This article will appear in the August/September 2012 issue of Macon Magazine.
Driving down the winding dirt road to Heritage Farm, past grazing cattle and towering stands of hardwoods, it’s easy to see what drew Greg and Lainya Hutchins to farming. The family’s 35 acres of rolling pasture land in Carroll County is the serenely beautiful home to a diverse array of animals and vegetables, from cattle, goats and sheep, to chicken, rabbits, squash, and tomatoes. A white farmhouse on the hill bathed in late-day light conjures thoughts of an idyllic past: a scene that would inevitably find the farmer settling down with his family after a long day in the fields.
But for Greg Hutchins, the workday has just begun.
“I don’t even know what hour I’m on,” the overall clad farmer remarked as he made his way from the front porch to his parked Ford Excursion. After securing a trailer loaded with plastic crates, a pair of chest freezers, and a portable generator to the truck with his teenage son, Hutchins turns the key and the engine roars to life, breaking the pastoral silence and marking the beginning of a familiar but arduous process.
The Hutchins family — in addition to the many hats they wear – are pastured poultry farmers, a small but growing community of alternative producers going to often extraordinary lengths to meet a demand for healthier poultry products. Instead of raising tens of thousands of chickens in crowded houses — the norm in Georgia, the country, and, increasingly, the world — pastured poultry farmers raise their birds in comparatively small batches in portable, open-floored pens. Each morning, the pens are moved to a new patch of grass where the birds supplement their feed ration with natural foods like grasses, forbs, and bugs which — along with a clean environment, fresh air and natural light — result in healthy birds that, according to proponents, taste better and are beneficial to the environment.
For the Hutchins, and other farmers throughout the state, the reasons for getting into the pastured poultry business were always clear. “The profit margins are good,” Hutchins explained, “but what’s even better is the demand. Everybody likes chicken — not everyone likes beef, not everyone wants pork — but pretty much everyone loves chicken.” That, combined with a perceived taste difference compared to supermarket birds and a seemingly endless string of news stories linking large confined animal farms to a host of human and environmental health issues like drug-resistant bacteria and water pollution, have sent customers scrambling to buy from farmers like the Hutchins at farmers markets throughout the state and directly at the farm.
There is, however, a formidable impediment to small farmers trying to meet this demand. Processing chickens — slaughtering, cleaning, and packaging the birds for sale — is a frustratingly complex issue for small, family farms in Georgia.
More than 4 million broiler chickens (birds raised for their meat) are processed in Georgia each weekday, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. But for a variety of reasons, there are currently no USDA-approved poultry slaughter facilities for small, independent poultry producers in the state. White Oak Pastures, a certified organic pasture-based farm in Early Country opened a state-of-the-art on-farm poultry processing facility in 2011, but the farm currently only processes its own birds.
This fact means that farmers like Hutchins who raise more than 1000 birds annually must drive out of state at considerable expense to process their birds at a USDA-approved facility in states like Kentucky, and North and South Carolina. Federal law allows for up to 20,000 birds per year to be processed on farm with minimal regulatory oversight, but for reasons that remain largely opaque, Georgia’s legislature voted to nullify the rule more than a decade ago, and set the number at 1,000 birds, leaving alternative poultry farmers with a fraught decision: either drive the birds out of state for processing to the tune of thousands of dollars and lost time away from the farm or process on farm at the risk of prosecution.
During the short but bumpy ride across the front pasture to a series of portable pens that house around 400 Freedom Rangers — a breed of chicken renowned for its ability to thrive on pasture — Hutchins hints at the regulatory frustration his family faced when venturing in the poultry business in 2008, but quickly turns to the joys and perils of being a small farmer. “It’s hard — sometimes brutal work — but we have a lot of fun with it. And plus, we get the benefit of all that great food. It is a labor of love.”
Although he woke at 6AM to drive to a market, and has been working nearly nonstop for 15 hours, Greg Hutchins is remarkably upbeat as he describes the next phase of his epic workday, a five hour journey to an independent USDA-certified processor in Bowling Green, KY. “I’ll go inside soon, and sleep for about 3 hours, and then I will leave at 1AM in order to make it to Bowling Green by dawn,” he explains. As if anticipating a question he has fielded many times before, he continues: “In this business, you’ve got to be willing to get up every day and give it all you’ve got, no matter what. It has its perks, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”
Forsyth farmer and owner of Rocky Creek Farm Tim Ford knew of the inevitable challenges he would face when he began raising free-range hens on his wooded property in 2005, but he never quite prepared himself for the emotional element of small scale poultry farming. “As I was around chickens more and more and I studied them, eventually I just fell in love with them,” he explained, standing in front of a row of portable pens on an acre of grassland he cleared of trees and brush for the sole purpose of raising pastured poultry. After reaching into the pens to remove the feeders and watering jug, Ford takes hold of a rope attached to the front of the pen, and slowly drags the wood, PVC and chicken wire enclosure to a fresh patch of grass. Knowing the drill, the golden hued and glistening black varieties of broiler chickens inside the pens walk forward, and quickly get to work pecking and scratching the new ground.
“I always wanted to have some chickens,” Ford explained, “and I finally got enough land, and my wife said ‘why don’t you do it?’” Asked about the difference he sees between conventionally raised birds and the pastured/free-range variety, and the farmer doesn’t mince words: “If someone were to ask me what is the difference between a conventional, supermarket bird and a pastured bird, I would say the way the animal is treated. To keep so many birds in a house without natural light and access to the outdoors is against nature. There’s no respect for the birds and the way that they’re handled and the way our food is handled.”
After nearly five years of raising chickens in order to get eggs for his family, Ford decided to begin raising broiler chickens on pasture in 2009. In the ensuing years, the aspiring farmer has expanded his operation to nearly five acres of land dedicated to raising free-ranging egg and meat birds in both a wooded and pasture setting, and he has his sights set on becoming a full time pastured poultry farmer in the near future. “The regulations make it very difficult for someone like me to take this business to the next level,” Ford explained, “but people are beginning to demand cleaner, healthier chicken, and that will change things.”
At the Mulberry Street Market in Downtown Macon on a recent Wednesday evening, that demand was evident at the stands of two farmers whose pastured eggs were selling quickly in the after-work rush. “Even if you’re going to buy organic eggs from the grocery store, you’re still buying into this big agribusiness system,” farmer Sarah Rector explained as she handed a dozen eggs to a customer. The young farmer took pains to emphasize that all consumers would do well to buy organic food from supermarkets, but continually emphasized the importance of buying locally and knowing how your food was raised.
In addition to Rector’s small farm out of Barnesville, another Mulberry vendor, Selah Farm, sells eggs from chickens raised in portable pasture pens, and both see their sales increasing as consumer awareness continues to rise. “If you know the farmer and you get a chance to see their hens and they are healthy and living the way that chickens are supposed to live, then you’re getting a superior product, and I think people are starting to realize that,” Rector intoned as another customer approached her stand, “but I don’t want to get on a soapbox!” she concluded with a laugh.