The future of Big Chicken 

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

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FIRST STEPS: For the first few weeks of their lives at White Oak Pastures, baby chicks are kept in warm brooders until they have the feathers and strength to live on the pasture.
  • Joeff Davis
  • FIRST STEPS: For the first few weeks of their lives at White Oak Pastures, baby chicks are kept in warm brooders until they have the feathers and strength to live on the pasture.

In practice, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful scene at a farm. As Jenni led us from pasture to pasture, the chefs were audibly impressed. A flock of guinea hens went squawking across the pasture and the chefs followed, ooohhhing and aaahhhing in their own ways. Sheep grazed on one particularly lush patch, ducks floated along in a small pond, cows lumbered in the shady distance, and here and there were the chickens, living around portable little houses. Some scratched and pecked in the dirt, others huddled in the shade of the house. A couple of times I noticed a large, white dog, the kind that could probably take great pleasure in eating a few chickens raw, laying down by a chicken house as the birds skipped around him. White Oak raises Great Pyrenees dogs with its chickens. The dogs become bonded to the flocks and live to protect them from predators like coyotes. "Forget chickens," one of the chefs joked. "I'd be fine raising my kids here."

Of course, all of these animals are being raised for slaughter, which is where we headed next. The chickens are kept in a dim room prior to slaughter, the darkness meant to calm their nerves. We watched as a man hung a single bird upside down and pressed an electrified knife to its neck. The man and the chicken stayed in that position, quite still, until the bird was dead. The chicken hung there, blood draining out below it, until it was pulled by a worker in the next room to be defeathered in a cylinder roughly the size of a washing machine. With the feathers cleaned, the bird arrived in a room where a team trimmed off the feet and sliced out the organs with nimble flicks of their knives. A USDA inspector stood at the end of the line to check the bird by hand. The process is slow and deliberate, designed to avoid mistakes and suffering at the obvious cost of efficiency.

It was lunchtime, so we walked over to a little trailer where the farm subsidizes lunch for employees at $5 a plate. We took our plates of smoked chicken and greens and sat down at a table inside. If anything we'd seen during the day had troubled the chefs, they didn't show it. In a few minutes, their plates were clean.

Later on, we drove down to a skeet range, where the chefs drank beer and tried to aim shotguns at little white discs as they sailed over a pasture. After letting them fool around for a bit, Jenni picked up a shotgun and nailed about a dozen in a row. Later on, the chefs stayed at a quail lodge and played poker and drank too much bourbon and worried, just a bit, that they couldn't get in touch with their wives without a cell phone signal here in the country. In the morning, they walked out into some quail fields and managed to hit a few birds without shooting one another. When it was time to leave, the chefs were sent along with some quail and a lot of chicken from White Oak's freezers, a thank you for coming down to see the farm.

Before the guns and the booze, the chicken farm equivalent of the wine-and-dine, I took a short ride in the truck with Brian Sapp, White Oak's director of operations, on the way to the skeet range. The gamble on chicken had put a financial strain on the farm and, at the time, they were far from breaking even on the program. His stress was palpable.

"I mean it's real nice that these chefs want to come down and have a field trip," he said, a little irony detectable in his Southern drawl. "But it'd be a lot better if they actually just bought some chicken. Seems like some chefs are fine with saying one thing and doing another."

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