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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 04:07 pm

Home on the range

A happy chicken is a healthier and tastier chicken, say local farmers

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Illustration by Judith Blake/MCT

It’s quiet and peaceful down here on the farm — no traffic noise or blasting stereos. The stillness heightens the senses: a bee buzzing past, the rustle of leaves in a sudden slight breeze, the grassy smell of a hayfield ripe for mowing, and a distant dog barking all make a stronger impact because there are no other distractions.

Except for the heat. The day is one of this summer’s scorchers, registering 97 degrees with a heat index inching toward 110. The heat is so strong that it’s an entity all its own, affecting and controlling everything. It’s even visible, shimmering above the fields. Every living thing is trying to cope as best it can. Some of the plants curl their leaves inward to conserve their moisture. We humans stay in the shade, wear broad-brimmed hats, and have our hydrating bottles of water ever at our sides. All of the birds, both wild and domestic, have their beaks open. It gives them a glazed, slightly stupid look, an avian version of a person with his mouth hanging open.

The chickens don’t look any cooler than the rest of us, but that’s not because of any lack of effort on the part of Matt and Debbie Daniels, owners of the 45-acre Bear Creek Farm and Ranch, located near Kincaid, about 40 minutes from Springfield. Everything short of bringing the chickens into to the air-conditioned farmhouse has been done to ensure their health and comfort.

The Danielses raise chickens both for eggs and meat. The laying hens, along with their attendant roosters, reside in a spacious fenced-in yard. They have access to two coops with nesting boxes, where they lay most of their eggs. They’re free to scratch around in the dirt or munch on leafy green weeds in the uncut field that stretches off to one side. Today, however, most are content to hang out under a huge mulberry tree that casts its shade over a large portion of the yard. The tree also shelters an old trailer that is being used to acclimate 100-or-so 2-day-old chicks that arrived earlier that morning, the newest flock of meat birds.

The chickens in the yard are, by and large, a good-looking bunch. Most are Buff Orpingtons, a burnished-gold breed prized as much for their calm good nature as for their prolific laying. They live up to their reputation, appearing stately and serene as they stroll about. No less majestic are the Black Australorps, their jet-black feathers glinting with flashes of blue, green, and gold. The Araucanas seem a motley crew compared with the Orpingtons and the Australorps. Some have beautiful markings, but others look a bit straggly. Araucanas are not raised for their looks, good nature, or laying habits. In fact, they tend to be one of the trickier breeds to handle. It’s their eggs that make them so desirable. Sometimes known as “Easter-egg chickens,” Araucanas produce eggs with shells in shades of green and blue, from olive to palest baby blue. (The egg beneath the shell looks the same as any other from a pastured chicken: bright-yellow yolk, clear white.) Unlike virtually all commercial poultry operations, hens too old to lay eggs are allowed to live out their days in the yard. “I figure they’ve worked hard for me; they deserve a good rest,” Matt says.

All of the chickens raised for meat are Cornish Rock Crosses, a white-feathered breed that is probably what most Americans call to mind when picturing a chicken. They are in an open field, with no overhanging tree branches to protect them from the intense heat, but the Danielses have provided other shelter while ensuring the birds’ access to fresh pasture. A white tent of the sort used at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market or Old Capitol Art Fair is partially raised, about 3 feet from the ground. Next to the tent, a net of webbing is strung from which hangs hundreds of CDs that emit blinding flashes of light as they catch the sun’s rays, an incongruous note in this pastoral setting. It’s an effective way to discourage birds of prey from ravaging the flock. The chickens, however, have found the coolest spot of all. They’re in the two chicken tractors.

Chicken tractors? No, that’s not a misprint. Chicken tractors are a fairly recent innovation. Basically they’re huge pens on wheels that can be moved with the use of a tractor or heavy-duty truck every day (or as needed). The rotation ensures that the chickens get the maximum nutrition from the green pasture. The pasture benefits as well: The chickens provide some of nature’s best fertilizer, then move on, giving the field time to renew itself. Chicken tractors are usually open to the sky (though some are topped with wire fencing), but because this summer has been unusually hot, the Danielses covered them with tarps. When the tarps didn’t seem to provide enough protection, silver reflective blankets were spread over the tarps.

