By Ben Hewitt, "A Better Chicken,"March/April 2010
They come in a box, through the mail, which never ceases to amaze me. Baby chickens? In the mail? I can hear them the moment I walk into the post office in our small Vermont town, my two boys in tow. Cheepcheepcheepcheepcheep. I always open the box at the post office, partly to see how they’re doing, partly because the boys can’t wait. “Can we see them? Can we see them?”
For the past 10 years, my wife and I have raised chickens on the sloping pastures of our 40-acre farm. We shelter them under portable hoop houses we built from salvaged lumber and old tarps, and we move the houses daily. Chickens are not the most emotive critters in the world, but every time we move them onto fresh grass, it always looks to me like they’re smiling.
Admittedly, this is not the easiest way to put chicken on the table, and it puts us at odds with current trends in chicken consumption. “What people are looking for these days is convenience,” says Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council. “The retail growth is in the ready-to-heat-and-eat type products.”
My family doesn’t purchase ready-to-eat chicken products, but in one sense, we’re in agreement with the average American chicken consumer: we’re eating a lot more than we used to. In fact, per capita chicken consumption hit an all-time high in 2006, at 87.7 pounds (2007, the most recent year complete records are available, was slightly lower, at 86.4). That’s about 11⁄2 pounds per week—more than double the amount of chicken that graced American plates as recently as 1977.
Despite Lobb’s assertion that consumers are seeking convenience, more and more chicken is being raised like we raise ours, in small batches, on pasture. (There is no official definition for “pastured” poultry, but it’s generally understood that, while birds raised in this manner still receive grain, they are allowed unfettered access to fresh pasture.)
“In 2001, we had 50 grass-based farms [for various animals] registered in our food directory,” says Jo Robinson of eatwild.com, a website that promotes grass-fed farming. “Now, there are 1,700, and we’re adding a new farm about every other day.”
Some of this demand may be attributed to health concerns; a 2008 study in Poultry Science showed that raising birds on pasture creates a significant increase in omega-3 fatty acids. (Pastured birds typically also aren’t fed additives common to confinement animal feeding operations—see opposite.) Some of it is likely due to a creeping awareness that raising chickens in confinement diminishes the quality of the birds’ lives.
Of course, there’s another reason to pay the pastured-chicken premium ($3 to $7 per pound versus less than $1 per pound for a typical bird): taste. Because despite the ancillary benefits (those cute chicks, the fertility they bestow upon our fields), the real reason we spend each summer hauling feed and pulling chicken huts around our farm can only be fully understood when Sunday dinner—say, Baked Chicken with Onions & Leeks—emerges from the oven. It is hard to describe the taste of pastured poultry to someone who hasn’t tried it. Perhaps it is best to simply say this: there are the rare foods that have the power to redefine themselves in one bite, to make you feel you are suddenly privy to a secret that eludes most others: like a ripe tomato straight off the vine. Like pastured chicken.
These fine and worthy reasons certainly play a role in our decision to raise our own birds. But for us there’s another that prevails above all else: we have, as a family, chosen to eat meat. We want our boys to appreciate the responsibilities of this choice. And the chickens, which arrive huddled in a box and then spend 10 weeks living the best life we know how to give them, are an ideal lesson in raising animals for consumption. The boys pet them, feed them, water them and then, when the time comes, they assist with the slaughter.
Our investment in these birds—financial, physical and emotional—is all the incentive we need to utilize every morsel. We include the livers and hearts in stuffing and pâtés and we make rich broths from the feet, necks and carcasses.
Only time will tell if treating our birds with such care will imbue the kids with gratitude for the chicken on their plates or a predilection for vegetarianism. Either way, it will surely imbue them with the knowledge they need to make the decision that’s best for them.
Ben Hewitt is the author of The Town That Food Saved (Rodale Books, March 2010).