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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pastured Poultry

Air Date: Week of

In the United States, the average American will have consume an average 90 pounds of chicken this year. Millions of chickens are raised and slaughtered every few weeks, most of them are caged for all of their short lives in giant hen houses, and then killed on assembly lines. Yet a small but growing number of farmers are finding that raising modest-sized flocks outdoors can be more profitable and easier on the environment than the giant operations. The secret is a bit of high tech fencing and a keen sense of timing, and to keep the hens moving every day to a fresh spot of pasture. Joel Salatin, is a leading promoter of this method. Living on Earth’s Kim Motylewski met him on his farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Folks here in the United States consume a lot of chicken. In fact, by the end of this year, the average American will have chewed through close to 75 pounds. This big appetite has made meat birds a big business. Millions of chickens are raised and slaughtered every few weeks, and most of them are caged for all of their short lives in giant henhouses and then killed on assembly lines. The old fashioned hen scratching in the yard is almost gone from America, except for a small but growing number of farmers who are finding that raising modest-sized flocks outdoors can be more profitable and easier on the environment than the giant operations. The secret? A bit of high-tech fencing and a keen sense of timing. The trick is to keep the hens moving every day to a fresh spot of pasture. Joel Salatin is a leading promoter of this method. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski met him on his farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

(Sound of driving on gravel)

MOTYLEWSKI: At the end of the gravel driveway at Polyface Farm stands an old clapboard house and a newish mobile home. Here in the teeny hamlet of Swope, Virginia, Joel Salatin wrote and self-published Pastured Poultry Profits in 1993. The book sold thousands, and now farmers, economists, and entrepreneurs flock here, eager, curious, or incredulous, to observe the self-described lunatic farmer plying his trade on 100 open acres behind the houses.

(Footfalls on gravel)

SALATIN: What we're looking at here is a 20-acre field with 31 of these 10-foot by 12-foot by 2-foot high floorless pens. So these are almost like, you could call them little portable huts, if you will.

(Bird chirps)

MOTYLEWSKI: About 90 birds live in each pen. They nibble on pasture grasses, clover, and legumes for vitamins and minerals. Bugs provide protein, and the ground is a good place to scratch. But chickens can't live on grass alone, so Mr. Salatin doles out rations, too: corn, grain, beans, and seaweed. The idea is to mimic a bird's natural diet, save on feed costs, and avoid what he calls the drugs, disease, and filth of commercial coops.

(Metal clanking)

SALATIN: If you live with your nose in a bleach bottle all the time, you'd be sick, too.

(Chickens clucking)

SALATIN: And that's the way most confinement animals live.

(Clucking continues)

MOTYLEWSKI: The Salatins raise about 3,000 chickens at a time. An industry grower might raise 50,000 at a clip, in cramped indoor coops. Here the field smells sweet. There are no coops to clean and no manure-filled lagoons that could spill into the river. Just the gradual fertilization of the fields as broilers, layers, and turkeys march across them.

SALATIN: Go to the pen with the dolly here and just slip it under, and it acts as a kind of a portable axle and a prybar. And then just grab the handle on the other end. And so now the pen is just rolling on those lawn mower wheels on that dolly, and the chickens are just walking right on the pasture. They get a completely fresh salad bar, and all the clover and crickets and grasshoppers to go with it. They move away from their manure and all that, get a fresh place to lounge. And we do this every day. It takes about 30 seconds and there it is.

(Birds chirping; metal clanking, clucking)

MOTYLEWSKI: Good thing it's quick, because the Salatins have a lot to do. Joel, his wife Theresa, and their 2 kids gather 90 dozen eggs a day, herd cattle to new fields they're grass-fed, too slop pigs, milk Polly the cow, and repair everything that breaks.

(Sloshing water)

MOTYLEWSKI: So Mr. Salatin has arranged for the animals to help with the work. One example: grazing cattle are susceptible to parasites and flies that breed in piles of manure. But instead of injecting every cow with de-wormer, Mr. Salatin sends out the eggmobile, a trailer full of laying hens, to the fields.

SALATIN: Chickens free-range out from it, scratch through the cow patties, eat out the fly larvae, and generate eggs, about $4,000 to $5,000 worth of eggs. It basically hasn't cost us a dime. We haven't had to stir up the cows. We haven't had to cuss at the kids. Everybody's happy, the cows are happy, we're happy. And that's just a byproduct of the pasture sanitation program.

MOTYLEWSKI: If you ask conventional growers about pasturing, they say any savings on medicine or feed would be lost in the extra time and effort it takes to grow this way. Factory farm chickens are ready for market in about 6 weeks. Pastured birds take 7 or 8 weeks to mature. But Joel Salatin says he's coming out ahead. And not just in dollars and cents. He loves this land, the work, and sharing it all with his family from fuzzy chick to featherless carcass.

(A protesting chicken)

MOTYLEWSKI: Every few weeks in the summer, Joel's mother, wife, and kids and sometimes his brother's family, too, everybody pulls together to dress chickens in the back yard.

