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Friday, June 7, 2013

Pastured Poultry Week teaches Georgians the real meaning of "free range"

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  • Courtesy Leah Garcés
Steven Satterfield says one of the best things about pasture-raised chicken is its flavor. It tastes like chicken, but better.

"It kind of tastes more like chicken than chicken, if that makes sense," Satterfield, co-owner and executive chef of Miller Union, says. "It has a more chicken-y flavor."

That's one of the reasons why next week, Satterfield will be joining more than 50 other Georgia chefs in participating in the second annual Pastured Poultry Week, organized by advocacy group Georgians for Pastured Poultry. From June 10 through 16, the restaurants will feature dishes made from chickens that are raised with unrestricted access to pasture, in an effort to educate area chefs, farmers and consumers about the benefits of pastured poultry.

Leah Garcés, U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming and lead founder of Georgians for Pastured Poultry, says the week is a no-risk way for restaurants to try pastured poultry and, hopefully, consider serving it permanently.

"The big picture goal is for these restaurants to stop using factory-farmed chicken altogether," she said. "The restaurants enjoy the experience, they get to try pastured poultry, they get positive feedback from consumers and the media for it, and in return we ask them to consider switching over all year round."

In Georgia, the state that leads the U.S. in poultry production, that aim is especially pertinent.

The reasons for serving and consuming pastured rather than conventionally-raised poultry are three-fold, Garcés says. There's the health aspect: the fat content of a pastured chicken, which spends much of its life running around outdoors, versus a conventionally-raised chicken, which spends its life in a crowded chicken shed, is the difference "between eating an athlete and a couch potato." There's the environmental aspect: pastured poultry manure is often used to fertilize other crops, turning it from a would-be pollutant into an effective farming tool.

But for Garcés, the most compelling reason is moral. Giving chickens access to pasture is giving them access to a natural life - it's allowing them to be chickens: to eat insects, take dust baths, flap their wings and roost in trees. Chickens raised in factory farms, she says, don't get that chance. Typically, they live crammed together by the thousands in huge chicken sheds. Their breasts - an ideal trait for conventional broiler chicken breeds - grow so large so quickly that they have trouble standing up and even breathing.

"These chickens have been genetically selected to eat, grow fast and die young," Garcés says. "And that is their purpose, nothing else. They've bred the chicken out of the chicken."

Courtesy Leah Garcés
  • Courtesy Leah Garcés
Satterfield says once a person knows the difference between how pastured poultry are treated versus conventional poultry, it's hard to go back to eating factory farmed chicken. All of the chicken served at Miller Union is pastured, sourced from White Oak Pastures - the same farm that's contributing many of the chickens used in this year's pastured poultry week.

"I feel like it's our responsibility to continue the process in the most humane way possible," Satterfield says. "A lot of people don't want to think about where their meat comes from, because they don't like blood and guts, but a life is sacrificed."

But many chefs are hesitant to switch completely to pastured poultry - mainly, Garcés says, because of the cost. Factory farming has been engineered for efficiency - the rate at which major poultry companies churn out chicken using relatively little space and manpower allows for chicken's deceivingly low price at the supermarket. A typical pastured chicken, Garcés says, takes twice as much time to grow to market size than a factory-farmed chicken: 12 weeks versus six weeks. That extra time means extra work for the farmers, which contributes to the chicken's higher cost.

Shaun Doty, co-owner and executive chef of Bantam + Biddy and a partner of Georgians for Pastured Poultry, features pastured poultry options on his menu year-round. He says one of the ways he's able to afford it is to make use of the whole bird - a tactic whose benefits go beyond cost efficiency.

"If you make broth with pastured chicken, it's fucking super food," Doty says. "You know you read about gogi berries and chia seeds - I'm telling you, a pot of soup made from pastured chicken bones is amazing, because it's so flavorful."

Still, Doty chooses to keep a more conventional poultry option on his menu - it's not pastured, but it's from a source he's visited and trusts. He says he would serve exclusively pastured poultry, but at this point, the price point isn't attainable - partly because, he says, there just aren't that many farmers raising pastured poultry yet in Georgia.

"It's really the genesis of pastured poultry, and we're really at the leading edge of that," he says. "The more we talk about it, the more people are going to be interested in it, the more they're going to want it."

Ron Eyester, executive chef and owner of Rosebud, agrees. With the help of advocates like Georgians for Pastured Poultry, the movement might just take off in Georgia.

"The cost is definitely the reality of the situation, but it's good to see a product gaining momentum," he says "I think Georgia is light years ahead of where it was in terms of supporting all local foods."

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