Free Bird

Anyone trying to eat only happy animals soon discovers that when rummaging through the shrink-wrapped chickens it is hard to tell which animals were happy and which came from farms that only had really talented graphic designers. There’s a shortage of information out there, and the always excellent Carol Ness helps fill it with a San Francisco Chronicle story about pastured chicken producers in Northern California. (And if you live in the Bay Area, the article should be clipped for its list of producers.)

It turns out, not surprisingly, that raising chickens outside is a lot of work: “Keeping meat birds indoors allows producers to keep labor and prices down by automating food and water, controlling climate and keeping out predators,” writes Ness.

Keeping meat birds outdoors involves, well, having your husband go in late to his engineering job on the Bay Bridge because there are too many chores to do and you have to talk to a reporter. At least it does if you’re Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm, who’s only been raising her organic chickens for a short time but already is selling the birds to Chez Panisse. She gets a new batch of 2-day-old chicks every week—delivered by USPS—and Ness writes evocatively about their adolescence: “Group 19, about 6 weeks old, are little mobile grapefruits; Group 17, at 8 weeks, look more like footballs; and Group 15, at 10 weeks, are toasters with wings.”

Even the producers seem stunned by how much demand there is for their product. As Ness writes, “The biggest problem with pastured chickens—if you’re not the farmer—is finding them.” Even the Koefoeds rarely eat their chickens: They’d be taking them out of the mouths of their customers. And in the winter, at least in the Bay Area, there won’t be any, since the chickens usually can’t survive outside in the cold. There’s a reason why those old wives used to tell tales about spring chickens.

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