As the sun sinks lower into the horizon and the evening cools, the chickens will emerge from the shade and begin to hunt and peck for tasty morsels, Matt reports as he gathers eggs in a wire basket, carries water to the chickens in the pasture, and checks on a few birds that seem to be especially affected by the heat.

The chickens’ forage diet is supplemented with a mix of ground corn and roasted soybeans, fish, and kelp meal, probiotics (beneficial bacteria), vitamins, and minerals that the Danielses custom-blend themselves.

It’s a lot of work, especially because it all has to be done before and after the Danielses’ full-time jobs in Springfield and on the weekends. “We’re usually working outside until 10:30, 11 o’clock every evening,” Debbie says with a rueful chuckle, “and then, of course, we’re up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays to get to the farmers’ market in Springfield.” The farm’s output is minuscule compared to that of commercial industrial poultry operations. Bear Creek Farm produces 30 to 35 dozen eggs per week (though this varies seasonally) and from midspring through late fall will raise between 800 and 1,000 meat chickens in sequential flocks of 100. They also raise some vegetables (including sprouts) for market. Why put in so much time and go to such effort?

“We just love it,” says Debbie Daniels. “We love being outside and working with the animals. (The Danielses also raise draft horses and mules.) We love going to the farmers’ market and talking to people about what we do and why we do it, and we love having visitors come to the farm so they can actually see for themselves.”

Matt and Debbie Daniels’ eagerness to show their operation to their customers is shared by most other small farmers raising pastured poultry, cattle, and hogs, but it is in direct contrast to the attitude of industrial farm operators, who are reluctant to allow consumers to see the origins of the food they eat. As Michael Pollan puts it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the industrial food chain goes underground, in effect, as it passes through these factories on its path to our plates.”

These industrial operations really aren’t farms in any usual sense of the word. In fact, a new term had to be coined to describe them: They are now officially known as CAFOs — confined-animal feeding operations.

Poultry CAFOs bear virtually no resemblance to the Bear Creek chicken yards and pastures. They are football-field-size enclosed sheds that house 25,000 chickens at a time. It’s normal for chickens to occasionally peck each other (there’s a reason such terms as “henpecked” and “pecking order” have entered our speech), and in any chicken yard there are always a couple of unlucky birds with patches of missing feathers. Overcrowding in poultry CAFOs, however, is so extreme that the chickens’ normal pecking behavior turns violent. As a result, chickens in CAFOs usually have their beaks clipped so that they won’t kill each other, a practice regarded as inhumane by animal-welfare advocates.

CAFOs have other problems. The confined space and overcrowding ensures that the animals are at high risk of contracting and spreading diseases, so animals in CAFOs are given prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics. In fact, “most of the antibiotics sold in America today go into animal feed, a practice that is generally acknowledged (except by industrial agriculture) to be leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs,” according to Pollan. He notes, “Public health advocates don’t object to treating sick animals with antibiotics; they just don’t want to see drugs lose their effectiveness because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals.”

Growth hormones are also added to CAFOs’ animal feed. Some experts suspect that such hormones are contributing to the increasing incidences of premature menstruation in young girls and breast cancer.

Concerns over CAFOs and other industrial-farming practices such as the use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified plants and animals have brought to prominence organic and free-range products, from produce and grains to meat and dairy. From the merest trickle beginning in the counterculture ’60s, organic farming has grown to an $11 billion business that is the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Such spectacular growth has attracted the attention of industrial-farming operations and mega food processors. It also caught the eye of the U.S. government, and in 1990 Congress passed legislation instructing the USDA to establish uniform national standards for organic food and farming. The fight was on.

