Beyond Factory Farming: Creating An Appetite For Pastured Poultry

I get this a lot: “I understand that the things you write about are important — but they’re so depressing. Couldn’t you write some, you know, good news, for a change?”

So here you go: a solutions post for once, instead of another problem. (But I can’t promise to make a habit of it.)

I live most of the time in Atlanta, the capital of the South, and also of the empire of Big Chicken. Georgia raises more meat (broiler) chickens than any other place in the United States, about 1.4 billion of them a year, and — because factory-farmed chickens aren’t allowed to live very long — slaughters about 1 million of them per week. All those chickens produce 2 million tons of poultry manure and litter a year — one-fifth of what the entire U.S. poultry industry produces — along with all the other downstream effects that you would expect from such intensive livestock-raising: antibiotic-resistant bacteria, water pollution from manure disposal, air quality problems.

A recently founded nonprofit, Georgians for Pastured Poultry, advocates for change in chicken raising. It has published a detailed and troubling report about the environmental and animal-welfare costs of confinement chicken-raising, and has been holding events to raise awareness about the alternative: “pastured” poultry, chickens that are raised on vegetation, under shelter, to high animal-welfare standards.

At the heart of the group’s effort is a conundrum: Agricultural profit margins are already razor thin. Most farmers don’t have abundant savings that they can invest in completely transforming their operations. To move toward healthier livestock-raising, farmers have to know in advance that there is a market for their new product, along with an audience that gets why paying the (inevitably higher) price is worthwhile.

Georgians for Pastured Poultry identified this market gap early on, and starting today, they’re taking the first step toward closing it. They’ve gotten some of the top chefs in Atlanta — 31 as of Friday evening, many of them award-winners — to agree to serve pastured poultry in their restaurants all week. Pastured Poultry Week begins today and goes through Sunday, and will be augmented by farmers’ market and supermarket demonstrations.

A couple of the chefs talked to me about why they want to do this and what the benefits and challenges are.

Craig Richards, executive chef at Ecco (one of Esquire’s 2006 “Best New Restaurants in America“) said: “As a chef, I feel like it is part of our responsibility to provide food that is good for people nutritionally and politically.” His customers respond to that, he added: “People want to know where their chicken is from, where their fish is from… You have to respect sustainability now, people are asking for it.”

Kevin Gillespie, executive chef at Woodfire Grill (and James Beard Foundation nominee and “Top Chef” contestant) said: “We support the agenda to have poultry production, in this state and country, revert back to a more pastured form. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the economy, and I think it produces a better product.” There’s also some self-interest, he admitted: Buying from local producers is such an important part of Woodfire’s identity that the restaurant maintains an updated list of what’s in season on the splash page of its site, as well as listing its farm partners and foragers on a separate page. But “until recently, there wasn’t a supply of chicken that met our quality standards,” he said. “As time has gone on, that has started to change, and we want to support farmers who are taking the risk.”

(Three Georgia chicken producers are supplying most of the birds for the week, according to Georgians for Pastured Poultry: White Oak Pastures, Darby Farms and Heritage Farms.)

Important point, though: Chefs aren’t, primarily, activists; they are cooks first, aiming to make something delicious, and they are also businesspersons. And making something delicious out of pastured poultry — and getting customers to buy it, so the effort and expense are not wasted — is a bit more challenging than with a commodity bird.

“Pastured birds are different,” says Shaun Doty, an Atlanta chef who is one of the founders of Georgians for Pastured Poultry and is opening a chicken-focused restaurant, Bantam and Biddy, this fall. “They’re allowed to live twice as long as factory-farmed chickens, and they’re outside, running around, engaging in natural chicken behaviors. They’re athletes. And that means the meat is very firm, and the bones are strong. They have huge, old-fashioned taste — but they cook differently, and they eat differently.”

Richards and Gillespie agreed that, to bring pastured poultry into their kitchens, they’ve had to coach their cooks in the difference, and they’re preparing their servers to coach diners as well.

“We’ve talked to the cooks about how this has to roast a little longer, a little slower,” said Richards, who bought in about 75 birds and is planning a chicken al mattone topped with local peas and shaved radishes. “And we’ll talk to the staff about how the flavor can be different, and put some up for them to try.”

Gillespie has already had some experience with customer reactions to pastured poultry. “A few years ago we were able to get a very small supply from a gentleman in South Georgia, and when we would serve it, people would say things like it, ‘It’s too flavorful’ — which was funny to me, because, you know, this is what chicken actually tastes like. It made us realize that,  if we were going to change people’s minds about the product, we would have to do it with some education attached.”

Woodfire bought about 50 birds for the week, and Gillespie plans to turn them into a small plate of tastes: white meat and dark meat done different ways, plus a forcemeat. “We want this to be a limited menu item, to drive demand,” he said. “We’re showcasing this as something that chicken can be.”

One week can’t remake an industry, of course — not even with 31 chefs, 20 restaurants and the three best farmers’ markets in Atlanta on board. But what it can do is introduce people to the idea that chicken isn’t just a placeholder on a menu, and isn’t just the cheap, almost-flavorless protein you buy when you don’t know what else to do. Like grass-fed beef and heritage pork, pastured chicken — and the agricultural change it makes possible — will only succeed if consumers purchase it, not out of duty, but out of desire. By starting with famous chefs overseeing hard-to-get tables, Pastured Poultry Week may have found the formula that allows that change to start.

“You can only pass out so much information before you sound like you’re preaching,” Gillespie told me. “We have to sell people on how pastured poultry tastes, and we’re going to do that. We’ll be telling people: This is not your average bird.”



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