Where the Chickens Roam by Jessica Bard
Oblivious to the traffic on Route 9, a chicken lazily scratches at the ground in a verdant sun-bathed pasture. The Catskills are starting to cast their late afternoon shadow in the Valley, but the chicken finds a spot of sun and pecks at the sweet niblets bursting from the cob on an errant corn stalk. Is this the life of a free-range chicken? Not necessarily. “Free-range” simply means that the chicken is allowed access to the outside. Many farmers admit that chickens aren’t always eager to go outside, and in the winter it is often too cold for them to go out. But if the door’s open, the option is there . . .
A menu item called “free range chicken” is more than likely a “natural” food as well. The USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service says a food product is “natural” if it contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed (i.e. processed in a way that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. The term natural has nothing to do with what the chicken is fed or how it is raised or what it is injected with, though producers may include more information on the label. Producers may also say organic. Traditionally organic is assumed to include organic feed, environmentally careful farm practices, and verifiable third party inspections, though up to now poultry labeled “organic” has been certified by independent agencies that employ varying criteria (a USDA standard goes into effect October 21, 2002). Though “free range” is largely a misnomer, the “free range” chickens in the Hudson Valley are raised naturally and as conscientiously as possible.
Of free-range/natural chicken farms in the Mid-Hudson region, Quattro’s Game Farm and North Wind Farm stand out for their high quality, family-run farm approach, and presence in the marketplace.
Camilla Quattrociocchi and her mother started Quattro’s Game Farm, in Pleasant Valley, more than 50 years ago. Today, Camilla’s husband Frank runs the store, and their sons, Frank Jr. and Sal, help raise free-range chicken, turkey, ducks (Pekin, Muscovy) geese, pheasant, and venison. There are other helpers as well, Camilla points out, such as Katherine Andrews, who has worked in their slaughterhouse for 30 years, and at 86 is still an expert at eviscerating.
Quattro’s grinds its own feed from oats and corn. If the birds need a little something extra, Sal will add in alfalfa. In the winter, baby chicks might need a small dose of vitamins to keep up their strength. Otherwise, the poultry and game at Quattro’s live a simple life without additives and drugs and with the benefit of space to roam outdoors and scratch the ground. The chickens are ready for market when they’re about 2.5 to 3 pounds, as early as 6 weeks. Some continue to grow up to 4 to 5 pounds or even up to 10 pounds. Compared to a 10-pound oven-stuffer roaster grown in a much shorter period of time, the meat of the natural chicken is more firm and less fatty.
Quattro’s store at Route 44 and Tinkertown Road is open seven days a week, and they also sell at New York City’s Greenmarket and Rhinebeck’s Farmer’s Market. They are busy all the time, happy with their curent size and have no plans to expand, Camilla says, explaining that larger scale production, sales, and distribution might shift the focus from farming to business . Keeping a small, family-run farm allows them to maintain a manageable work environment and trusting, unique relationships with their customers.
North Wind Farm in Tivoli is also a family-run farm business. Richard Biezynski and his wife Jane and son Russell, raise free range chicken and turkey and organic grass-fed beef. When Richard started the farm in 1982 he knew he wanted to raise poultry and didn’t see any sense in raising it any other way than naturally. At one time Biezynski tried to quit the business. But then the calls came. A loyal following implored him to get back into raising the free-range/natural chickens. Many cited the need for poultry their kids could eat without the severe reactions they had to commercially produced poultry. At first, Biezynski just filled a few orders here and there, but slowly he acquiesced. Besides wanting to provide natural food for like-minded folks, he wanted to foster his son’s growing interest in farming. Biesynski himself became interested farming from spending summers at his grandparent’s farm in Bell’s Pond. Biezynski is proud to be raising natural food and does his best to practice sustainable agriculture. His fields are certified organic, as is his beef. But he is not ready to go organic with the chickens, since the price of organic grain would drive up his selling cost too much.
Other producers of free range/natural chickens are VanWie Natural Foods in Hudson. Richard Van Wie raises, free range chicken and turkey, and natural pork, beef lamb. He also makes and sells nitrate free smoked meats and natural sausage. Van Wie grows his own feed, corn and soybeans, so he knows exactly what his animals are eating. Besides the store, Van Wie also does well with sales from their Internet site. Stone Church Farm, in Rifton, doesn’t really raise free-range poultry but they buy from farmers including Quattro’s.
Do free-range chickens taste better? Yes. The meat is tender and well-balanced between white and dark. Are free-range chickens more expensive? The price of whole free-range chicken ranges from 2.49/lb to 3.99/lb, compared to .79/lb to 2.20/lb for the commercial farm product. So yes, it is just like anything hand-crafted compared to things produced with economies of scale. Chef Ric Orlando, owner of New World Home Cooking in Saugerties, likes to point out that the price of organic and natural food “is really a matter of perspective. I have costed out a dinner for four made with an organic roast chicken, organic brown rice, carrots, and salad to be about $4.75 per person. That is the same as a frozen turkey dinner.” Ric has made a commitment to “keeping the majority of his inventory sustainable and organic” and encourages us to do the same. If most of us keep buying the cheapest chicken producers will keep finding ways to keep the costs down–and they’re rarely healthy solutions.
Why eat free-range/natural chickens? Because you want to eat fewer artificial ingredients, fewer drugs, and less food raised with genetically modified feed. Sure you can buy less expensive commercially raised natural chicken, but it’s still factory food, not farm food. Supporting local agriculture may be your way of thinking global and acting local. Or maybe it’s just nice to know exactly where your food is coming from. Definitions aside, it’s nice to imagine the happy, healthy chicken scratching in the dirt of our own back yard.
Where to Get Free Range Poultry (and Meats)
North Wind Farm
Raises: free-range chicken, organically grazed beef, and free-range turkey, available at: Kingston Farmers Market; Adams Fairacre Farms; Mother Earth’s (Hyde Park, Kingston); Gallo’s, Woodstock; Red Hook IGA; Peck’s Market (Pine Plains).
Quattro’s Game Farm
107 Tinkertown Road at Rt. 44, Pleasant Valley, 12569
(845) 635-2018. Store hours: Mon-Sat 8am-7pm, Sun 8am-1pm Raises: free-range chicken, ducks (Pekin, Muscovy), geese, wild turkey, pheasant and venison. Available at Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market, Sunday 10am-2pm; Union Square Market, NYC.
Stone Church Farm
Sells mostly to restaurants and commercial customers, Sunset Meadows, 3521 Route 9, Hudson, NY (518) 851-3000–sells Stone Church chickens cooked on the rotisserie for $8.99.
Van Wie Natural Foods
Store hours Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m.-5p.m.
Raises pork, beef, free-range chicken and turkey, lamb, and sells seafood and some prepared products Mail order by phone or on the internet at www.vanwienaturalmeats.com. They ship anywhere in the US via UPS.