Foxhollow Poultry Farm – “Respecting the Food We Raise”
Whoosh! A huge ball of feathers flaps past my head, catching me completely by surprise. “It’s just Cy Snoodle,” says Tai Johnson-Spratt, co-owner of Foxhollow Poultry Farm. She laughs. “He’s showing off.”
Tai and I are standing in the roomy, sunny hen house among a couple dozen busy birds. Several walk past our feet, checking out the things chickens, turkeys, and peacocks find most interesting — each other, food, grit, water, and whatever they can scratch up in the dirt. A few hens are perched on a series of boards that resemble bleachers at a football game. That’s where Cy, named after nearby Iowa State University’s Cyclones, was apparently perched when he decided to do a flyby. Cy is a fitting name for this cloud of feathers that seemed to appear in the air out of nowhere.
Now Cy struts across the floor of the hen house, his feathers puffed up and fully open, showing off just how big and manly he is. He’s got his eye on a svelte lavender female, his favorite. “See how he turns his tail feathers,” Tai says. “That shows where he’s directing his attention. He really likes her; he’s always following her around.” The object of Cy’s affection is a heritage variety that is critically endangered.
While Cy points his tail feathers in her direction, his head turns away, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m big and handsome, but I’m not really interested in you.” It’s my introduction to the mating ritual of turkeys, and I’m fascinated.
“But does she like Cy?” I ask, wondering if the gentleman has captured her heart.
“She’s too young to breed yet,” Tai tells me, as the young hen turns her back on her suitor, unaffected by his manly display.
She may be ignoring him now, but I have a feeling Cy’s persistence will eventually pay off. He’s pretty much the king of the roost here. Whenever he gobbles, several dozen white turkeys in a nearby pen respond in chorus, fluffing their feathers and simultaneously giving a little hop.
Cy is a beauty, with a periwinkle blue face and scarlet-speckled head, neck, and wattle. His shiny silver and black feathers stretch at least a yard across when he spreads his wings. Tai shows me that the long, black turkey beard emerging from his chest indicates he’s about three years old — an obvious sign that this fellow has escaped going to market. Most turkeys raised for meat are harvested at 14 weeks, if they’re a “young tom,” or at six months, if they’re a heritage variety like Cy, Tai’s husband, Tom Spratt, tells us.
Joe and Tom stroll outside in the penned area that connects to the hen house, where heritage chickens, heritage turkeys, and a few peacocks are conducting their daily affairs in the sunshine and open air. “This is what poultry farming should be,” Joe and I will agree later, as we drive away. We’ve done enough research about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to know that Foxhollow Poultry Farm is the exception in the U.S. today, not the rule.
The Business of Farming
The Spratts are raising more than 1,600 birds on a small acreage near Des Moines, Iowa. Several movable pens and coops house different groups of birds.
One large pen has white turkeys that will soon be old enough to go to market; one has baby ducks that will charm us before we leave; and another houses several poulet rouge, little red hens like the one in the folktale. In fact, the farm is home to a wide variety of birds.
Tai and Tom sell most of their meat birds to restaurants in Des Moines and their eggs to local farmers’ markets.
“We sell 85 to 90 percent of our meat birds before they are even born,” Tai says. “That way, we know how many chicks we need to buy or hatch before we get started. We’re trying to become 100 percent sustainable by the end of next year, so we won’t have to purchase any birds from outside sources. That way, we eliminate the possibility of purchasing from a hatchery that slaughters most of the male chicks.”
Looking around at the collection of roosters, as well as hens, it’s obvious that Tai and Tom care about both.
“Is raising birds a good business?” I ask Tai.
“It’s becoming a good business. The local food and Slow Food movements are helping,” she says.
There’s a lot of expense to raising so many birds. A poultry farmer needs a large enough plot of land to be able to move the pens each week.
In addition, the birds need clean bedding, fresh water, grit, and a few miscellaneous items — like CODEX food-grade, diatomaceous earth mixed with sand, in which the birds “bathe” themselves to keep parasites off.
The really big expense, of course, is their food. “We bought 3 tons of feed last week,” Tai says, “and they’ve eaten half of it.”
And let’s not forget the labor required to clean the pens each day. Joe and Tai stride over to a heaping pile of manure that is composting on the edge of the field. The Spratts mix in paper and cardboard (carbon) to combine with the manure (nitrogen). This controls the odor (somewhat) and helps the compost break down to become rich soil, which Tai and Tom donate to friends.
Most poultry farmers in Iowa — and throughout the U.S., for that matter — raise their birds in CAFOs and contract directly with giant corporate producers. Those CAFOs may hold tens of thousands of birds, confined in long rows of battery cages, crammed so tightly that they can’t move, or free to move about inside a long, usually darkened, poultry house.
Animal rights organizations, such as Compassion Over Killing, have published hidden-camera photographs showing hens in battery cages covered in feces from the birds in rows above them and ducklings dazed from force-feedings by machines.
But that’s far from anything we see here at Foxhollow Poultry Farm. Though penned (as much for their own safety as to keep them from wandering off), the Spratts’ birds have plenty of room to walk around on grassy or straw-covered ground. They are free to choose whether they want to move inside a shelter or carry on their activities in the sun, wind, or rain. They feed at will on food designed specifically for their needs as layers or as meat birds. And they have free access to fresh water.
