I had the pleasure of visiting the guys at Primal Pastures a few weeks back, and here's a little write up I did on the guys (the humans and the chickens). If you need a recipe for a pasture chicken, check out my Paleo Rosemary & Black Tea Crockpot Chicken and Stock.
The mid morning sun shines piercing amber light through rows and rows of grapes, their leaves the color of fall during these last days clinging to the vine after a bountiful harvest. Soon these vines will be naked, waiting out winter in Southern California, until they can be pruned and brought back to life by careful hands. I’m in Temecula, a little valley of wine and agriculture between Orange County and San Diego, in the southwest corner of Riverside County. It’s harvest festival weekend, so the wineries are full and limos and party buses creep along the 2 lane roads, but I make a turn, and when the pavement ends I park up a sloping driveway and am greeted by a tall smiling man, welcoming me into his garage.
I’m at Primal Pastures, a project launched by Tom McDaniel to promote local, sustainable eating. He found that finding good quality, pastured meats in Southern California was tough, and why truck in something from out of state when we practically have a year round growing season? While he’d always been interested in healthy living (he even mentioned the old hippie staple, Mother Earth news) and had been toying with the idea of getting something started, it took a few family members – and coincidentally Crossfit enthusiast/Paleo eaters – to really get the operation up and running. The family rallied, and his ‘pasture’ was born. Taking cues from Joel Salatin, who is considered a pioneer in pasture farming and a voice for conscious eating, he set up his 2 acres, built some pens, and ordered some chicks.
What are pasture meats?
Pasture farming is different than free range. The USDA defines free range or free roaming as such: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside”, but the definition of allowing access is up for debate. It could be that the coop door is left open to a concrete slab, or the chickens have access to outside some time in their life but not consistently. They do not have to have access to grass and bugs, or the ability to walk around, peck, nest, roost, and engage in general chicken shenanigans.
More conventional (factory farmed) chickens are kept tightly packed in pens, where they are so crowded they’ll often peck at each other. This has led some farmers to ‘de-beak’ chicks when they hatch, which may seem barbaric and inhumane, but has yet to be outlawed. The McDaniel’s chickens not only have the freedom to roam, but they can establish a pecking order and sort out any issues. A few of the chickens puffed chests and made little squawks, but they soon moved on to eat grass and enjoy the sunshine. While you might see “vegetarian fed” eggs and chicken in the store, chickens are not herbivores. They eat bugs and worms, so while it’s good to know that supplemental feed doesn’t have any ground up animal parts in it, pasture chicken will not be vegetarians....read more after the jump!
“It’s amazing how much grass they eat”
The chickens have a coop and pen that moves with them as they forage, always having access to as much green grass, bugs and worms as they can eat. When the grass has been close to depleted, the pen and the chickens move over to a new pasture and the process repeats itself indefinitely. While the amount of grass and bugs/worms they eat is substantial, The McDaniels also supplement their diet with an organic feed, that while expensive, is a great soy-free, GMO-free mix made of mostly clover and alfalfa. It does have some corn and wheat in it, but chicken have the ability to process those items better due to the specialized digestive system. When they pick at the ground they swallow rocks and pebbles that help mash and digest things that a human wouldn’t be able to.
Most people feel that this way of farming is more work, has less returns, and it not sustainable. Rob McDaniels says that’s “misleading”. They both agree that it’s probably a more work right for them because they’re still learning and working out so many kinks, and there aren’t too many pasture meat producers to look to, especially in Southern California. He also mentioned that they are a relatively manageable and quiet animal (the roosters only start crowing at an age that occurs just after processing, so they make little noise), and I was impressed at how little noise those 140 chickens made.
So why spring for pastured meats? Aside from knowing you won’t be feeding your family any hormones or antibiotics; you also get higher Omega 3’s (the good fats) and a lower ratio of Omega 3 (good) to Omega 6(bad) fats. I asked if they ever had sick chicken, and they said they did…once. They gave him some raw milk and apple cider vinegar and he sprang back to life, and while they let him live out his days with the rest of his flock, he wasn’t sold after processing as a precaution.
