Chicken Fight: Red Bird Acres Vs. Tyson

DSC_0133I recently stopped in Fred Meyer to find the cheapest chicken I could. I saw chicken breast, chicken thighs, and whole chicken, each wrapped in glistening plastic. The cheapest whole chicken I found ran just $1.39 per pound. But the work it took to make that chicken $1.39 per pound doesn’t look as pretty as it does in the store.

That chicken likely lived a six-week existence crammed into a cavernous warehouse known as a confined animal feeding operation. Many of these facilities are operated by Tyson Foods, which slaughters 42.5 million chickens each week. In these facilities, birds are packed by the hundreds of thousands into vast buildings of 20,000 square feet or more, the stale air flush with the odors of ammonia and feces. Often with only half a square foot to themselves, these birds have so little space they must wallow in their own dusty feces. Waste management and associated diseases are a huge challenge here. According to a 2008 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, considerably greater amounts of antibiotics are used on the livestock population than for the treatment of human diseases in the United States. But industrial agribusiness wants you to look away. Many states have implemented what are known as “ag gag laws” that make it illegal to film in an animal facility without consent of the facility’s owner.

The National Chicken Council claims these “grow-out houses” are meant to keep birds healthy and the meat safe to eat. This business model certainly provides remarkably cheap chickens. But is this how you want to spend your money?

Now imagine a different scenario. I visited the Corvallis Farmers’ Market on a sunny Saturday as dogs and children played around me in the fresh air. Tangles of relaxed crowds talked with farmers as they browsed stands piled with onions, chard, and potatoes. Amid this melee, I found Red Bird Acres, where I said hello to farmers Robin and Laura Sage. They’re here every Saturday, the sixth day of their work week. There were only two whole chickens left in the cooler on this busy day and I purchased one. These pastured chickens come at a price: $5.25 per pound. It’s not an easy decision to spend that much on poultry that can be had elsewhere for $1.39 per pound. I’m not made of money.

But this chicken is different.

And others agree.

This spring, Robin and Laura started a Barnraiser campaign to crowdfund new chicken-processing equipment. On the Barnraiser website, people raise money to fund projects for farms, a kind of agriculture-oriented Kickstarter. But it’s an all-or-nothing proposition; farmers must meet their fundraising goal by a certain deadline or they get none of the money.

In this case, the community stepped up to support this couple’s agricultural vision. The Sages exceeded their goal and raised $11,100 for the new equipment. The couple will purchase stainless steel tables, a scalding plucker, water heaters, an ice machine, and refrigeration and restaurant equipment. They will move it all into the processing facility formerly used by Tyler and Alicia Jones at Afton Field Farm. The building in Corvallis is lined floor to ceiling with glass windows to flood it with natural light.

DSC_0077Such a gift couldn’t have come at a better time, they said—during the height of the season, they will slaughter 50 chickens per week. And Tyler and Alicia had recently left Afton Field to farm in Washington, giving the Sages their empty warehouse.

I visited Red Bird Acres in Philomath the other week to see just what makes these chickens so special.

You’d hardly know the farm’s tucked away on a country road there. A sign out front said merely, “sale pending.” You see, Robin and Laura lease this land on acreage shared by other farmers. They lease it on a work trade; Robin takes care of the cattle. He also holds down a day job at Tyee Wine Cellars, but this is no hobby farm.

This young couple—Robin will be 32 and Laura turns 34 this summer—has never farmed before. They came to this life from 10 years as emergency medical technicians and outdoor educators. Robin interned at several farms, then completed a year-long internship at Afton Field Farm in 2013, where he met the owner of their current property. Here, Robin and Laura raise chickens, pigs, and a market vegetable garden.

“We like the people here and people really support us,” Robin said. “We want to continue to provide good food for the community and more than that, do it responsibly. We just want to raise food the way we want to see it raised.”