Tai cleans the pens daily and relocates them to fresh grass weekly.
“I don’t allow the birds to sit in poo. You know what it does to grass,” she says, looking down at an area of sparse grass, where ducks had been penned a week or so before. “It does the same thing to the birds’ skin. The feces will actually burn them. I wouldn’t want to live like that, and I won’t let that happen to my birds.”
There’s a parental possessiveness to her tone. I can’t imagine hearing the same obvious affection coming from a factory farmer.
“If we don’t respect the food we raise, what are we saying about ourselves?” Tai asks. Good question.
Foxhollow Poultry Farm is Animal Welfare Approved, meaning the farm is audited according to more than 200 criteria for each species. “They come out and check such things as perch space, the nest boxes, and that we use good-quality litter. If you can do everything Animal Welfare expects, you know you’re doing a good job. They’re a wonderful organization,” Tai says.
The Spratts are members of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, which works to preserve heritage breeds, such as the critically endangered chocolate turkeys and lavender turkeys, as well as the endangered bourbon red and blue slate varieties.
Tai also is vice chairperson of the executive board for Iowa Network for Community Agriculture (INCA), a non-profit organization concerned with the promoting and building a local food system.
Tai began raising chickens five years ago after sustaining a back injury that left her unable to return to her job. “It started as a hobby,” she says. “I began raising them for personal use, but it soon got to where I had way too many birds.”
We walk over to a pen of baby ducks — 600 of them. “To most people, they all look alike,” Tai says. “But I have my favorites.” She smiles and points to one tall fellow who stands up straight and looks right at her. Suddenly, I can see the difference — the way he holds his head up and that dignified walk. But then he wanders off into a crowd, and he’s lost to me.
I pick out a favorite of my own — a runt of a fellow with slightly darker feathers than the rest. He scrambles around, fighting the bigger guys for food, then sticking his small beak into the pool of drinking water. That’s when I notice that this little guy’s beak is yellow, while many of the baby ducks near him have pink beaks. “It’s a gender thing,” Tom explains. “Girls have the pink beaks; boys have the yellow beaks.”
“They’re social animals,” Tai adds. “They like to hang out in groups together.”
“Do you mean they hang out in the same groups over time, or they just cuddle up with anyone?” I ask. A few feet in front of us a cluster of ducklings snuggles together in the sunshine.
“They hang out with the same ducklings,” she says. Apparently ducklings prefer the company of their friends, much like people do.
These little guys are only three weeks old. At eight weeks, they’ll weigh five pounds and be ready for the butcher. My heart leaps to think of these charming ducklings becoming the main course on someone’s table. “How does Tai handle it?” I wonder aloud.
“Not very well,” Tom says. “With our first batch, she couldn’t even be nearby when they loaded the birds on the trailer.”
“I’m getting better about it,” Tai adds. “I just wish we had a more humane way to kill the birds. It’s stressful enough for them to go on a trailer. At our processor, they use an electric stun knife. It stuns them before they cut the neck. That’s better than not stunning them first. What I wish we had is CAK — controlled atmosphere killing. It’s more humane. The birds are in cages and they pipe in a bit of CO2 to put the birds to sleep. There’s no CAK processor in Iowa, unfortunately.”
It’s heart-wrenching to think about the fate that awaits most of Tai’s birds. Raising animals for meat is a business, after all. If we humans are to be carnivores, then animals will die to feed us.
It’s something for every consumer to keep in mind as we choose our food. But, as a rule, we’re far removed from the death of the animals we eat. We go to the supermarket and pick up neatly packaged cuts of meat that have no resemblance to the living creatures that are enjoying life on this farm today.
Perhaps if everyone had a chance to visit a humane farm operation like this one, we would eat our food with more respect and reverence for the life that was sacrificed for our own nutritional needs. (And quite likely more of us would become vegetarians.)
Before we leave, Tai gives us a dozen eggs. Some are a rich brown; some are blue, almost green; a few are white; and a few more are speckled. “You’ll love their taste,” she says. “They’re a much richer flavor than store-bought [read: CAFO] eggs.” (And the next day, we find out how right she is.)
She puts the eggs in a clear-plastic container made from recycled pop bottles. The symbol on the bottom shows that it can be recycled again. “They cost more than pulp,” Tai says, “but they’re better, because they can be reused or recycled.”
As we watch Tai fill our egg carton, I ask, “What happens to the birds that are too old to lay? Do you send them to the processor?”
Tom says, “Some friends of ours run a 100-acre farm near Knoxville, Iowa. When our chickens are too old to lay, they go to the farm and live out their natural lives in bliss. Our friends’ kids love the birds, and they are happy with whatever eggs they might gather.”
It’s been abundantly clear in our visit that Tai and Tom Spratt are caring farmers, throwbacks, some might say, to an earlier time, when family farms really were run by families, not by corporations.
“These birds would not be here if it wasn’t for me,” Tai says. “So I have to take care of them the best I can. I wouldn’t feel right if they weren’t happy. That’s my job, and I have to do a good job.”