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Years ago, I used to go to ArrowLive Poultry on H Street in Washington DC with my four-year-old daughter in tow. She loved racing around the yard with the chickens and was not emotionally scarred by holding the warm package in her lap on our way home. She still eats chicken in Italy. The chickens from Arrow (and roosters for coq au vin) were delicious, and also were not huge like the ones we find now even from organic growers. I don’t remember back in 1980 whether the birds were pronounced organic or not, but they certainly lacked the DayGlo yellow fat from dyed feed, advertised now as a selling point by a major poultry producer in the US . As delicious as these chickens were, they didn’t approach the glory of the Bleu de Bresse — aka The Dream Chicken” pictured here. In the end, ArrowLive was shut down so that we could be spared from having really good local chickens, turkeys and ducks. We were reduced to purchasing corporate poultry, about which you are federally prohibited from documenting the process of their production.
We even had a poultry vendor at the Old Town Farmers’ Market. The chickens were in a glass case and were not frozen. And they too were shut down. We became Saturday shoppers at Eastern Market where there was a French poultry vendor whose chickens, while not as good as ArrowLive, certainly were worth the trip. The French butcher was very “French” and would yell at you if you asked him to bone some chicken breasts. But he always wore a jauntily angled dark blue beret. I very meekly learned how to bone them myself.
I don’t mean to imitate the myth of the cranky philosopher Diogenes and his lamp, but I am looking for an honest chicken. How do you combat the mega poultry prison farms that are the US standard? Documentaries such as Food Inc and books by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have all chronicled the horrific and financially punishing leased poultry operations run by Perdue and Tyson, to name just two. An interesting footnote to this is the series of “documentaries” produced by Tyson to counteract the negative publicity received from such books and films. Still as consumers, with an unparalleled access to information, some of us can make tastier choices and also help turn the wheel of the domestic poultry rebellion.
Volaille De Bresse We Are Not
It is with a sense of a skirmish won, if not a decisive victory, that I followed the labels I discovered from this previous post. While we are not at the point of enjoying a readily available competitor to the famed red white and blue hen from a tiny French province, I am hopeful that in our almost backyard of the Shenandoah Valley, a new generation of farmers is taking root. They have acquired abandoned chicken houses from those who had been raising chemically enhanced commodity chickens for corporations that, in a sense. owned them as much as the poultry they housed.
Pursuing my curiosity about the certification stamp from Certified Humane , I found it on chickens from a new independent poultry cooperative at MOMs, which had a savvily designed label of Farmer Focus. Certified Humane has very detailed and rigorous instructions for poultry farming and is endorsed by the ASCPA. It is worth viewing their programs and video. It may change your purchasing habits.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
The chickens are better than what I had been purchasing (except for the Poulet Rouge ones that I got at Georgetown Butcher). Farmer Focus is the brand developed by Corwin Heatwole when he founded the Shenandoah Valley Organics (SVO) cooperative in 2014. Countless chicken houses were abandoned in this fertile valley thanks to insurmountable financial obligations to the “integrators” (a euphemistic term for the oligopolies that produce 60% of all the poultry we eat). Discouraged by the unhealthy format and financially draining onus of raising chickens for corporate entities, Corwin was drawn to the rising demand for certifiable organically raised livestock. He purchased a small farm with an abandoned conventional chicken house in 2012. He invested in meeting the current organic standards and brought in 300 certified organic chickens to be raised in the empty chicken house. Although the initial investment was high, his annual income increased substantially. From that point he developed relationships with other independent farmers who had abandoned raising chickens for “integrators” and organized SVO. The cooperative recently got funding to develop and market the brand of Farmer Focus. The brand has given the participating farms greater income, independence and the knowledge that they are selling to consumers a wholesome chicken.
All the farmers in SVO/Farmer Focus own their flocks and have to meet the standards of third parties to ensure their chickens are USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Humane and Global Animal Partnership certified. When you next pick up a package of their chickens, check the fine print under the Meet Your Farmer graphic on the label, and find out who produced your chicken dinner. In my case, I have had buffalo wings and spatchcocked chicken(not more than 3 1/2 lbs) from Tyler Whetzel’s farm in Mathias, West Virginia and Nash Hill Farm in Fulks Run, Virginia. I may not have set my lamp down yet, but even the Diogenes in me is happy.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.
Hi Nancy, I feel very blessed that one of the vendors at my local Farmer’s Market is a family farm in Culpeper, VA. They sell, among other offerings, chicken (whole or in parts). The birds roam the farm and are fed a diet that has been tested for no GMO’s. I have been to the farm several times; the family is lovely and always willing to answer questions and share information. As I have learned, courtesy of such great folks as Michael Pollan and Forrest Pritchard, it really does matter where your food comes from!
I would love to know which farm it is. I am planning a field trip! I get updates from Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton.
Nancy. I have never in my long life had a better chicken then those from Polyface Farm in Virginia. First introduced at the now close Butcher Block by the Lorien Hotel. I now order online and pick up at there truck in Arlington (they have multiple locations). Joel Slatkin does it right. The first time I picked up, a woman was there with a large cooler buying 40. When I asked her, she said she splits the order with a couple of friends. Buying in quantity they get a better price.
Great idea to bulk order with a group, if you can. Joel Salatin also sells through EcoFriendly Foods which has stalls at the Dupont Farmers’ Market on Sunday and the Arlington one on Saturday. And yes, Polyface produces a much better chicken too than what is available in most grocery stores.