My friend Lisa Hargest (you may have seen her in this post) came over for dinner a while back, and we got to talking about the state of things at Gathering Together Farm, the place where Henry and I worked for years and now the place where Lisa has worked for years. She told us about a project that she instigated to raise a bunch of meat chickens along with our friends Joelene Jebbia (seen here) and Paula House (seen here) to be cooked and eaten at the farm’s thrice weekly crew lunch.
I wrote about crew lunch and the farm owners’ ethic behind it here, but basically the farm cooks feed an insanely large amount of hot, nutritious food to an insanely hungry crowd (sometimes 50+) of farmworkers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Lisa, Joelene, and Paula are not vegetarians, but like some of the other GTF employees, they try to adhere to certain high standards when it comes to the meat that they consume. In the context of a somewhat mass-produced meal, however, it’s not always easy to source affordable but humanely raised meats. This spring, they decided that one way to address this situation would be to raise chickens on the farm specifically for farm lunch. They already had a space to do it, the infrastructure needed to house and feed chickens (from an experiment in raising chickens to sell about 10 years ago), willing chicken stewards, and the full support of the farm’s owners.
The first batch broiler chickens they raised were ‘Cornish Cross’, the fast-growing, huge-breasted, delicious-but-dumb breed that is standard in the commercial poultry industry. The ‘Cornish Cross’ chicks cost $1.90 each, and out of the 100 they bought, 90 survived to butchering age of about seven weeks.
For the second batch, they’re trying ‘Red Rangers’, a somewhat slower growing heritage breed that exhibits much more bird-like behavior and makes for a great forager. The ‘Red Rangers’ cost $2.10 per chick, but so far, none have died. Unlike ‘Cornish Cross’, ‘Red Rangers’ take about 12 weeks to reach butchering size. During that time, however, they eat quite a bit less than ‘Cornish Cross’ per bird per day, so in the end, Lisa figures that the feed costs for the two batches of chickens will be roughly the same. The ‘Red Rangers’ also have more leg and thigh meat and less breast meat than the ‘Cornish Cross’, so culinarily the two breeds have somewhat different applications.
My friend Chris Hansen of Mosaic Farm (who for some dumb reason I haven’t yet profiled on this blog, but trust me, he’s a super interesting, stand up guy) caught wind of GTF’s chicken plans, and he proposed a trade. He would provide his specially blended non-GMO, locally sourced, freshly milled chicken scratch (more details about his feed blends and availability here) at cost in exchange for the opportunity to eat crew lunch whenever he wanted to at Gathering Together. Everyone agreed that this was a terrific idea, so the chickens have spent their whole lives eating nothing but Willamette Valley bugs, grass, wheat, peas, and a small quantity of nutritional supplements. Parts of Mosaic farm are literally adjacent to Gathering Together fields, so it’s pretty easy for Chris to stop in when the lunch bell rings, and he usually eats with the GTF crew once or twice a week.
When the chicken-rearing plan was concocted, Lisa just assumed that, come butcher time, the crew would do the deed themselves. There were quite a few folks on the farm with at least some experience killing, plucking, and gutting chickens, but as the birds grew and the summer workload of farm duties increased to exhausting levels, butchering in-house held less and less appeal. That’s when Lisa, Joelene, and Paula made the decision to pass the task on to professionals. Fortunately, they knew just the right people for the job, Rachel Prickett of Provenance Farm (profiled here, here, and here on Wayward Spark) and her team at Oregon Mobile Poultry Processing. Rachel’s fledgling business uses Provanance Farm’s existing mobile chicken butchering trailer to travel around Western Oregon, processing medium to large batches of birds on-farm at a competitive price per animal. (For more info on custom poultry processing call 541-250-0102). The GTF chicken stewards figured that paying Rachel and her gang to do the dirty work would save them a tremendous amount of hassle while yielding a more attractive, better packaged product faster and cheaper than if the paid-by-the-hour farm crew of amateur butchers did the work themselves. Lisa explained to me that making the decision to outsource the processing was like taking a weight off her chest, and she never regretted the decision.
If the farm chef is cooking a chicken-based lunch in the summer for the full crew, she would probably use up to 10 chickens per meal, so 190 birds will only last through 19 or 20 meals (more meals for a smaller winter crew). Considering the fact that the farm serves 156 crew lunches per year, these farm-raised chickens will make up a significant portion of the protein served but nowhere near a majority. That wasn’t really the goal for this project, though. Lisa, Joelene, and Paula just wanted to make an effort to start somewhere and do a little bit better than before.
For me, the story of these chickens and how they were raised embodies the collaborative spirit of some of the most ethically-minded farmer folks that I know. The birds will be cared for by compassionate people, fed the highest quality food available, allowed to run free-ish on healthy land, butchered quickly and humanely by knowledgeable professionals, cooked to perfection by a skilled chef, and eaten by hungry, hardworking folks who appreciated the sustenance. I don’t think it gets any better than that.