Yesterday was our least favorite day of the year. Old hen recycling day. After 2.5 years as productive laying hens, half our flock was culled to make way for the new, more productive generation of chickens.
After all, we do live on a farm, and we can’t keep hundreds of pet chickens. So once a year my husband and I stress for a week about this one bad day for our chickens.
As farmers whose main focus is on growing plants, we are not as skilled or collected as our animal-focused colleagues at the long and emotional process of turning hens into food. It’s smelly, messy, sad, and a lot of hard work.
By deciding to raise animals on a farm, a farmer takes on the responsibility of that animal’s life. We feed them, grow grass for them, wake up at dawn to move them to fresh pasture, catch them at night when they are “teenagers” who are too confused to know where to find the coop, help them heal if they are injured, and yes, kill them when their time has come.
By taking on this great responsibility, and literally returning to our animals all the care we can give them so they live a happy life, we believe we, therefore, have some claim to their destiny. Certainly more claim than if we never once thought about the animals, eggs, or dairy that we love to eat.
The truth is a farm’s ecology needs animal inputs, and it can’t run sustainably without the give and take of animals and plants living in a dynamic system. Be it compost or manure, plants need animal nutrients to grow, and vice versa, animals need grass and grain for their nutrition. It’s untenable and impractical to believe that a farm can run completely free of animal inputs. After all, millions of years of evolution were built on the balance between the life and death of plants and animals.
During the industrialization of agriculture, we shifted our food system so that the production of meat and animal products became an industry rather than an intimate part of our lives. With each passing decade, agriculture shifted towards animals being raised in dark cages and slaughtered in a factory setting. The output of all this is little plastic packages of meat, cheese or eggs that look nothing like the original animals they came from.
Industrialized agriculture also made the cost of animal products cheap and as such, our society believed they needed meat in every one of their meals. Not only is this bad for our health and bad for the animals that suffer in these conditions, it is also one of the biggest harms to our environment. We are now a people afraid of animal death, separated from the food we need, expectant of meat in our diets, and judgmental of those who raise meat humanely.
Just two generations ago, my grandparents never bought meat from a grocery store. Instead, they raised and slaughtered every animal they ate. I now know the incredible amount of time and energy that cost them, and understand why my grandmother only served small servings of meat. She knew it was not something to be taken for granted.
In another year, my husband and I will slaughter next year’s old hens, but until then, we can occasionally rely on our own hard work for nutrition. Not all of us, including myself, have the capacity or bravery to raise meat in a humane and sustainable manner. I can turn to my farm for chicken, but whenever I crave a hamburger, I turn to one of the wonderful farmers and ranchers who dedicated their lives to raising meat humanely and sustainably.
As such, I want to introduce some of the wonderful meat vendors at the Napa Farmers’ Market where you can find meat that is worthy of every penny you spend.
Sonoma Mountain Beef Co. is a local, woman-owned business where you can buy all your beef. Long Meadow Ranch raises pasture-raised beef, lamb, and eggs. Encina Farm from Lake County raises Iberico pork under the shade of valley oaks. Farmer Joy offers of variety of different meat and eggs. We at Sun Tracker Farm sell pasture-raised eggs and for a short time, our old hens that we sell as stewing hens.
I am also happy to introduce you to Skyelark Ranch, a new meat vendor at the Napa Farmers’ Market. Skyelark Ranch is located near Shasta and is owned by a young couple, Alexis and Gillies, who are committed to good land stewardship and growing good food. They raise pastured meat chickens, chicken eggs, pork, and lamb. We are excited for a humane and sustainable ranch such as theirs to join our ranks and feed our community.
My grandmother made the best roast chicken in the world, but I know all the flavor came from the care she gave those chickens during their lives. If you want to eat the best roast chicken, buy from a pasture-raised chicken farmer, as nothing from the grocery store can compare.
The trick to cooking a chicken that ran around on grass, is to roast them long and slow. Because they spent their lives running and digging, they don’t have the blank tenderness that Americans expect from conventionally-raised chickens.
Simple Roasted Chicken
Serves 4-6 people
1 pasture-raised whole chicken
1 head of garlic, peeled into cloves
4 springs of parsley
5 tablespoons softened butter
1 cup of white wine
Pat chicken dry and coat in salt on all sides and within the cavity.
In a small food processor or with an immersion blender, make a paste out of 3 tablespoons of butter, 4 cloves of garlic, and the parsley.
Heat remaining butter on medium-high in a large Dutch oven pot that will fit the whole chicken or a large cast-iron pan. Add chicken and brown on all sides so that the skin is brown and crispy. About 2 minutes on each side. Use tongs to turn the chicken gently so the skin does not rip.
When chicken sides are fully brown, remove from heat and let cool completely. Save the Dutch oven pot with drippings. While cooling, heat the oven to 375 degrees.
When chicken is cool to the touch, spread the paste on breast and on legs. Put remaining cloves of garlic in the cavity. Return chicken to Dutch oven pot and grind pepper all over the top. Pour about 1/2 cup of the white wine into the bottom of pot. Cover with Dutch oven lid, or foil if you used a cast iron pan. If you use foil, tent it so it does not touch the chicken. Place in oven and cook for 40 40 minutes covered.
After 40 minutes, remove lid/foil. If the liquid in the pot is evaporated, add more wine. Return chicken to oven without a cover and increase oven heat to 425 degrees. Cook an additional 20 minutes or so. You will know chicken is cooked if the space between the drumstick and thigh is no longer pink.
When done, remove from oven and let rest 10 minutes before carving and serving with drippings and garlic. Excellent if paired with roasted potatoes or a green salad.
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Find the Napa Farmers Market at 1100 West Street at Pearl Street in downtown Napa on Saturday (year-round) and Tuesday (April through December), from 8 a.m. to noon. Face coverings are required for entry (no exemptions) for everyone over 2 years old. Check www.napafarmersmarket.org for and follow the Napa Farmers Market on social media for updates.