Why our birds are different…
You may have heard us touting the Naked Neck as the breed we use here on the farm and not been exactly sure what that means. A little over 6 months ago I was in your shoes. I had been raising a few backyard chickens, and had heard now and again “pure breed” or “heritage/heirloom” and without knowing much about much decided that that was what I wanted to raise. Since then I have learned a few things with my head in a book, and a lot from reality on a farm.
In the US its been a while now since one of our only options was a supermarket chicken. With the rise of farmer’s markets the consumer now has a choice, and usually it goes along with feeling better that the chickens we buy have had better lives than in a mega-barn. There are as many ways to farm as there are farmers; in other words blanket statements are fine, but the consumer has to understand that farmers have different values. A farmer’s main concern might be to have the plumpest bird, or to be Organic Certified, or to be Free Range, or to be pastured. Each has its merits, but every single farmer does things differently according to budget, ethics, and time. I find that important to note because each consumer has things they care about when they are buying food for their family, and they should have the most choice so that they can find a farmer who matches their values.
Here at Countryside we choose First: Flavor. Second: That a Chicken should act like and taste like a Chicken. Third: That they are processed quickly, humanely, and expertly. I will touch on all these points below. And Fourth, if we have time: Education about cooking technique that works the best for our birds, which most people (myself included) didn’t even know were that different.
So, here we go. The first two points have a lot to do with our philosophy about chickens, and, being French (and stubborn), what Sebastien thinks is not so great about big business Farming. We all know grain has been a commodity, traded much like money itself for a long long long time. I would argue that until recently cows, pigs, and chickens were like storage barrels for money, holding grain or other feed until slaughter, when the rewards for good husbandry, management, and care were rewarded with delicious (much value added) meat. The farmer managed his or her farm with the intent that when the cow/hog/chicken was ready, payday would come either to himself in the form of food, or in selling (some or all of) the meat to neighbors or at the market. In more recent years, with the advent of feedlots, CAFOs, Chicken barns and the like, meat has become much more of a commodity. You have your input, you have your output. Done. Enter the Cornish Cross chicken.
The Cornish Cross was hybridized for the sole purpose of minimizing money (feed to meat conversion), minimizing time (they are butchered in approximately 8 weeks), and maximizing volume of meat (big breasts for the American consumer). You can look it up online and find farmers talking about problems they’ve had, or chicken nerds saying that they’re just not like a chicken. I’ll post some links below so you can find out more for yourself, but here are some basic facts, taken from http://www.sustainablepoultrynetwork.com/the-cornish-cross-disaster/
And I’m not saying that the problems effect each bird, or that there are not better ways of raising them, like on pasture, but the fact is that they are our creation. They were crossed and hybridized to the point that you can’t really call it a normal chicken anymore. People call them Frankenbirds, but I would just call the state of only being able to buy the Cornish Cross in supermarkets and even at most booths at the farmer’s market just plain sad.
- They are not sustainable. Large corporations (three to be exact) own the breeding stock for the Cornish Cross. A farmer has to order his baby chicks from these breeders and have them shipped via US-Mail. He cannot reproduce these birds on his own farm.
- They have incredibly weak legs that are unable to support their rapid growth. So it’s not uncommon that these birds have joint problems and broken legs. More often than not, they sit! The short legs and large breasts are a result of the genetic engineering.
- The chicken goes to processing in 37 days. To give you an idea, the normal growth rate of a chicken should result in a processing growth rate of 126+ days. Let that sink in a minute. More than likely the chicken on your dinner table hatched and in 37 days was 5 to 6 pounds in meat (or dressed weight).
His final point: “These supermarket birds have bad and unhealthy lives not necessarily because they live out their lives in a cage or free range facility. They have bad lives because humans have taken advantage of the chicken. For example, say I order 100 Cornish Cross chicks to grow out on my farm. They are going to have a great environment and quality feed, YET, they are still going to grow too fast, have health problems, and in many cases live their short lives in pain. The inhumanity is something we have created. It’s exploitation, not stewardship.”
Although bringing up things like this can be kind of a catch-phrase catch-all, it is important to note because unless you know what is “natural” aka what the genes of a normal chicken tell chickens to do, you won’t know why its so…. weird. Chickens for example run around like crazy prehistoric creatures, eating everything in sight, have pecking orders, mate with each other, like to generally be in one place to roost at night, they like to ROOST (get up on top of anything, whether it be a tree, pole mounted in a coop, or any other random thing you could think of that is off the ground), and much much more. This is NOT what Cornish Cross chickens do.
Interesting note: Joel Salatin (from Omnivore’s dilemma) in recent years has been heralded as “the type of farmer that is going to save this Country” BUT he uses the Cornish Cross. He believes that because they are pastured means its a better bird. Unfortunately, due to the sedentary traits of the CC, this is not necessarily the case. Pollan doesn’t mention this in his book, to my knowledge.
All of this is just to say: this is why we use the Naked Neck. They act like chickens and they taste like chicken is supposed to taste. They may be less tender if you cook a big one at 450 degrees, but it sure is going to have some great flavor. We slaughter some of our birds young, when they are 1 to 2 pounds to bridge the gap between tenderness and flavor. They will have a little less flavor, but they will be more tender. That is where Value Four comes in: Proper Cooking Technique. It may seem like its a downside to what we’re doing (“oh the consumer just wants something that they’re used to….”) But we believe that to educate the consumer is to open their eyes to the way mom and pop used to do it. Slaughtering their birds in the backyard, cooking them slow, enjoying the crisp skin, and delighting in the FLAVOR of one of the most special occasions.
Which brings us to Value Three: Careful, expert processing. The way a chicken lives its life is just as important as when it becomes meat. We insist on processing our own chickens, everything by hand, with an eye for detail and careful dressing and butchery. It is why when you buy a chicken its wings are tucked and it is self trussed (with the legs together, ready for cooking). Sebastien teaches his small crew his techniques, being careful not to tear the skin while plucking, the proper way to bleed them, and to eviscerate cleanly. Can you tell that we also believe in not hiding the fact that these were actually killed? There is no use turning a blind eye, because that is exactly what happens. We are so proud of what we do here that we want you to succeed in cooking it, and making a meal worthy of thanking the Chicken for his or her life. You should see Sebastien eat a chicken; he gnaws on the head for goodness sake.
But you probably already knew that we were all a little crazy over here. You have to be a little bit insane and stubborn to farm. Especially the way we do here at Countryside Farm.
I hope I have helped you, our valued supportive customers, understand why our chickens cost a little more. It may just be a chicken to you, but to us it is whats important not just for gourmet quality MEAT, but for a shift in the way of thinking, cooking, and using your purchasing power for what you believe in. Thank you for your time. See you at the market.
Written by Hannah Bentley