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Alt-chicks: What goes into the trendy, tasty and expensive boutique poultry

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Chickens roam the pastures at Parker Creek Ranch

“When we see a bare spot, it’s like, ‘Oh, God, do we have to rotate the chickens more often? Do we have to reseed? Do we need to add amendments to the soil as far as organic matter?’” Travis said. “The chickens are a land-management tool.”

Again, their time at Texas A&M comes in handy as they run vegetation surveys on the land and try implementing other systems to revitalize the 600-acre ranch. Unfortunately, much like other area ranchers, their biggest obstacle is the drought and how to deal with it using only a small amount of capital.

Even laying out irrigation pipeline could mean a $30,000 dollar investment. A small processing plant set them back initially, but transporting the birds to another farm wasn’t an option.

So what?

No, boutique farming ain’t easy. The Krauses have even struggled to keep a permanent non-GMO feed supply, which, by the way, accounts for most of their expenses. The drought isn’t predicted to let up and the drive to the market isn’t going to get any shorter, but they’ll do it because both Peeler and Krause can’t get behind CAFOs or even slightly larger operations than their own farms.

“I tried raising more, doing more and I felt like either the quality of the bird or their quality of life would suffer … the kids or me, would suffer,” Peeler said. “I couldn’t see that it was worth it.”

The spread of these boutique farms gives Leonard some hope. As a husband and father of three, and a journalist (not a field known for fat paychecks), Leonard supplements his grocery store meat supply with locally raised poultry through a CSA.

“My point is not that consumers need to go vegetarian or quit eating meat,” Leonard said. His point is to encourage competition by implementing antitrust laws, which he argues are good for farmers and good for consumers. Competition helps lower prices, introduce higher quality of products, promote innovation for farmers and gives them more leverage when it comes to selling their product rather than going into a contract with big poultry.

Is Leonard nostalgic for the picturesque farms as Washington Post critic Bethany McLean suggests? No. “For decades we had a beautiful entrepreneurial and transparent meat system that was the source of prosperity and it was great … now four companies have taken over to the detriment of farmers and consumers,” Leonard said.

Much like Leonard, I can’t always afford these alt-birds. After preparing a rather large-breasted roasted chicken this past weekend, a bit of self-disgust ran through me. Sure, I’ve consumed Peeler birds at Gwendolyn, Luke, Cured and The Monterey, and Parker Creek birds at The Granary, but there I was, exacerbating the problem at home. My beautiful bird with its crispy, golden brown skin was tainted.

“When people come to me at the market, they’re sacrificing something else. It’s still a luxury item,” Peeler said. “Not everyone can afford to spend $16 for a chicken.”

But along with the higher price and healthier bird comes something else—peace of mind.

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