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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Chicken Ought to Be!

From the barn at Dinner Bell Farm, a chorus of peeps hung in the air above three-week-old baby chicks hopping about their brooders.

As soon as they are able, the young chicks will head out onto pasture for good old-fashioned fresh air and grass.

In their second year raising heritage chickens on 30 acres in Chicago Park, Bay Area bred farmers Molly Nakahara, Paul Glowaski and Cooper Funk (all CASFS Apprenticeship Class of 2006) remain devoted to food production that's good not only for the animals raised, but for the people who eat them and the planet. It's work that feels right.

“Farming really feels like quintessential, honorable work. Everyone's got to eat,” Funk said.

After years of learning their trade, the farming trio moved to the Sierra foothills to lease three adjoining parcels of land suited for farming — a mix of open land for pasture and row crops, ponds, orchard and woods, abundant with mountain water.

All in their early 30s, the farmers found each other while students in 2006 at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nakahara is an educator and ninth generation Californian who founded the Tennyson High School Farm in Hayward.

Glowaski spent three years as farm director of the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz where he helped train low income and homeless people how to grow food on a two-acre market farm.

Funk worked at Pie Ranch in Pescadero where he helped design and manage a pastured poultry operation. He and Glowaski founded Urban Eggs, a backyard poultry consulting business in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We love having folks come out to the farm,” Funk said. Already the farm has a strong local following.

Going beyond local, ties to the Bay Area are going equally strong where the farmers journey once a month to make deliveries. The Slanted Door, an upper end Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, likes the chickens so much it places orders for 85 birds a week.

Chefs seek out Dinner Bell Farm chickens for their rich flavor. Dinner Bell's heritage varieties — Naked Necks and New Hampshires — are known for tasty thigh meat rich in nutrition.

“It takes twice as long to raise our birds than it would the other,” Funk explained. His birds are harvested at nine to 12 weeks compared to standard harvesting times for commercial Cornish Cross chickens ready in six.

Every four weeks, Dinner Bell Farm receives a shipment of 650 day-old chicks in the mail.

“We don't hatch them here. That's a whole other ball game,” said Funk. Harvesting the birds is also done elsewhere at a USDA facility in Sacramento.

Once out on pasture, the chickens eat a diversified diet of grubs, seeds, grasses, legumes and perennial and annual plants growing between rows of fruit trees.

Every day, the farmers move the birds' shelters to a fresh foraging area, clean of droppings and pathogens, a system that doesn't overtax the land. Chickens are free to take dust baths, nap in the shade of a tree, eat certified organic feed and drink fresh water whenever they please.

“This is truer to what a chicken ought to be,” Funk said, adjusting the birds' watering system as chickens foraged at his feet.

Besides chickens, customers can find an array of produce. There are strawberries, arugula, mixed salad greens, onions, okra, a multitude of hard-to-find varieties of peppers and flowers for weddings and the table all grown at the farm.

It's not uncommon for these farmers to work an 80-hour workweek, toiling in the sun, rain and sleet building infrastructure, driving tractors and building soil. Yet they all look healthy and strong.

“We're fairly certain this is what we want to do with our lives,” Funk said.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 8:34 PM

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