If a farmer is not more jazzed over happy chickens than he is over the volume, the structure, the profit -- he's not a trustworthy farmer. And yet in our culture's food system, can you find one USDA bulletin, one corporate directive, one industry checkoff bulletin, one Super Bowl advertisement, that dares to ask: 'Did the eggs come from happy chickens? Did the tomatoes come from happy plants?'
As a buyer of honest food, you must determine if your farmer is trustworthy. That is where it all starts.
- Joel Salatin, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven
As we walked around Marin Sun Farms, I saw strong parallels between Dave Evans' farm operation and the operation of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms. Though I have never been to Salatin's farm in Virginia, I have read plenty about him and seen him speak. Salatin is one of the stars of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma due to his creative farming methods and his determination to allow animals on his farm to "fully express their physiological distinctiveness." By doing this, he exploits the natural tendencies of the animal to his advantage: the cows fertilize the ground with their manure, the chickens spread that manure around the pasture by hunting through it for food, and the pigs and other animals do their jobs just as well. Salatin's methods are lauded by many as an ideal model of sustainable farming.
The most obvious way that Evans has used Salatin's methods is his use of "Eggmobiles" -- a mobile chicken coop which is moved every couple of days in order to get the chickens to feed off the entire pasture. Chickens tend to stay very close to their coop, so it's up to the farmer to move them around the field. This way, the chickens constantly have new pasture to graze, and pull the nutrients that they need most out of that pasture. The laying hens go into the Eggmobile to lay their eggs, and are also closed into the Eggmobile at night. Each Eggmobile houses a couple hundred chickens, and there are six houses throughout the property.
The chickens play an important part in the life of this farm. "Using these chickens to cycle the dung piles, we grow more grass. Our carrying capacity can be higher for cattle because we're returning the nutrients to the soil faster and harvesting more solar energy," stated Evans.
The rich and varied diet of the Marin Sun Farms chickens results in bright yolks and wonderful tasting eggs. These eggs can be purchased at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' market and the Marin Sun Farms butcher shop in Pt. Reyes Station. Other places to buy the eggs can be found on the Marin Sun Farms site.
In addition to the laying hens, Evans is raising a small number of chickens for eating. These chickens are on a different part of the farm. They grow from a day-old chick to a four to five pound bird in 45 days. They come to the farm as day-old eggs and go into a barn for three weeks during the early part of their lives where they are kept warm and protected. After that, they are turned out to pasture and "eat all day and dung." Similar to the Eggmobiles, the coops are moved on a daily basis in order to make sure the chickens have fresh pasture to feed from. "We are just at the beginning stages of this learning curve," Evans said. The chickens that we saw were only the third batch of roasting chickens that Evans has raised for market.
If you have the opportunity to tour Marin Sun Farms or any farm that you buy from, I would highly recommend it. Farm tours are the best way to allow the farmer to explain his methods and to fully understand the workings of the farm.