It’s difficult to find sustainable farmers and ranchers in Utah. If you do your research, you’ll notice that we’re about 10 years behind the Northern California or Oregon area as far as organic farming, free-range poultry, grass-fed beef, and pastured pork. I can count on one hand the number of people doing 100% grass-fed beef in Utah. I know because we bought a quarter beef last year. Even the hobby-ranchers buy a couple steers, raise them on grass for a little while and then send them to a feedlot to “fatten them up” on corn. They don’t know any different. Corn is so engrained into our American culture that even the old-timers that I’ve talked with think that it’s normal to feed a steer corn.
So when my sister saw McDowell Family Farms on a KSL news spot, she told me about them and I decided to see if they were everything they claimed to be, because many people are not.
For anyone who’s read Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” you understand what I’m talking about. “Free-range” is an incredibly loose term in this country. According to Pollan, in order to label your poultry in the supermarket as “free-range”, you must provide a little patch of grass with a small door in the poultry house that stays open for a certain amount of time during the day. Chickens are stupid creatures. They are driven by food (does that make me stupid?) as most animals are. This means that instead of venturing outside to enjoy the fresh air, yummy bugs, grass, fresh water, and everything else the great-wide open benefits chicken-kind, they stay indoors. Indoors is where the food is. Even if it is protein pellets designed to fatten the chickens to the point they can no longer walk. Chickens are also flock animals, meaning they aren’t solitary, mostly for protection against predators. Chickens stick together. And if everyone else is staying indoors to be close to the food, even if they’re not hungry, they stay close, never venturing outdoors. This vicious circle, in addition to the greedy, bigger, faster, cheaper, attitude that rules the roost in this country, is the reason we have salmonella outbreaks. It’s also the reason that we aren’t able to cook our poultry to our desired temperature. Anything below 165 is Russian roulette. It’s the reason we have to treat raw poultry like nuclear waste in our kitchen: sanitize! What else did you cut with this knife? Cross-contamination! AH!!! If only we had better products to work with, we wouldn’t have to be so paranoid about being paranoid.
Ok, time to step off my soapbox. If you’re interested in becoming more educated about our food system in this nation, check out any of Michael Pollan’s books, or Eric Schslocher’s book “Fast Food Nation.” The documentary “Food Inc” is also excellent. Even Anthony Bourdain, a guy who normally couldn’t care less about how animals are treated as long as they taste good, has an entire chapter in his new book “Medium Raw” where he rants about how he’s sick of not being able to order a medium-rare burger.
Becoming educated is exactly what led Danny and Shawnee McDowell down the path they’re on. It was inspiring to see a couple, not much older than me, following a dream, fighting the system, and having fun doing it.
I spent a morning up on the land that they lease in Wanship, Utah. If you’ve never heard of Wanship, don’t feel bad. There’s not much there. And the owners of the local convenient store won’t let you use their restroom. Hopefully the rest of the townsfolk are kinder.
Avoiding the groundhog as he scampered out of the way, I attempted to navigate the dirt road in my civic, down towards their field. I opened the gate, said hello to the horses in the corner, and made my way across the vibrant green grass over to Danny and his roving chicken and turkey shelters. The grass was amazing, fairway-like. It was clear where the birds had just finished “fertilizing.” They were now located on another patch of grass, kept there by way of solar-powered electric fences. Clear water was flowing out of hoses as chickens bent down to get a drink.
The birds meant to be slaughtered for meat where a lot less curious and friendly than the laying hens. It’s like they knew what they were born to become, happy and blissful for the moment, but slightly apprehensive still.
The hens were all sorts of friendly, perhaps knowing theirs was a lengthy, happy life so long as they kept producing eggs. And the smell. All those horror stories I’ve heard about how chickens produce poisonous gases…not these chickens. I’m sure part of it was because they were out in the open and not surrounded by thousands of other birds in a poorly ventilated barn.
I found myself smiling spontaneously every so often, even while brushing excess chicken defecation from the feeders, not knowing how to describe the joy I was feeling, knowing that this clean and humane product was available to me and my fellow Utahns. It’s simply heart-warming to see the chickens clucking around, scratching at the ground, pecking at the bugs, and just being chickens.
Danny has been back to Virginia for a tour of Polyface farms (the main sustainable farm in Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc) and has tried to mimic the success based on Polyface’s vision, that is, to be a grass farmer above anything else. The whole notion of free range depends upon vibrant grass and living environments where multiple, diverse life forms can flourish. Monoculture is a four-letter word among sustainable farmers. It’s all about diversity. In this same spirit, Danny has a couple geese honking around, not serving any particular purpose other than they’re fun to have around. Danny has since learned that they are especially vocal when a hawk starts flying around, warning the other animals.
Turkeys were the next things we tended to while I was there. They were fearless.
They were also obsessed with the removal of the pockets from my cargo shorts. I had to keep my fingers above my waist lest they try to remove them as well. It was difficult snapping a photo of them because they kept stampeding towards me.
It was honestly the first time I’d seen a turkey in real life. They looked exactly like the cartoon turkeys on Looney Toons when they fluffed up their feathers. There were two different breeds, each one with totally separate personalities. The heritage varieties seemed uppity and a little cranky (as their name would suggest), while the ordinary white ones were almost docile.
Either way, I was able to look past the goofy exteriors and see lots of delicious Thanksgiving dinners.
McDowell poultry is not cheap. Chickens start at $4.25 per lb. When I asked Danny about this, he had a pretty good answer.
“It’s honestly priced food,” he said, meaning he’s not receiving subsidies from the government to make the birds artificially cheap, and he’s not taking advantage of his customers and pricing the birds too high. After hearing him out, I totally believed him. Plus, just seeing how the birds were treated, what they were eating, how extremely healthy they looked, paying a premium didn’t seem all that bad. And the taste is amazing.
The chicken that I bought (which was of the Red Ranger breed) had an intense chicken-y taste to it. I usually brine my birds that I roast or grill, but for this one, I chose to roast it, sans brine, and just watch it like a hawk (no pun intended). It turned out marvelous.
I sincerely wish Danny, Shawnee, and little Saffron the best of luck in their poultry adventure.
I honestly hope that I’m able to witness McDowell Family Farm grow into a diverse operation, leading the way for sustainable, polyculture farms in Utah. Someone’s gotta blaze the trail. It just takes someone with the courage and passion to do it right.
For information on ordering chickens, turkeys, or eggs and contacting Danny or Shawnee McDowell of McDowell Family Farm, check out their website at www.mcdowellfamilyfarm.blogspot.com