Pastured Poultry Expands in Mason County
A few months back I received an e-mail from the kind folks over at Riverbird Farm, a new pastured poultry operation in their first season of raising chickens and ducks. As new farmers in the area — they're located on Kamilche Point, a gorgeous stretch of land located roughly halfway between Shelton and Olympia — they were looking to connect and share knowledge.
When I left Seattle in 2017 to start a pastured poultry operation in Shelton, it was a lonely experience. My friends were supportive but more than a little confused ("Grant moved where to do what?") I didn't have any farm business partners — just a stack of books and a desire to provide the community with local alternatives to factory-farmed meat and eggs.
So when Jo, Will, Maia and Henry reached out on the premise that they had also just undergone a major life change and landed on raising pastured poultry in Mason county, I was excited to chat with them.
Raising chickens on pastures in a country where over 99% of chickens raised for meat are raised in indoor confinement facilities (including those "humane washed" as free-range and organic) is an act of defiance. While the frustration many feel with the "conventional" way of doing things causes some to seek out local, pasture-raised products, it causes others to throw conventional career advice out the window and join the ranks of a growing number of pastured poultry producers.
I once heard Jonathan Safran Foer, author and board member of Portland-based animal welfare organization Farm Forward, say something along the lines of, "The expansion of this conversation can only lead to the end of factory farming."
And so here we are, expanding the conversation daily with community members, customers, and fellow farmers. I'm beyond thrilled to welcome four more pastured poultry farmers to Mason county, and to be having discussions about the future of sustainable food systems here on the Olympic Peninsula. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Grant Jones: I'm always interested in the journeys that bring folks to regenerative farming. Let's start there.
Riverbird Farm: Our collective farm journey began while living and working together at a camp and retreat center in California. As a group our backgrounds are varied: Henry’s in restaurant cooking, Jo in creative work and graphic design, Will in outdoor education and ropes courses, and Maia in international studies and visual art. In the camp setting we all wore many hats — planning, logistics, outreach, programming, gardening, building, etc. Working at camp gave us a shared appreciation for active outdoor work, creative problem solving, and living in community.
In 2018 the camp burned in a large wildfire. The result was a loss of home, community, and access to nature. It was a fundamental shift in each of our lives. We didn’t know then how much the fire would be a catalyst towards our future farm vision. That experience clarified what felt important going forward: shared work with people we love, plenty of time spent outside, good food, and leaving things better than you found them.
Do you feel like most of your peers share these values? Does today's economy provide clear pathways for these values to be enacted?
It’s a good question. The short answer is yes, it feels like a lot of our peers have similar values and no, the economy doesn’t provide any kind of clear pathway to enact them. We find that many friends fall into one of two categories — some pursue these values more in their working life and tend to make much less money, have less job security and usually no health benefits. Others elect to have more financial stability and job security, often working in tech, but don’t feel as aligned between their jobs and values.
Starting this farm, and quitting our full-time jobs to do it, is a big risk and was made easier by doing it as a four-person team. Few can take a similar risk, and we don’t have a super strong social safety net in the event of a failure, either. The way our economy is set up also means that even when you’re trying to focus on local production and local distribution, you’re still connected by necessity to an international, industrial supply chain. For example, as a farm we value re-use/repair and try to minimize what’s going in the landfill, but at the same time health codes and customers expect birds to be shrink wrapped, bagged in plastic, with plastic zip ties and labels. You get the idea.
How did you decide to start with pastured poultry?
We arrived at pastured poultry for a few reasons. First, we were all interested in farming livestock, so we knew we would be starting with animals. Second, poultry is a low-startup cost and fast-turnaround product relative to other livestock, so it seemed like an ideal starting point for us. Finally, because chicken is so commonly eaten, it felt like a great starting point to establish a customer base.
Do you expect what you are raising/growing now to change in the future?
Yes, absolutely. The “what” depends on many factors, but our ultimate goal is to raise animals who can get more, if not all, of their nutrition from our site. This would mean focusing more on ruminants like cows, sheep, and/or goats, and moving more towards ducks or geese on the poultry side of things. Ideally we’d also like to transition toward more of a silvopasture system that incorporates fruit and nut trees. Ultimately, what we grow will be dictated by our ideals, the land itself, and what our community will eat.
Why is raising animals who can get more nutrition from your site (rather than imported feed) such an important goal?
Feed is one of our main inputs for our pastured poultry. While we’ve chosen a supplier who clearly cares about the quality of their feed, it’s still hard to trace where/how their grain and vegetable inputs are being farmed. Our need to purchase feed therefore means that some of our money is likely going to large monocropping farms, despite our own interest in diversified farm management. Raising animals that can get their nutrition from our site means less dependence on monocropped agriculture and a reduced need for transportation of that feed. Less cost, fewer emissions, and more transparency on the whole chain of what our animals eat.
