It’s a dirty secret of almost all egg operations that consumers don’t know or don’t want to face: that even the happiest chickens, which have the widest pastures to roam on, and are fed the highest quality organic feed, come from large-scale hatcheries where the males, upon birth, are tossed into a meat grinder.
“It’s a bad habit that we’ve gotten into, because we’re so accustomed to industrialized poultry and the large hatcheries that produce high volumes of birds,” said Jim Adkins, founder of the North Carolina-based Sustainable Poultry Network. “It’s the easy way out, but it’s not sustainable, nor is it humane. We’ve become such poor stewards of the animals we’ve been entrusted with.”
“It’s something that’s bothered me right from the beginning,” agreed Nigel Walker, owner of Eatwell Farm in Dixon, who is a regular fixture at the Ferry Building’s Farmers’ Market on Saturday, and whose CSA has over 1100 members (disclosure: I am one of them).
“Some of the males from the hatchery where we get our chicks go to feed the raptors and snakes at UC Davis, but it’s the industry standard,” said Walker, who started Eatwell in 1993. “Whether it’s online, or a hippie-dippie hatchery with beautiful pictures of chicks, everybody does this.”
No longer content with the industry standard, the British-born Walker is embarking on a better, more sustainable solution. He has launched a Barnraiser campaign – a San Francisco startup that helps farmers and other food producers crowd-fund new projects – to raise money to begin breeding heritage chicks himself. Rather than killing off the males at birth, he will raise them for meat, something his members have been asking for.
It may sound obvious, but very few in the farming industry are doing this, mainly because of expense.
“It’s pretty unique,” said Adkins, who is serving as a consultant to Eatwell. “Nigel is blazing a new trail in an old way, by being a pioneer in what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Walker first had a chicken operation in 1996, but he had newborn twins at the time, and his foreman found that tending chickens wasn’t for him. In 2003, the partner of his then CSA manager volunteered to begin a chicken operation anew. Walker was skeptical, because of the amount of work and expense, but agreed. He was able to raise $25,000 from his members within three weeks, but 18 months later, this man also realized it also wasn’t for him, so Walker was stuck with them.
“The eggs were so successful, I quickly realized I would have a riot on my hands if I stopped them,” he said. “We eventually paid back all our members, except for those who refused and are still getting their interest paid back in eggs.”
But in addition to his members falling hard for the eggs -- which Walker says is often the “the gateway drug” in convincing people that organic, free-range tastes so much better -- Walker noticed how much better his crops grew, in fields that had been fertilized by the chickens.
“We have 60 acres on which we grow our veggies and strawberries, and each year we take 20 acres of that for pasture,” he explained. “We irrigate it, and grow it with clover and rye grass, and then just before we want to plant the vegetables, we run the chickens over it. They eat it right to the ground and fertilize it. Once a week, we move them onto a new quarter acre, and by the end of the week that ground is bare, they’ve eaten everything.”
After that, the tractor cultivates and prepares the soil for planting, and two weeks later, they plant.
“For the next two years, we don’t apply any organic compost or fish emulsions,” said Walker. “There’s enough fertility to grow two years of veggies in that soil. What I’ve really come to understand is that if I make sure the crops have everything they need, then all the vegetables I plant look after themselves. I don’t have to think about needing to inject fish emulsion or whatever organic stuff you can think of. I just plant them, it’s a wonderful freedom. It’s made my vegetable growing so much easier.”
About two years ago, Walker attended an organic farming conference in Kentucky, where he took a heritage poultry breeding workshop with Adkins, and began talking to him about breeding his own chickens. Adkins paid a visit to Eatwell recently, to help with the start of the operation: Walker has already received a breeding line of chickens.
“Jim showed us how to identify a really good rooster and hen,” said Walker. “Out of 100 roosters, he identified seven of the very best and we’re going to use those for our breeding flock.”
Adkins will return in October, during which time he will identify the 50 best hens and then put them into different families for breeding. Meanwhile, it’s Walker’s job to observe which hens have the highest laying output. Eventually, he hopes to be able to input data into an iphone app that can be seen by Adkins or his other mentors across the country, who can offer advice from afar.
It will take a full year to hatch and replace all his chickens, he says, and by the beginning of 2016, he hopes to have an entire flock -- some 3,000 birds -- of Black Australorp heritage chickens. “It will be quite a celebration that day,” he said.
While Adkins knows of pretty much everyone raising heritage breed poultry themselves, he said “There’s no one remotely close” to doing anything like this on such a large scale as Walker.
This operation won’t bring in any more income to the farm, Walker stresses, with all the breeding pens and incubators and heat lamps and organic feed and consultants’ fees, which is why the Barnraiser campaign is necessary.
But it will provide his members meat birds. And perhaps most importantly, “it’s more sustainable, in that we can stop shipping chicks here from all over the country. And it’s a lot of fun,” Walker said. “And it’s more humane. It’s just the right thing to do.”