(Clanking metal)

D. SALATIN: They're killed in cones, upside down, and as soon as they're dead they go on to the scalder, and then they go on to the picker for about 15 seconds. They come out completely clean, no feathers, and then on to the eviscerating table and on to the chill tanks.

MOTYLEWSKI: Sixteen-year-old Daniel is the first link in a simple 7-person disassembly line. The family will process about 300 birds in 3 hours this morning.

(Water sloshing, metal clanking)

J. SALATIN: Yeah, we don't mess around when it comes to this. This is a sprint. But this gets us the freshest, the freshest bird possible to actually do it in the morning that the customer picks em up. They're literally only a couple hours away from having been in the field. And that's just as fresh as you can get.

MOTYLEWSKI: There are no broken intestines in this process. No chlorine baths. And according to the Salatins, less opportunity for disease. These birds do look delicious, plump, firm, and shiny clean.

(Water splashing; voices in the background)

MOTYLEWSKI: Studies commissioned by the family suggest their carcasses are cleaner, their birds leaner, and their eggs healthier than most store brands. Poultry scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are testing these health claims.

L. SALATIN: Of course, people who come, who get our chickens and they say ah, just like grandma used to grow! (Laughs)

MOTYLEWSKI: According to Joel's mother Lucille, demand for Pollyface products outstrips supply.

MAN: Howdy, howdy!

WOMAN: How are you?

MAN: Doin' well, how about you guys?

WOMAN: Real good.

MOTYLEWSKI: Four hundred families shop at the farm. Most customers are local, but some travel up to 200 miles to buy the chicken, turkey, beef, and eggs.

MAN: Twelve of them, with extra livers.

MOTYLEWSKI: Without middlemen, profits are healthy. Many customers say they'll never go back to store-bought chicken, even though at $1.45 a pound, these birds are about twice as expensive as commercial ones.

WOMAN: Oh, I think it's worth it. It's part of the cost of taking care of our environment. I really do believe that it's pay now or pay later, and I'd much rather support a local business and also take care of our environment, you know, in this area.

(Ambient voices; fade to clanking)

JOY: My name is Lisa Joy. I'm a pastry chef here at the Joshua Wilton House. I'm also the catering director.

MOTYLEWSKI: Chef Lisa Joy started cooking with the Salatins' chickens and eggs several years ago. Now she markets Polyface products to 2 dozen other restaurants in Virginia and the Capitol.

JOY: This is a white chocolate cake with lemon curd and blueberries. Oops, and that's my timer I'll go get some tarts.

MOTYLEWSKI: Between dessert and breakfast service, this kitchen uses 60 dozen eggs a week, and chef Joy says she can see and taste the difference.

JOY: At times when I haven't been able to get their eggs or I've, like, helped out at another restaurant that doesn't serve their eggs, I make a cake, and I was looking and going what's wrong? And then I realize it's the eggs, because the cake is just not as golden, it's not as moist, not as rich.

MOTYLEWSKI: How about the chickens and working with the chickens? What do you notice as a chef?

JOY: A lot of times with catering or bigger parties, you'll have to, like, cut up 1 or 2 cases of chickens at a time. When I cut commercial chickens my hand are swollen after I cut them. They, you know, there's something in the chicken that gets into your hands, and if you have any cuts or anything, it swells it. Joel's chickens I can cut, you know, the equivalent, and my hands are normal. And there's no smell, no, you know, anything. Nice and fresh.

(Muzak in the background)

MOTYLEWSKI: The Salatins welcome restaurant customers, but the family is wary of 2 things: growth, and regulation. Lucille Salatin.

L. SALATIN: We're not looking to supply the world. We're looking to supply our neighbors and people around who want this kind of food. And there's a lot of people who, you know, could care less; they just go and get the cheapest thing they can get. And if they want to be regulated and have all that and get it that way, that's their business. But we like to have the people who are really interested in being healthy and having this sort of thing to be free to do it if they want to.

MOTYLEWSKI: But not everyone lives within reach of a farm, and this method is geared for small-scale production. So skeptics dismiss pasture poultry as impractical for feeding large urban populations. Joel Salatin doesn't expect his model to replace the industrial one, but he does see producers like himself springing up all over, and recreating local food networks that can feed more and more people this way. Mr. Salatin says his customers are beginning to get the bigger picture, and that gives him chill bumps.

SALATIN: Yeah, they're really decided, hey, we're going to take our reins of our destiny and we're going to do something about it. We're not going to march on the Washington, we're not going to ask for government programs, and we're not going to ask Ralph Nader to come and protect us. We're going to actually build a relationship with our food supply. We're going to eat fresh, local, raw, unpackaged, we're going to find our kitchen again, and make food fun, and these are wonderful things.

(Ambient voices and clucks)

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski in Swope, Virginia.

SALATIN: This is doing something for yourself. It's the old independent American spirit that says okay, you can go eat Big Macs if you want to, but we're going to we're going to eat something that's really wholesome and nutritious. And something that we actually handled, touched, smelled...



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