For them, farming the way it’s been done for centuries is a radical act. Get Robin started on the industrial agriculture, GMOs, and the Benton Food Freedom Initiative, and he’ll ignite with so much passion that he’ll let a few curses fly. Far from getting frustrated with the system, though, this couple has put their money where their mouths are, so to speak.

Trouble is, there’s just not much money in this kind of farming.

“We’d love to own our own land one day, but in the bigger scheme of things that seems like a pipe dream,” Robin said. “We’re essentially peasant farmers who work the land of others. The real estate market is such that it’s a real uphill battle for people like us.”

There are other challenges, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows an exemption for operations like theirs from continuous, bird-by-bird federal inspection of up to 10,000 birds per year. The processing facility must still follow food safety guidelines. There is no such exemption for small producers for hogs, though, so the Sages can only sell whole pigs, not individual cuts of pork.

Location is another problem. Without a processing facility nearby, they must travel to slaughter their animals. But the closest USDA-licensed facilities are at least 45 minutes away, Laura said.

Thanks to the success of the Barnraiser campaign, the Sages now only have to drive a short distance to the Afton Field Farm warehouse to slaughter their chickens.

Moreover, they must educate their customers to change perceptions of the value of pastured poultry.

DSC_0096“People are used to paying premium prices for grass-fed beef steak, but they’re not as on board with those prices for pastured chicken. But chicken’s got this amazing home economy; a whole roast chicken can provide three meals,” Laura said.

On processing days, the Sages get to the farm from their home in Corvallis by 4:30 a.m. Other days, they’re on the farm by 7 a.m. They spend the day on tough, physical chores such as fence mending and moving the chickens from their coops in each pasture. They often won’t get back home until 8 or 9 at night.

Inside a barn where other people’s horses snort in the distance, this small operation began. One hundred fluffy yellow baby chicks swarmed together in one partitioned area of the barn across a sawdust-covered floor. Light was dim elsewhere in the barn, but under a hutch the chicks enjoyed well-lit warmth.

Elsewhere in the field, the animals roamed in several fenced-in pastures. The Sages have adopted a free-range model where possible. First there are the hens, 10-week-old reddish-colored Freedom Ranger heritage breed chickens.

“We raise these chickens almost twice the typical amount of time before harvesting them, at least six more weeks,” Robin said. “Hashtag slow food.”

Now with the ability to purchase their own processing equipment, that slow food model is easier.

In the first pasture, Robin hefted a 50-pound bag of Union Point non-GMO feed from Brownsville. He emptied out the feed in a long, straight line, so that the hens didn’t compete with each other. They instantly fanned into a straight line and rooted around in the grass to catch any remnants.

“They’re intelligent in their own chicken way, in that they recognize Robin as food provider and they recognize me,” Laura said. “I’ve heard they can recognize up to 100 individuals, which is why we keep them in smaller flocks.”

They munched down the grass, then foraged for dandelions, bugs, and worms on rotated pastures.

Next there are the Idaho pasture pigs; at 10 weeks old they’re just piglets. This is the first year the Sages have added pork to their offerings.

Robin got down on his knees in the grass. Like dogs, the piglets bounded up to him. Robin pet the scruff of their necks. But one piglet, whom they call Big Red, butted his short, upturned snout into the scene.

“That’s just like Big Red, always getting so ‘jelly,’” Robin said to the jealous piglet, scratching his ears.

Amid a wooded grove at the back of the property, their three-year-old boar, Buddy Boy, rooted around his large fenced area, wet and contented in the dim forest light.

Back at one of the chicken pastures, Robin continued feeding the birds. Wherever he went, the birds followed, swarming eagerly for their food. But not all of the chickens got the memo that it was feeding time. Robin returns to their house in the center of the pasture, crouching down to take up the stray chickens into his arms so they can join the rest of the flock.

This is the sort of farming $5.25 per pound buys.

 Now, with the money raised by their community for processing equipment, the Sages can do more of this. Will the community continue to support them?

By Denise Ruttan