, first bred in the late 1800s to be a prolific layer, or a Jersey Giant, bred in the early 1900s in the United States exclusively for the table.
When chicken got cheap in the 1940s, chefs started using the meat as a canvas.
The meat was almost incidental to the barbeque sauce, to the à la King, to the cacciatore, and to the coq au vin. Chicken, once a luxury, became one of the cheapest entrees and was robbed of much of its taste.
Perhaps because of this, heritage chickens and small flocks are becoming more
popular in the United States. In Missouri, pastured-chicken farms dot the countryside. Many consumers have a taste for birds that still strut in natural daylight, that have been allowed nesting instincts, or that were fostered under protective wings. They support farmers who give chickens back something of their natural cycle.
In fact, pastured-chicken fans look for farmers who have a burning ambition to see
that chickens get to eat bugs each day. Two such farmers, Rebecca and Kristina Rogers, who own 2 Sisters Farm Fresh Eggs and Vegetables in Louisburg, let their hens roam rotating open pastures by day and roost in large chicken houses at night. Rebecca and Kristina began their business out of the trunk of their mom’s car in 2005 when they were only nine and eight, respectively. With encouragement from their parents, Tammy and Loren, the sisters became the youngest farmers in the state to get the naturally grown certification. They chose two breeds: the Hubbard HSA Brown for its feed-to-egg production ratio and the Araucana, including its tailed variety, the Ameraucana. The result? Pink, cream, blue, green, and brown eggs. And a lot of pleased customers.
“It’s nice to buy eggs of the quality we used to raise ourselves,” says Paulette
Paulette liked the girls’ professional approach opened the parking lot of her shop, Mill Street Market in Humansville, to 2 Sisters on the afternoons the sisters did not sell at the Bolivar farmer’s market. Paulette wants others to experience the superior eggs of pastured chickens.
“Buy a dozen at your neighborhood grocery, and you’ll immediately see a difference,” she says. “The yellow is much stronger. The whites hold together. If you use them in baking, your products rise better; the whites whip up.”
Customers don’t mind paying a premium for 2 Sisters eggs, which wholesale for $2.58 a dozen. Once the hens reach 2 ½ years old and begin to drop from their peak of laying 240 eggs a year, they are sold at auction as broilers or for the way they look on grass.
“Many people around here want yard birds,” Loren says. “The birds keep the
ticks and bugs down, and they still produce 100 to 150 eggs a year.”
At Roberts Brothers Auction in Bolivar, the 2 ½-year-old chickens bring $6 to $8
each. Other chickens, Loren says, bring 50 cents to $2. The premium on 2 Sisters birds, he says, is because they are naturally grown with no antibiotics. Plus, locals have seen the two girls grow up while working hard, and they support that.
Another chicken farm, Peace Valley Poultry near West Plains, is owned by Jim and
Judy Protiva. The Protivas have produced confinement-free chickens and turkeys
since 1996. “We started with 100 chicks under the trees,” Judy says. Today, the farm raises 3,000 to 5,000 chickens a year and 500 turkeys. Two-thirds are sold directly off the farm, and one-third are delivered to customers in Rolla and Springfield. The Protivas’ interest in the chicken business began with a need for nitrogen.
“I wanted nitrogen for my soil and didn’t want store-bought,” Jim says. After hearing
that chickens would fertilize his pastures naturally and reading Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin, Jim found his future.
“Ours is a truly family venture, and we found it was not hard to raise a very quality
chicken,” he says. The Protivas’ four children began helping on the farm when they got into the business—the youngest was only three. Though meat sales are the farm’s primary business, they also sell eggs.
The Protivas also agree with ideas in Salatin’s book that promote access to bugs
and grass for the birds. “Opportunity to eat grasses, clover, and bugs all help to improve the flavor of chicken,” Jim says. He does this with movable hoop houses that he and one of his sons move by tractor every day. The hoop houses are 26-by-30 feet, and chickens range out from the vinyl-covered buildings to scratch and peck at crickets and other bugs. The house offers shade and protects the chickens from predators, though they are not fail-safe.
Jim says you have to remember one key factor: “Location, location, location.” Heritage breeds are more expensive because they take longer to breed, so they must be grown in a location close to chefs and consumers willing to pay the cost. Jim chooses not to raise heritage breeds and instead raises Cornish Rock Cross, bred because they take less time to raise (8 weeks versus 16 for heritage breeds) and produce larger portions of white breast meat, which most consumers prefer. Cornish Rock Cross is the breed used by most confinement operations, but the Protivas let theirs roam free. Jim says his free-range chickens are still more flavorful than their confinement-raised counterparts. And business is good.
Doing things the old-fashioned way is becoming the latest thing. Customers say
pastured chicken is tastier and that they like the idea of the birds having dignity during their lives. Standing in the mud with some chickens, I was amused. Each hen was busy. They pecked, they placed their feet daintily, they disdained my ungainly boots. I trudged away and, slipping, almost lost my dignity. They took no notice whatsoever. It was a beautiful thing.