The real threat to these chickens is predators. Because they live outside most of the time, they can be extremely vulnerable. Between a bobcat and the neighbor’s dog, the McDaniel’s lost 60 chickens in about a week. They’re also targets for owls and other birds of prey, and raccoons. The McDaniels have since put some electric fencing around the chickens to keep predators out, and usher them into a coop at night to keep them safe. The new chicks that arrive spend about 3 weeks in a heated, enclosed, floorless coop until they’re large enough to move outside. I saw a few cats roaming the property and asked if they were ever a problem, and I was told they keep the gophers down, have never bothered the chickens, and even get some innards at processing time.
Tom McDaniel has a little garden, where he’s toyed with the idea of offering organic produce to his customers as well. They place woodchips in the bottom of the floorless coops , which makes great compost when it comes time to move the pen, so he had some great luck with a substance crop. He also hoped to start his expansion soon, adding some sheep and then cows. They also just bought some ‘layers’ in the hopes to offer pastured eggs in the very near future.
So easy a caveman could do it?
Hanging out with the McDaniels made the whole process seem so easy, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired (I went home and researched the best ‘backyard’ chickens and asked my bewildered husband if he liked my placement in the yard for a coop), but make no mistake, these guys work hard. Tom’s son Rob frequently does the morning feeding and once, when he was a little late getting up, the chickens had busted down the pen and were waiting for him by the back door. I told him that sounded like a horror movie – I can’t imagine 140 chickens “waiting” for me – but he just laughed. The McDaniels have such an easy disposition, that even when they discuss the hardships, they do it with a smile. They realize that the learning curve is steep for them, and that they have more challenges because they’re making mistakes and making changes, but have a lot of desire for a good end result and truly believe in the mission.
Pasture to plate
They process chickens about every 3 weeks, and have a simple, yet sophisticated area set up that is similar to the method used at Salatin’s Polyface Farm. The USDA Human Slaughter Act*, which was passed in 1958 to decrease suffering of livestock during slaughter, doesn’t mention poultry, so slaughter methods can vary, but the McDaniels place the chickens upside down in a “kill cone” where they become woozy and partially conscious before swiftly cutting the throat for a quick bleed out. Then there is the scald and the automatic plucker which makes sure they’re feather free. These machines have helped the McDaniels process more birds, while maintaining a commitment to compassionate and sustainable farming. They remove the head, innards, and feet, and then let the bird air dry in the fridge for a few days which allows the enzymes to denature the meat and make it tender. Then they vacuum seal them and freeze them. When you get your chicken it will look exactly like it does in the store, except it will taste better, provide a better nutritional profile, and have a smaller negative impact on the environment.
It may seem graphic for most, but this is the way that little roasted bird gets to your plate, and if you haven’t been exposed to it, it might seem daunting. Rob McDaniel said the night of his first processing he couldn’t eat chicken, but after a few times through he had a newfound appreciation for the chickens, and has no trouble enjoying them on any day. I guarantee you if you search for videos on YouTube of cow/pig/chicken slaughter you will be horrified and disgusted at what you see. Watching a video of the Polyface slaughter practice (the same at the McDaniels) after that will seem so much more humane. I haven’t had much experience with hunting (I know I can reel in, gut, and eat a fish), so I asked if I could come back and help with processing. I feel like it’s important to know where your food comes from, and I’m definitely very appreciate of the McDaniels because I’m not sure I’d have it in me. Perhaps that’s part 2 of this article?
The guys were nice enough to send me home with a couple birds and while the meat was excellent, they made the most delicious broth I’d ever tasted. I thought Tom McDaniel was a little wacky when he said he drank the broth for breakfast a lot, but I found myself doing the same thing.
Interested in getting on the pasture meat bandwagon? If you live in Southern California, get on Primal Pasture's waitlist. (you can pick up your chicken in Temecula or they have several drop off locations). If you don't live in CA, check out your local farmer's market, EatWild, or look into getting some of your own!
Special thanks to my partner in crime for taking the photos!
* (a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or
(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.