Pastured poultry: Advocates say both consumers and animals benefit

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 Agriculture.

"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 contended.

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 grass.

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 resistance.

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 birds.

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.