Friday, September 21, 2012

Was It The Chicken Or The Egg That Came First?

Emmett Frary, the fifth-generation with a two-
week old chick.
At Copicut Farms, in North Dartmouth, MA, the chicken came first.  Every three weeks during the warmer months they get a new crop of day-old chickens that are raised for their meat (8 weeks until they are ready for processing), but these are not the chickens that lay their eggs.  The farm has a totally separate operation with hens for their egg production. In the spring they will purchase 500-600 new laying chickens to complement the existing group of 500 egg-producing chickens and produce hundreds of thousands of eggs.

This was all a little confusing to me, a suburban hockey dad, but Elizabeth Frary, Owner of Copicut Farms with her husband Vince,  helped me to understand how a family-run poultry operation works.  Elizabeth is a fourth-generation farmer, her father owns E.L. Silvia Farms, a successful fruit and vegetable farm in Dighton, MA.  She and her husband, Vince, returned to the area several years ago and purchased 80 acres of land that had been used for a dairy farm in recent years, to start a pasture-raised poultry farm.

Vince has a degree in Biology and an advanced degree in Wildlife Biology, while Elizabeth has a degree in Environmental Studies and an advanced degree in Education.  Even her father is a thesis away from an advanced degree in Horticulture.  These are smart, nice, educated people trying to grow and provide good, healthy, local food for the community.  While I will rave about the chickens and eggs here, the father's nectarines, apples, corn and squash have been wonderful too.

Why am I writing about chickens instead of plants?  I absolutely love their eggs and chickens and this is a very cool model for sustainable farming and learning how to get back to raising food that is healthy and local.  I would have thought that all chickens were raised in big fields with lots of grass, water and sun, but I would be very wrong.  Since Vitamins A and D and antibiotics were brought to the market, most chickens we eat never see the light of day.

Also, they sell their products at local farmer's markets (Winchester, Westwood, Framingham and Milton) and I hope you have a chance to try their tasty offerings.

Jacob Sylvia, the egg-picker, helps out Elizabeth
at the Winchester farmer's market
Laying Hens and Eggs
During this past summer they had about 1,000 laying hens on the farm, that produced about 75 dozen eggs per day.  A young high school student, named Jacob Sylvia, comes after school every day to pick the eggs, since you can't leave them out too long.  These egg-layers are are a cross between Rhode Island Reds and Leghorn chickens, both of which are considered excellent egg-producing chickens.  Of course your don't want any roosters in this group, since only the hens lay eggs and unfertilized eggs are most typical in the market.  This reminded me of a Seinfeld episode, as most funny things in life do, where George's father tries to figure out the hen, chicken and rooster quandary

Another comic aside, you may remember Foghorn Leghorn from early Saturday morning cartoons, maybe one of the most famous of the Leghorns.

An egg-layer checking me out
These egg-layers forage in the field for bugs and worms, eat grass, clover and whatever else is available and get some feed for their diet each day. The feed comes from a local Cooperative that uses 40% locally sourced grain, with fish meal and probiotics.  With all this good food and open pasture, the hens lay almost one egg per day, and when they are happy, healthy and stress-free the eggs have a nice hard shell, the best indicator of health.

Right now, in the fall, they are culling their crop of laying hens to 500 for the winter, and the local Portuguese community loves the hens for eating.  They are great in stews and soups, but are leaner than the other meat chickens and have a much stronger flavor, not traditionally enjoyed in the marketplace.  They even have the chicken feet, which are excellent in soups, but I haven't crossed that line yet.  Might be a while before I am caught chewing on some chicken feet.

Next spring they will purchase another 500 or more laying hens as they have to keep the stock young since the birds typically stop producing eggs reliably after two years.

5 week old Cornish chickens enjoying some pasture
Meat Chickens
As mentioned earlier, they receive a new crop of some 300, day-old chickens every three weeks.  The bird is a Cornish Cross, a common fast-growing bird in the industry.  In eight-weeks they have a bird ready for market.  Elizabeth and Vince both agree that the key to a tasty and healthy bird is to feed them quality feed but not so much that they don't forage and eat what is available in the field.  Because of the healthy conditions they have no incidence of disease and only lost one chicken in their last batch.  This is well-below what is average in the industry for pasture raised chickens.

Unlike the large commercial growers of chicken, these birds live in clean, natural surroundings that doesn't breed disease, and the quality of their fresh feed, with minimal preservatives, keeps them healthy.  Often, inferior feed will make the birds eat too much to get their nutrition, and this can lead to significant health and weight issues as they won't forage and eat the natural aspect of their diets.

Sustainable Agriculture
These girls are not in a cage, we just lifted the egg
protector so I could get a shot of these beauties
An important part of the pasture model is to keep the chickens moving around the fields so the resources don't get depleted and the bird waste does not overwhelm the field.  The laying chicken's houses are moved every three days and the meat chicken's every week.  The bedding from the meat chickens and any other waste is composted and then put back onto the fields when ready.  Broken eggs and chicken parts not used in the processing also become part of the compost process.  This ensures the biological activity in the pasture stays strong and the plant life continues to regenerate.

Predator Issues
They had a pair of Cooper's Hawks this summer that tried to take advantage of the bumper crop of chicks, but the birds were able to ward off the attacks by finding cover in their house.  This is a real risk for living out in the open.  More recently, a skunk has found a way to enter the fence at night to terrorize the chicks, and since the birds are night blind, the advantage definitely goes to the skunk. Vince has stayed a few nights on the farm to try to figure out how the skunk is entering the houses, but it remains a mystery for now.  Losing a whole batch of chicks could be devastating, so vigilance is important to keep everyone safe.

Feeding time is no time to mess around... these
girls are tough
Young Emmett likes to hand-feed the chickens, wonder
if there is a market for that, they also have a family
member who is a yoga instructor, who want to make
them little yogis

They also process all of the chickens, right on the property when it is time, this minimizes stress from transportation and decreases their costs.  Some chickens are sold fresh, but most get frozen immediately for farmer's markets and to keep for sale over the winter.  They also have about 200 turkeys that will be ready for the holidays and currently have Cornish Game Hens, a 4-week old, version of their regular chickens.

I got hooked on the chickens when I split one in half and cooked it on the grill this summer, and Kathy and I now eat their eggs soft-boiled and poached.  You will notice the difference immediately.  Look for Elizabeth at the market and she will tell you all about it and how to prepare her chickens.

They will also be at the winter farmer's market at Mahoneys in Winchester all winter, so you don't have to go without during the cold months.

Please support local farmers, like the Frarys, who work hard to give us better food.

12 week-old Turkeys coming over to say hi...only a few more weeks
for them, I want to order two for Thanksgiving.

Don't make that neck too long, it is almost October...


  1. Cool! I have my own hens for eggs, and am lucky there's a year-round indoor Farmer's Market in a nearby town. I get free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken meat and turkey there. SO much better!

  2. Wow, I had no idea so many things were involved! Thanks for sharing all that you've learned.

  3. Very interesting! My roommate in college grew up on a chicken farm, and I visited a few times. I thought the baby chicks were very cute, but at the time I wasn't interested in the process. I learned a lot from your post. About those chicken feet: A friend grew up in Taiwan and she assures me chicken feet is the secret to staying young. The cartilage is very good for you!

    1. If chicken feet are the secret to staying young, I am willing to get old...

  4. This was a timely post for me -- since I am catching up on your blog while the chicken I'm roasting for supper -- bought from the small farm operation of a colleague at work -- is cooking. Like you, I also like to buy fresh eggs from local farmers. Yum. -Jean