You talk about incorporating fruit and nut trees into the landscape in ways that would both diversify your product line and provide additional benefits to your livestock. In other words, you'd be adding more ecological complexity to your farm. This runs counter to the prevailing notion of both animal and crop agriculture in our country, which seeks to raise animals in single-species confinement and plants in single-species (monocrop) systems. Why are you interested in this more complex way of doing things?
Diversifying feels key to being a viable and resilient farm in the long term. Diverse systems are more “complex” by some standards, but they are also healthier systems. While monocropping and confinement operations are considered more efficient for outputs, it’s only “efficient” through a pretty narrow and deceptive type of accounting. Single-species systems take a lot of propping up — huge amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which have to be manufactured, packaged, shipped and sprayed. And those unhealthy systems degrade the health of what’s around them through toxic byproducts, eroded topsoil, contaminated water, etc. That sounds pretty complex to us.
By contrast, we’re aiming for a farm ecosystem with more species complexity, but that complexity is in the name of greater overall health, and it’s easier to manage a healthy system than an unhealthy one. A healthy system requires fewer outside inputs and can also respond better to disturbances like drought, heavy rain, crop pests and diseases, or even economic downturn. A diversity of plants and animals means a diversity of products to sell, more entry points for potential customers, and frankly a more interesting range of tasks in our workdays.
As a team of four people, it’s true that we can’t do everything. But the other piece of this is that we don’t intend for everything on our farm to run at enterprise scale. We can have diversity in our farm while still keeping our business operation more streamlined. Our vegetable garden is a great example; our chickens (which we sell for our business) produce lots of manure in the brooder, which we compost and turn into great fertilizer for our garden (which is for home use). So although we’re not earning money on the vegetables we grow, we can still turn a byproduct of one of our enterprises (chicken poop) into a great input (compost) that stays on-farm rather than that same byproduct becoming “waste” that has to get trucked off elsewhere, as would happen in a CAFO operation.
Why should consumers prefer meat from pasture-based systems over meat from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)? Should they prefer them over "plant-based meats?"
There’s almost no comparing animals from CAFOs with their pasture-raised counterparts. Besides the ethics of raising animals in conditions that factory farms actively hide from the public, the diet and exercise of animals changes the composition of their meat. Michael Pollan says “You are what what you eat eats,” and pastured animals eat a varied diet of species-appropriate foods. On top of this, pastured animals are managed in such a way that their impact (manure, scratching, digging, etc.) can prompt healthy growth from their environment. CAFO animal manure is often stored in large lagoons and leaked into the surrounding environment during storms, turning what would be a resource (nutrient-rich manure) into a human health hazard.
Plant-based meats are a major improvement from the inhumane, resource-intensive CAFO farming, but even these new meat-substitutes require vast monocultures of mostly soy and potato for starches and genetic material. These monocultures mean synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, not to mention often animal fertilizers like blood meal. Plant-based meats are still net carbon-emitting, while pastured systems can be carbon sequestering. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all for sound eating, but certainly pastured animals may present fewer moral quandaries than some of their alternatives.
Let's talk about human diets. While there are many variations on the theme of healthful eating, virtually all have been shown to be consistent with Michael Pollan's dietary directive to "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants."1 A primary takeaway from this conclusion is the need to generally reduce the amount of animal products we consume. Interestingly, Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma also helped to spark an increase in pasture-based livestock production through his feature of Virginia-based pastured livestock producer Polyface Farms. Do you agree with the conclusion that a reduction in animal products is called for, and if so how does your farm fit into a more plant-based future?
Generally we agree with that directive. However, many folks don’t think about the animal by-products that farmers use to fertilize their plant crops — animals are an essential part of nutrient cycling in farms and in our ecosystems. Farms that grow crops will need fertilizer, bone meal, feather meal, etc. from somewhere, so we hope to be able to provide that fertility for ourselves as we think about growing crops on our own farm. This means that farms will always need animals, and then it’s up to each individual and their own culture/ethics as to whether to eat those animals and their products.
What about farms that utilize synthetic fertilizers rather than animal-based ones?
Synthetic fertilizer is made using high temperature and pressure to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a plant-available form of the element. This process itself requires an unsustainable amount of natural gas, and the problems don’t end there. Synthetic fertilizer only provides some of the basic macronutrients that plants need, but not the trace minerals or biological components of the soil food web that provides for actual plant health. This means that the resulting undernourished plants grow big and fast from the nitrogen boost, but are actually unhealthy. They then get attacked by pests and outcompeted by weeds, so synthetic fertilizer then needs to be used in tandem with pesticides and herbicides.
