I'd never been to a poultry farm before and I didn't know quite what to expect on my visit to Pollo Real in Socorro. The truth is, it's not that fancy; chicken wire and polyurethane sheets become lightweight yurts-trailer homes to keep the chickens dry during the winter and in spring perfectly functional brooding houses. "Everything on the farm comes from what you have laying around to make it work," Tracey Delehanty told me, noting my curious looks.
Joel Salatin, a guru of the sustainable-food movement who has won cult status among farmers for his innovations in pastured poultry, puts farming in this context. "Every day is not picture perfect," he writes. "But do you get an overall impression of order, effort, happiness, and health?" And to this question, Pollo Real answers a resounding "Yes!"
Without a doubt, the Delehantys are passionate about their chickens. This is clear from their extended history of farming; Tom is a sixth generation organic farmer who grew up on a 160-year old family farm in Wisconsin. Additionally, their relationship with the land is downright religious. Tom and Tracey exhibit clear reverence and devotion in all aspects of their farming from blessing each bird processed, their desire to educate and connect with community ("Charging people money to come visit your farm is hogwash! The information that we have learned over the years is free to all!" Tracey noted fervently), as well as helping the planet and future generations by creating more organic soil.
Gleaning inspiration and knowledge from Joel Salatin, Tom and Tracey moved to Socorro in 1994 for a number of reasons; year-round farming, processing facilities in New Mexico are less intensely regulated (meaning the USDA does not require them to build an expensive processing plant, one way in which big producers keep out competition), and the accessibility to and enthusiasm of markets such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
"One nice thing about New Mexico consumers," Tom said, "is they really want to support local farming and help out any way they can." The Delehantys started out processing fifty chickens a week and after four years, were up to a thousand birds on a spread of 30 acres.
So, to clarify a few terms-pastured poultry is a production system that employs raising chickens, turkeys, or ducks right on top of living grasses, or directly on pasture. There are hundreds of small farms nationwide that use this method and Pollo Real is the largest pastured poultry farm in the United States. This is accomplished by keeping the birds in low, wide, bottomless shelters called yurts, or "chicken tractors."
The yurts are moved to a new spot of fresh pasture; every few days when the chickens are younger, and daily when they are older and larger. Constantly moving the birds enables them to eat all the varied, living grasses, other plants, bugs and bug larva they can find. Chickens can get about thirty percent of their dietary needs from these, but they also need grain. Tom plants and rotates different crops each year to provide the supplementary grains. In addition, the poultry sheet manures the land and creates incredibly fertile, organic soil which holds more moisture and therefore grows more and has to be watered less often.
So, initially I thought pastured poultry and "free range" were the same thing. Free range conjures up a picture of chickens running around a healthy, bustling farmhouse, eating grass and other things to their hearts' content. However, free range, as used commercially today, simply indicates chickens that are not in cages and do not have a physical barrier between them and the outside of their building. They do not get any living grass.
Unfortunately, the term free-range is abused, and what's more unfortunate is how the public is misled. It is virtually meaningless as a marketing term if you know a few facts about chickens: they will not walk very far out of their line of sight; they feed on what they see close to them. They won't go around a see-through fence for water.
Some commercial poultry farmers have put little doors at the ends of their huge chicken barns, doors that open onto a bare dirt lot, and by doing so, are able to call their product free-range, whether the chickens ever go outside or not. Some pastured poultry farmers have to allow their birds to be marketed as free range, because it is a term the public is more familiar with. It is a highly effective marketing term that works well to sell supposedly healthful birds and also because the term "pastured poultry" can be a bit confusing, and quite frankly, it's not as sexy as free range.
Because of rising fuel costs and a desire to have time to rejuvenate in the winter months, the Delehantys have completely revamped how they market and distribute their meat this year. The new system, wherein they cut their production of birds by half, is a farmer managed Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Tom and Tracey organize and market their own CSA, recruiting subscribers and determining all management decisions, such as the frequency of deliveries. In their CSA, deliveries will be made at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market twice a week and the subscriber takes as much or as little of their order as they choose.
Their subscribers have committed money at the beginning of each year to purchase part of that farm's crop. What's beneficial about CSA programs is the direct link between local residents and nearby farmers, eliminating "the middleman" (such as Albertson's, whose margin on Pollo Real meat might be as high as one hundred percent), thereby lowering the cost to the consumer and increasing the profit margin for the farmer. The farmer is also receiving an initial cash investment at the beginning of the season, which helps to stabilize costs.
Normally, it takes a few years to garner a clientele for a CSA, but because the Delehantys have earned such an impeccable reputation over the past ten years in the community, they are jumping off from a much higher point.
"We are literally bringing the farm to the dinner table," Tom says. "It's a direct avenue to the committed customer, and we've been getting precious personal notes that are so important. It's important to hear that praise and know you're appreciated." (The CSA model was first developed in Japan in 1965 and called teikei, which translates "food with the farmer's face on it.") With the downsizing of the chicken production, Tom would like to focus more on diversity of crops and is looking to grow produce such as asparagus, raspberries, onions and garlic. Additionally, this year Pollo Real is introducing a new variety of French birds.
Tom is very excited about his new French birds. "LaBelle Rouge," the red beauties, are an old variety of chicken that has been developed for their exquisite taste. The birds are slower growing, but hearty, healthy and very flavorful. The French birds are also good rangers, which makes them better suited to the model of the pastured poultry system.
This year Tom is raising half French variety and half American birds, but he's hoping to go all French in the future and is convinced any customer who tries it will want to switch. In addition to more flavorful taste, raising these red beauties will further differentiate him from the big-industry meat chicken producers such as Tyson and ConAgra. "You have to keep thinking ahead of the game," he says, "in order to create barriers between us and the "big people.'"
"Doing it right is how I need to do it. And doing it right rarely means more money, or making things easier," Tom tells me as we're finishing up the interview, "but doing it right is my religion."