Here's something surprising: when Paul and I aren't eating protein from our farm, we eat a mostly vegetarian diet. In fact, I would say that we actually eat more meat than we would like -- some of our products are prone to freezer burn, and once their quality deteriorates we pull them from our sale shelves and bring them in to our personal freezer, where we and the dog slowly work our way through the backlog. (Side note, this is one of the many reasons our dog is such a spoiled brat.) One thing that never happens? We never have any leftover chicken! By dint of their small sizes and our relatively low poultry production, we almost always sell out.
I never buy chicken from a standard grocery store; aside from the bland flavor and watery flesh of the average grocery store bird, their lives are brief and cruel, living in confinement as little eating machines, with growth rate trumping all other concerns. The main exception is when we eat out; we will often make an exception to order a chicken dish at a restaurant, figuring that while a factory farm chicken's life is rough, it's not as rough as a confinement pig's or cow's. Unfortunately, I've been down with a mild case of probable COVID-19 this week (and self-isolating in the bedroom so as not to infect Paul), so cooking has been low on the list of priorities; last night we decided on the route of least resistance -- Chinese take out. We usually get one tofu dish and one chicken dish, but Paul inexplicably demanded shrimp Kung Pao instead.
What changed? The day before, Paul had come across the latest documentary from Morgan Spurlock, known for his "Supersize Me" film a decade ago. In this follow up film (shelved for a couple of years when, in the wake of the Me Too movement, Spurlock confessed to his own history of sexual harassment), he does something crazy -- he buys* a farm to raise chickens, so he can see just what goes into making a fast food chicken sandwich.
A middle aged know it all, buying a farm? This is my kind of crazy!
Despite Spurlock's need to thrust himself in front of the camera, the film itself is full of great content, from the inequities facing family farmers to the slick marketing guiding our "healthy" choices as eaters. As more and more people ask when we are FINALLY going to have some chicken back in stock, I confess that I have thought about buying some faster growing birds than our beautiful, independent Bresse and Icelandic chickens... but it turns out, even the most free-range friendly meat birds take a good 9-12 weeks to grow out. (Our Bresse take 16-20 weeks.) Meanwhile, the Cornish Cross birds we buy at the supermarket? Ready for slaughter in just 8 weeks -- but that speed come with a price. (Warning -- there is graphic content in the video linked below.)
In six weeks, raised indoors on standard feed, Spurlock has 6 lb birds. It would take us 20 weeks to get to the same size with our Bresse chickens. I don't think that there is any comparison in terms of flavor, but of course not all would agree. But I never have to worry about my birds growing so fast that they collapse under their own weight. Their legs -- and wings -- carry them wherever they like. Hell, this morning their chicky appendages carried them not just to the neighbor's house, but over into the field beyond. (Fortunately, not planted yet.) They have another month of adventures before they return to their chicken makers, and I am hoping they don't eat the Block's seeds before then.
How could we ever compete? In one manner, we accept that we can't -- you wouldn't use our chickens to make a $5 sandwich. You make a special Coq au Vin because you want that $30 chicken to be worth the investment. Our business model for raising chicken is predicated on the contradictory notion that you really should be eating less chicken, because what's out there is poor quality, churned out at the expense of bird, farmer, eater, and environment.
When my grandparents (and parents, to a lesser degree) were growing up, meat was a special occasion food -- you didn't just get to chow down on it every meal, because it was raised without the shortcuts that we now all take for granted. Its cost reflected its value. While I think that many more farmers could be raising at least some of their chickens the "old-fashioned" way, it's not a way that can scale up to make a lot of cheap food. It can only make good food, to savor one bite at a time.
There are a few things that this film makes me reflect on that surprise me. For example, because I can raise 100 birds "our way" but not 10,000, it's also not a good way to make a living as a farmer -- but the surprising thing is that the other way is not really much better, financially, for the farmer. Also, legally, a grocery store bird is not any less free range, all natural, or hormone free than the chicken we raise, although I also think that the differences between an industrial system and our own are plain as day; the only way for the consumer to know the difference is to be able to know the farmer and the farm. This is part of the reason why we are always very happy to have our customers visit and look around, because we can offer that peace of mind.
And finally -- nobody "needs" to eat meat every single day. We would rather see everyone eat a lot less meat, but make sure it's the kind that is good for the farmer, the animals, and the planet.
As we get closer to our May harvest date, we will share more reflections on the poultry industry in America, and why we think we are bringing you the best product possible with our American Bresse chickens.
*NB -- Spurlock does not actually buy a farm, but rather leases a large chicken house from a farmer in Alabama and has them do most of the work of raising the chickens. Similarly, the restaurant he "opens" was a pop-up only open for a few days. He is fairly straightforward about this info during the film.