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What Are You, Chicken? 

A small start-up farm wants people to get to know their poultry

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By 9 am, the sun has already burned off the morning cool here.

Forrest Phillips and his wife Deb are on the north end of a 20acre parcel they have farmed for a little more than a year.

The land sits 15 miles due north of Chewelah and 10 miles east of Highway 395 in a valley dotted with pastureland sheltered on all sides by the rocky, blunted hills of the Okanogan Highlands.

Forrest and Deb named their farm Heritage Naturals, meant to be evocative of a certain sustainable chic, but also descriptive at a basic level. They raise heritage breeds of animal without pesticides or chemical fertilizers or genetically modified feeds. They’ll announce themselves to the local culinary world next week with a heritage chicken tasting at Main Market.

For now, there isn’t much on the land, and what’s there is largely hand built. Deb, 47, and Forrest, 49, say they are consciously trying to live on less. The mobile home they renovated sits on a small hill next to a processing facility they built last year. In the southwest corner, a small herd of Red Poll cattle graze and, in the shade of a pine tree, ducks and geese roost and root. At the north end are mobile pens called chicken tractors, housing a total of about 1,000 chickens. The Phillips move the tractors a few feet each day, to keep fresh pasture under foot of the chickens, and to keep them from turning fertile soil into manure-burned hardpan.

As Forrest lugs the tractors by hand onto new pasture, the chickens become more animated, running around and pecking feverishly. One chicken finds a grub of some kind and runs to the back of pen to eat in peace.

“That,” Deb says, “is what a happy bird looks like.”

America produces an estimated 9 billion chickens a year and we eat about 7.5 billion. According to a 2002 Department of Agriculture report, the majority of those birds are raised by around 50 companies operating large, vertically integrated operations. According to the University of Georgia, single production sites can have as many as 300,000 birds at a time in buildings that pack 20,000 birds into 16,000-22,000 square feet of space.

Each bird gets a notebook paper’s worth of space.

In these settings, male chickens’ beaks are often clipped to prevent “injurious pecking,” and by the time broilers reach five weeks old — before being butchered between six and eight weeks — a 2000 study showed they spend between 75 and 85 percent of their time laying down, either due to excessive weight or lameness.

Joshua Martin, Executive Chef at Casper Fry, says he’s heard about and seen the conditions chickens live under in industrial farms, and “it’s more than frightening.” Casper Fry has a smoked, brined half-chicken on the menu that is one of their top sellers. Martin says he’d like to be able to exclusively buy them from small, local farmers that treat their animals humanely, but the small farms he’s found can’t supply enough.

When Martin saw the tasting showcasing the Phillips’ Heritage birds, he signed up. “I have questions about what smaller farmers can do,” he says.

As of printing, 14 people have RSVPed. Mostly chefs, a few foodies and at least one representative of Food Services of America, a “mainline purveyors” of food, as Martin says.

Ryan Stoy, chef de cuisine at Downriver Grill, plans to be among them. “I think there’s an opportunity there for something special,” he says, getting people excited for a “high-end, specialty bird, like a Berkshire [pork] of chickens.”

Chicken isn’t really on his customer’s wish list, he says, but they’re value-conscious. “The beef market is in such flux, the prices are so dramatic,” he says, while chicken has stayed steadily low.

Martin and Stoy are both curious about the flavor of these birds, and Martin is eager to know if the model “works for my restaurant.”

Stoy’s curiosity goes a little bit further than that. “I’m interested in what other people are trying to take from this get together,” he says, “and to see if our community has enough momentum to get behind heritage chickens in the restaurants.”

Forrest Phillips says that’s exactly what he wants to know, too. As much as this is about sustainable livestock, the Phillips say Heritage Naturals is also about carving out a sustainable life for themselves.

Prior to 2008, Forrest was a real estate developer in Sandpoint with 22 employees spread over three separate companies. The economic crash, he says, “took us completely under.” He’s glad about that now. Real estate is stressful, he says, “I was lucky to get out before I had a heart attack.”

Forrest says they found inspiration in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Also, they didn’t go in completely blind. “We’ve raised a lot of food in the past,” Forrest says, “We know how.”

The results have been good. Dan Langlois, a retired teacher from Kettle Falls, bought three birds from a local butcher, then called Forrest a couple weeks later, looking for 40 more. Langlois and his wife are moving 450 miles to Longview, Wash. Langlois says he thinks highly enough of the Phillips’ birds that he decided to buy a year’s supply.

In the dry, direct morning sun, Deb wears a bandana tied at the back of her head. Forrest has cuffed jeans held up by black suspenders. Sweat spreads across his back where the suspenders criss-cross.

Next week’s heritage bird tasting isn’t the only experiment the couple have going on. A “clean-up crew” of a couple dozen chickens pecks freely outside the pens. It’s a test to see if free-ranging birds will grow up and fill out the way the birds in the tractors do. If they do, Deb says they’ll take the whole operation free-range, which will require corralling the chickens on a much larger and labor-intensive scale.

Deb squints into the sun. “It’ll be harder on us,” she says, smiling in the directions of her chickens, “but better for them.”

Heritage Naturals tasting • Monday, July 30 at 10 am • Main Market • 44 W. Main St • 456-2667 • mainmarket.coop

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