Food & Drink
Alt-chicks: What goes into the trendy, tasty and expensive boutique poultry
Published: March 12, 2014
Leonard doesn’t paint a pretty picture, by any means, but there are options in case eating mass-produced, antibiotic-laden and inhumanely raised fowl isn’t your thing.
A short trek south on U.S. Route 281 will land you at Peeler Farms, with its bright green pastures and hilly landscape that houses the occasional flock o’ ducks or sheep. Driving up, I briefly confused it for a Windows screensaver.
A former physical education teacher, current CrossFit nut and mother of four teens, Marianna Peeler got into the chicken game as a hobby. After moving from El Campo—some 55 miles northeast of Victoria—to Floresville, Peeler purchased 25 laying hens, which produced far too many eggs for a family of six.
In 2007, she took the surplus eggs to her CrossFit gym and sold each dozen for $2. Her organic eggs fit right in with the clean food diet—“ garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch and no sugar—espoused by CrossFitters. Once her fit brethren realized she was a farmer, they started asking for chicken and other poultry products.
Peeler Farms’ initial foray into poultry began with turkeys for Thanksgiving and, as Peeler put it, “we moved onto the meat birds and it’s never stopped since.”
Because her husband, Jason, is a cattle rancher, Peeler already had land (some 2,000 acres) and infrastructure to start her project with relative ease. “We had the facilities but it was just about outfitting them for our use,” she said.
The main barn holds several pens, originally made of wood and wire but currently being refurbished with plastic to help stave off diseases and pests that can live in the wood. Each ample pen holds chicks of a different age range along with a heat source, clean water and feed processed in Poth, just southeast of Flooresville. Chicks are kept in spacious pens from the time they’re one week old to just about four weeks. Once they’re old enough to survive in the pasture, usually at the four-week mark, they’re transferred outdoors. The ranch adds 200 to 225 chicks a week and 450 every two weeks.
The meat birds, or broilers, spend about four to six weeks in the pasture. The exact timing depends on the weather, which can come into effect during the harsh winter months and scorching summer days. To alleviate the heat, Peeler chicken shelters are equipped with timed sprinklers.
Once the birds reach eight to 10 weeks, they’re processed inside a newly added plant. In the past, processing meant a five-hour drive to a Dallas-area farm where the chickens would be slaughtered and packaged, but costs started piling up and the chickens’ welfare became an issue as every drive meant the birds would excrete a stress hormone that inevitably changed the flavor of the meat. The Peeler plant is made up of three 20-by-16-foot processing rooms, each of which is infinitely cleaner than any desk I’ve ever occupied.
Peeler, farmhand Melissa Barfield and four workers take on the process of killing, scalding, plucking, inspecting and packaging 150 to 200 birds on Tuesdays. First, the chickens are placed in funnel-like metal cones, which help keep them from flapping and bruising themselves. The workers take a surgical scalpel to the bird’s carotid artery and the birds pass out within 10 to 15 seconds.
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