AR-News: Free-range chickens: Advocates say both consumers and animals benefit

jim robertson wolfcrest at
Wed Aug 13 17:13:23 EDT 2003

Found in the "Food and wine" section!...

Free-range chickens: Advocates say both consumers and animals benefit

By Judith Blake
Seattle Times staff reporter

CARNATION — The young, white-feathered chickens scratching about in the 
grass on Michele Blakely's Snoqualmie Valley farm don't know it, but in 
modern chickendom they're unusual: They live almost entirely outdoors.

To a certain breed of chicken farmer, and a small but growing number of 
chicken eaters, that's something to crow about.

Though they're not exactly grazers on a bovine scale, the penned but 
blade-plucking birds on this and similar farms clearly like grass — and 
grass makes their meat taste better, fans claim. Even their moniker has a 
faint, cowbell ring: "pastured poultry."

That may sound tamer than "free-range" chicken, which trotted onto the scene 
a few years ago, but pastured chickens often get more outdoor time and al 
fresco dining.

"They're eating naturally," says Blakely, a flannel-shirted woman with 
blue-gray eyes and a tumble of curly, graying hair, as she watches her birds 
forage for grass and bugs. They're also fed chicken feed, and can go under a 
low, open-sided shelter when they want.

Only a smattering of small, local farms raise chickens this way, and farmers 
markets are almost the only places to find the meat, which is sold only 
frozen. Still, demand seems to be on the rise, and signs point toward 
increased availability ahead.

"I would say consumer demand for this product is definitely growing. We've 
seen great success with it at farmers markets," said Leslie Zenz, director 
of the Small Farms and Direct Marketing Program for the State Department of 

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of farmers who want to bring 
it in," said Zachary Lyons, executive director of the Washington State 
Farmers Market Association.

"We believe the demand was there all along," he said, but both interest and 
availability increased once the state began allowing sales of frozen meat, 
poultry and seafood at farmers markets in 2001.

'Free range' vs. 'pastured'

If pastured poultry sounds like free-range re-heated, this isn't quite the 
case. While free-range chickens boast access to the outdoors, they don't 
necessarily spend a lot of time rambling in the wide-open spaces.

"Anybody's who's really doing outdoor chicken would call it pastured 
poultry," maintains grower Pat Labine of Olympia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of free-range says these 
chickens must be able to go outside whenever they want, through barn doors 
that are always left open. But that definition leaves leeway. "A lot of 
people are savvy to the fact that 'free-range' can be meaningless," Lyons 

Couch-potato chickens

Many industry observers say most of the chickens raised in large-scale, 
free-range operations — the kind that supply supermarkets — choose to spend 
most of their time inside the chicken shed with thousands of other birds, 
hanging out near the feed trough.

Their couch-potato ways relate to the breed — Cornish Cross — the white bird 
that is virtually the only meat chicken raised in the United States.

"They're not bred for mobility. They're bred for hogging down food," said 
Terry Swagerty, a small-farms expert with Washington State University 
Extension in Stevens County.

Cornish Cross chickens eat so much and get so heavy that they've been known 
to plop down and not walk at all.

Even so, Rick Koplowitz, chief executive officer of Draper Valley Farms, 
Washington's only producer of supermarket-sold free-range chicken (Ranger 
brand), says a portion of their chickens do wander outside, though he did 
not know what percentage.

Conventionally raised chickens, which are far and away the biggest share of 
American poultry, spend their lives packed closely in huge sheds along with 
thousands of their kind, but with no outdoor access.

Pastured-poultry farmers contend their birds' meat not only tastes better, 
but the chickens get a better life, given all that time in the open air and 

Farmers have devised assorted ways to keep their chickens mostly outdoors 
and in grass. Blakely uses portable, roofed, floorless and open-sided 
shelters surrounded by wire pens. Before the chickens trample down the grass 
in one area, she moves the entire shelter/pen arrangement to another spot. 
Other farmers employ variations on the pen-moving theme.

Bird density in the pens varies from farm to farm.

Daily life is so natural among the pastured chickens at Walla Walla's 
Thundering Hooves farm that the birds display "normal chicken behavior," 
such as staring contests, said Clarice Swanson, who manages Western 
Washington marketing for the farm. How that affects the chickens' psyches or 
succulence is open to speculation.

Not a legal definition

Shoppers who wish details about a farmer's methods can ask at a farmers 
market, or even ask to visit a farm — steps some recommend since there's no 
legal definition of pastured poultry, and procedures vary.

Some pastured poultry is certified organic, some not. Even uncertified farms 
may practice organic methods.

Both the pastured poultry farmers we talked with and Koplowitz, of Draper 
Valley, said their alternatively raised birds get no antibiotics. In the 
conventional chicken industry, the practice of giving the birds antibiotics 
to prevent or treat disease or to promote growth has been the subject of 
long-running controversy. Some critics say it might cause antibiotic 

Koplowitz said Draper's Ranger chicken costs more than its conventional 
poultry partly because fewer birds reside in the free-range sheds, each bird 
taking up more of the space as a disease preventative, since they're not 
given antibiotics.

Koplowitz called free-range chicken a niche market that goes up and down 
with the economy, and said Draper Valley Farms got into it because "stores 
were asking for it." Conventionally raised poultry is Draper's main product.

Pastured poultry is a niche within a niche. But it could expand after the 
operating rules for a new state law passed earlier this year are drafted and 
approved. Though the rule-making could take time, the law paves the way for 
farmers producing fewer than 1,000 chickens a year to process their own 

Until now, they've had to haul their chickens to a distant, licensed 
processing plant, often a costly prospect — though some reportedly have done 
their own processing without a legal go-ahead.

Blakely is part of a group looking into developing a mobile processing unit 
that many small Western Washington farmers potentially could use.

Says Labine of pastured poultry: "It's a wonderful niche for a small farmer. 
You can make a lot of money at it, and the (big) industry can't touch it — 
it's too labor-intensive," with the constant moving of shelters and pens.

That rosy outlook will depend, of course, on whether consumers flock to 
these birds.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

Cruelty to animals is one of the most significant vices of a low and ignoble 
Alexander von Humboldt

In wildness is the preservation of the world. Thoreau

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