Synthetic fertilizer is also volatile and water soluble, so much of it actually runs off the farm into neighboring waterways. Nitrogen fertilizer is responsible for the 6,000-7,000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi River dumps all of the fertilizer from midwest farms. So while synthetic fertilizer is technically an available option, it really only makes sense if you don’t think about where it came from or where it goes (or even really about how well it works). We would rather use animals who can fertilize by a natural process and provide a usable product (meat, milk, eggs, wool, etc) at the same time.
What is the biggest economic or ecological challenge your operation currently faces?
Our biggest economic challenge has been our start-up capital investment, specifically funding a slaughter facility. As a new farm, we are working hard to establish a customer base. Our current permitting allows us to process our birds with a temporary/outdoor slaughter area, which is more financially accessible to us at this time, but severely limits what and how we are able to sell our birds: no more than 1,000 in a year, sold fresh (not frozen), and all sold directly from the farm — that last one being the biggest hurdle of all. What this means is that in our first season we are looking for customers who are willing to drive out to the farm, on pre-set days, to pay a premium for pastured meat from a farm they barely know. An upgraded slaughter facility would remove many of these restrictions, making it easier to grow our customer base, but doing so is expensive and time consuming. The resulting catch 22 is that to get more customers, we will probably need to upgrade our facility, but in order to pay for an upgraded facility, we need to sell birds to more customers that we won’t have until we’re able to upgrade the facility.
A challenge in the bigger picture is that of our nation’s food priorities. While interest in pastured meats and regeneratively farmed foods is growing, US households still spend the smallest percentage of their household income on food in the entire world.2 Government subsidy of large monocrop operations and exploitative global trade agreements create a cultural expectation that food should cost as little as it currently does. Add to that decades of advertising that devalue fresh foods and place-based, seasonal eating. The result is a dominant culture that has no idea what it really costs to produce food — and to try to earn a living wage as a farmer.
What is your vision for the future of agriculture, and what role do you envision livestock playing in this vision?
A major part of our vision for the future of agriculture is an increase in the number of farmers! The American farmer population has been decimated in the past decades. Our vision of the future of agriculture involves a thriving network of small farms, not a consolidated few powerful large farms. Small farms are better able to adapt to local climate, topographic, and ecological factors, but to do this requires many skilled farmers in every community. Livestock are one of a farmer's greatest tools for cycling nutrients, invigorating pasture and forest growth, and preparing growing sites. This makes livestock an indispensable part of any small farm, whether or not they are marketed to consumers.
The trend for many decades now has been fewer farmers, larger farms, and more consolidation in the industry. How do we begin to reverse this trend to create a more equitable and inclusive food system?
The simple answer to creating a more inclusive food system is that you include more people. What does an American Farmer stereotype look like? An older white guy sitting on a combine. That’s not by accident. Indigenous people, people of color, low income people, non-male people, disabled people, queer people, and young people have all been systematically excluded from land access and policy making. There is a huge range of experience and perspective represented there, and so many people eager to participate at different levels. So it’s a matter of opening access in decision making, budget allocation, land access, food distribution, education, documentation, research etc. Food systems don’t just mean farmers — there’s a role for everyone to play here. As far as funding goes, there’s also a huge amount of money and subsidies poured into agriculture each year, so it’s not a matter of if there is enough money, but how it’s being directed. Said another way: it’s not a funding issue, it’s a priority issue. And priorities are set by who’s at the table.
Another big part is shifting the narrative around what is possible to grow on small plots. There’s a pervasive and false idea that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world. The reality is small farmers grow more food, while safeguarding the majority of the biodiversity. People have done a lot of harm in the name of something good, and it seems as though the slogan of “feeding the world” gives industrial agriculture license to do whatever they want, at whatever the cost. If our goal is healthy, nutritious food, then it’s critical to reclaim the truth that small farms are not only up to the task, but better suited for it.
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- Can We Say What Diet Is Best For Health? (Yale 2014)
- Which Countries Spend the Most On Food (World Economic Forum 2016)
About the Author
Grant Jones grew up on the Olympic Peninsula and studied English Literature & Philosophy at the University of Washington. After living in Seattle for 12 years, he left the city in search of a better tree to people ratio, and found it on the family farm in Shelton. Today, Grant farms full-time and envisions a Western Washington region where humans forge positive and sustainable relationships with our region's unique environment, preserving and enhancing it for future generations.