When corporate farm operations and food processors decided that they wanted a piece of the organic action, they lobbied to make the standards as lax as possible. Small farmers and producers, on the other hand, argued that lax federal standards were meaningless and, in many ways, worse than none at all. The struggle lasted a decade, punctuated by a first set of standards issued in 1997 that allowed, among other things, the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, genetically modified crops, and irradiation as organic practices. The howls of outrage that greeted these first standards sent the USDA back to the drawing board — but the efforts of consumer groups and small organic farmers and producers ultimately were no match for the wealthy and powerful industrial food lobby, and the set of standards finally issued in 2000 are felt by many of the organic food movement’s fiercest advocates to have rendered such terms as “organic” and “free range” largely meaningless. (They do, however, raise the bar for more environmentally responsible farming by restricting the use of pesticides, herbicides, and petrochemical fertilizers.)

For a chicken to be labeled “free range” under USDA guidelines, it must have “access to the outdoors.” The guidelines fail to say, however, exactly what constitutes such access.

Evidently industrial organic chicken producers have a much different interpretation of access to the outdoors than do small farmers such as the Danielses. Pollan reports on his visit to one such facility in California that provides chickens to Whole Foods Markets. The lives of the chickens there are little different from those of their nonorganic industrial counterparts. True, they do have a bit more space (20,000 birds vs. 25,000) They aren’t given growth hormones, so they live a few days longer. As with their conventionally raised counterparts, overcrowding in a confined space renders them highly susceptible to diseases, but because they aren’t given prophylactic antibiotics they are more closely monitored. The access to the outdoors is one 3-foot-square doorway leading to a narrow grassy area that runs along the length of the shed. The small doorway is kept closed until the chickens are at least 5 weeks old and have become used to getting their food and water indoors, so few, if any, venture outside, even after the door is opened. The birds are slaughtered when they are 7 weeks old, making free range, as Pollan notes, “not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.”

As industrial organic operations co-opted the term “free range,” some small producers such as the Danielses began using “pastured” to describe their poultry. Still others, including Stan Schutte of Triple “S” Farms, use “naturally grown.”

Schutte grew corn and beans on his family farm for 18 years before converting to natural farming in 1998 with a diversity of crops and animals. Like many other farmers, he had another job because conventional farming alone couldn’t pay the bills. Natural farming has allowed Triple “S” Farms to become financially independent; Schutte no longer has to work in a factory to make ends meet. He’s not alone. Although many believe that industrial farming is necessary to feed a growing world population, multiple studies have shown that small farms are actually more productive, as measured on the basis of the amount of food produced per acre.

Schutte combines his idealism with practical business sense. At the Springfield farmers’ market on Wednesdays and the Urbana market on Saturdays, he sells chickens, eggs, pork, beef, and vegetables. He also has buying clubs in Springfield, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana.

Schutte has seen the market for his products expand tremendously and has plans for expansion, including direct marketing. In the near future he and six partners expect to build a processing facility that will be certified organic by the USDA. It will be capable of handling multiple species, with customers welcome to watch their meat being cut.

Schutte, the Danielses, and others in central Illinois have been given help and advice in getting their natural-farming operations going by Paul Gebhardt, probably the longest-running commercial producer of pastured chickens, beef, and pork in the area.

This year Gebhardt took on a young partner, Seth Molen, who is also in Springfield at the market, selling vegetables and posting a signup list for chickens. Gebhardt chickens are available year-round at Food Fantasies (1512 W. Wabash Ave., 217-793-8009), and are featured on the menu at Maldaner’s (222 S. Sixth St., 217-522-4313).

Back at Bear Creek Farm, Matt and Debbie Daniels have their own plans for expansion. In a few years Debbie will be eligible for early retirement, Matt will leave his job, and they’ll be at Bear Creek Farm full-time. They’ll begin raising other animals: cows, hogs, and goats. In the meantime, there’s the new orchard to be tended, a commercial kitchen to install in an outbuilding, that hayfield to mow, mules and horses to look after, and, of course, the chickens. It’s all hard work, of course — but it brings them joy and contentment because they know they’re working in harmony with nature and because they know they’re providing their customers with products of superior taste and quality.

For more information, contact Bear Creek Farm and Ranch, 217-899-0002 or bearcreekbelgian@hughes.net; Triple “S” Farms, 217-895-3652 or triplsfarm@rr1.net; or Gebhardt Farms Inc., 217-325-3250.

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