Tonight I am driving to Asheville for the third class in a series on Heritage Poultry. The classes are being taught by Jim Adkins, a poultry judge, breeder and owner of the International Center for Poultry. Jim raises over 50 standard bred varieties of Heritage chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. Being in Jim's classes has pushed me over an edge that I had been teetering on for the past year.
I have raised poultry for over 12 years now. Most have been Heritage breeds such as Anconas, Speckeled Sussex, Barred Rocks, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, to name a few. These were my layers and I have become more committed to these breeds the longer I have farmed. Some of the spare roosters of these breeds were processed for meat but the 400-600 meat birds that I grew out every year were Cornish Rock crosses, those huge , white chickens that the modern poultry industry grows. I grew mine slowly on pasture and had actually found a strain that had no leg probelms or problems with flip over. They got right out there and foraged with the Heritage birds. I have some hens that are acturally laying and really, these birds are not "manufactured" to live that long!
The meat from Cornish x birds raised on pasture is much better then that produced by industrial farming methods and the birds certainly seem happy running all over the farm, but I still did not feel good about raising such a genetically modified bird. My customers loved the chicken and that also made the switch more difficult.
Then I worked with AWA to have the farm Animal Welfare Approved and I really started to think about the sustainability of buying these birds and having them shipped. I really wanted to raise my own chicks and grow them out. Cornish Rocks will not survive long enough to reproduce and they would not reproduce their own kind because they are an F13 cross (thirteen generation cross to achieve these fast growing birds). I also found out that even the Freedom Ranger, red ranger and Poulet Rouge birds sold to many small farmers are an F7 cross, they will not reproduce true either.
And lastly, there is taste and texture. The taste of a properly prepared, Heritage chicken (or duck or goose or turkey) cannot be beat. The taste is like chicken times ten. Broth made from these birds is rich and silky and a meal all by itself. The catch is, just like grass-fed beef (TRUE grass-fed, not the fed- grain= while- on- pasture kind), these birds have to be cooked longer and at lower temperatures. So there will be a learning curve for our customers, but I believe that it will be worth it.
So the last of the Cornish will be processed and I am looking forward to a pasture full of old , Heritage breeds that have been hatched on the farm and grown on the farm. I will be working with the International Center for Poultry and with AWA to set up a Heritage breeding and hatching operation. On Saturday, I will head back to Asheville for a Heriatage poultry cooking workshop with Chef Steve Pope from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. Chef Pope cooks only with Heriateg poultry and I am excited to see, and TASTE, his creations with these wonderful birds!