AS many of you know, this winter we became certified by the state of Maryland to process our chickens for sale off the farm (under Maryland law you may process and sell your own chicken from the farm without licensing and inspection). Since we are taking the summer off from our veggie CSA, we needed to find other avenues for chicken sale (especially since we are raising almost twice as much poultry!), so we’ve been calling restaurants, grocery stores, and home delivery businesses. We’ve had some great responses–we are now chicken suppliers to Frederick’s Volt restaurant, among other places–but we are always on the lookout for new customers.
Ok, enough back story. This evening I was scrolling through the offerings of a grocery home delivery business to which we hope to sell. I was curious as to whether or not they already had a chicken supplier. “Holy cow!” I thought, when I saw their current chicken prices. $5.99/ lb for boneless, skinless breasts??? $2.90/lb for drumsticks??? How could we compete with that, I wondered. I decided to look closer.
Here is what I read:
XXXX is a group of family farms in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. They raise all natural, free roaming chickens, free of antibiotics, and free to eat an all vegetarian diet of pure corn and soybeans. The chickens are given plenty of space, fresh water, and ventilation and are always treated humanely. The difference over conventionally raised chicken is not only in better farming practices but also in their great flavor.
Immediately, I felt my heart sink. “Those darn Amish!” I thought. “They can charge such low prices because they all have a zillion kids who work for free!” I envisioned an army of little Amish kids moving chicken shelters like ours every morning. Our kid, for the record, is currently not so helpful in the chore department. Downbeat, I found Andrew and told him that the grocery company would never want our chicken, as they already sourced the same thing for much lower prices. He barely looked up from his book.
“They raise the chickens in chicken houses,” he said. “And they aren’t Amish.”
Confused, I looked back at the company description.
“Oooohhhh…” I said, as I looked more carefully. The farms are in Amish country (not necessarily run by Amish farmers). And the description of their living conditions makes no explicit mention of the birds being outdoors. In fact, the reference to ventilation tacitly suggests that they are not, in fact, ever outside. And yet, from a quick read, I immediately assumed that the birds were raised outside, by environmentally conscientious Amish farmers.
To anyone who ever questioned the value of majoring in English, I submit this to you: carefully chosen words can make you a whole lotta money.
Now, why are our birds more expensive, and does that higher price reflect a difference in quality? Here are the ways that our practices differ from our anonymous competition:
- Our birds are outside for the majority of their lives. We move them onto fresh pasture every day, which means that they have constant access to grass and bugs, which means that their meat should be higher in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than that of birds raised indoors.
- Our birds receive a grain ration that contains corn and soy, but also minerals and fish meal. Chickens are naturally omnivorous, and the fish meal in their feed helps them acquire the protein that they need to grow quickly and healthily. It also gives them more of those good Omega-3s.
- Because our birds are raised on pasture, we have no manure disposal problems. We determine the number of birds we can raise based on the carrying capacity of our land. We don’t ship poop.
- Our birds get really good ventilation. It is called wind.
- And finally, we do all of the processing ourselves, by hand. Most chicken are machine processed in large slaughterhouses. Because we do it ourselves, we are able to ensure a quick, humane end of life for the chicken, as well as a scrupulously clean final product. I won’t get into the details of gutting a chicken–suffice it to say that guts are fragile and full of things you don’t want to eat. Ergo, a clean evisceration is a selling point, we think.
All of these practices limit the number of birds we can raise, which in turn increases the price we need to charge in order to compensate ourselves for our labor. I know that many people would prefer an inexpensive chicken, regardless of the farming practices that produced it, and I do not fault them for it. But seeing as I was myself misled by an example of what Michael Pollan calls “supermarket pastoral” I thought I’d take a moment to deconstruct one such narrative the better to compare it to our own. (For the record, the website of the chicken producers is very transparent about the whole chickens in barns thing. And judging from the pictures of the farmers, some of them might be Mennonite, which is kind of like Amish but with cars and more colorful dresses. The website does not, however have any pictures of the chickens).
Sometimes I become dejected when I realize that the vast majority of people will never seek that deconstruction. But that’s why we put transparency front and center in our name. The best way to know exactly what you are getting is to go to the farm. You are always welcome.