Last year, after seven years of “hard knocks,” and at a make-or-break point shortly after Frank retired, “we were ready to stop,” Laura Kay told me when Todd Wickstrom brought me to visit their farm recently. Then the couple met Wickstrom. He was excited about the national possibilities for a local product, and he helped them decide to expand their own production. The new partners plan to build a slaughtering facility that employs air-chilling, a method popular in France that results in purer, more concentrated flavor because it avoids the standard icy water bath. The hope is that Earth Shine will become as well known nationally for chicken as Niman Ranch is for pork.
In midwinter, few chickens were left on the farm; Wickstrom had recently persuaded the Joneses to send most of their young chickens to be served as poussins at a Bay Area dinner for the director George Lucas, knowing that Alice Waters and other cooks would taste them. Indeed, the response was the by-now-standard happy shock of chicken recognition. This spring, the Joneses will greatly increase their stocks. They told me that “spring chicken” has real meaning on their farm, where chickens ravenously consume fresh grass as soon as it comes up, and take a full twelve weeks to reach slaughter weight; factory-raised chickens are killed after six weeks. Earth Shine will also provide meat to Brian Polcyn, the chef at the nearby Five Lakes Grill and a co-author of the recent Charcuterie, for a line of pâtés and sausages made with, for instance, pistachios and Michigan dark cherries.
The chickens remaining were certainly the most placid and self-sufficient I’ve ever seen. When the Joneses opened the flaps of a tented hoop house (the kind usually used as a greenhouse), a few dozen handsome black-and-white birds strolled out and set to pecking on the grass. They had none of the frantic, easily spooked nature I remember from other chicken houses. I felt I was eavesdropping on a calm and contented klatch. As the birds clucked around us, Laura Kay, cradling one she especially liked the looks of, said, “This is the way it should be.”
Her bravado was notable. “Our birds are healthy,” she said. “For seven years, we’ve raised birds on pasture and never had a disease go through here.” The problem, of course, will be infection elsewhere that provokes widespread destruction orders. Well-cooked poultry cannot transmit flu virus, and farmers in this country seldom come into anything like the unsanitary contact during slaughter and processing that has caused bird-to-person transmission in Asia and eastern Europe. The awful possibility exists that a strain of H5N1 will evolve for person-to- person transmission and arrive here by jet, reducing decisions about poultry to secondary importance.
But the likelihood of panic and mandatory mass slaughter is real, and as of February, federal and state policies were still under discussion. “Farmers are concerned that if someone down the road is identified as having avian influenza, their [own] flocks will be summarily destroyed,” Marjorie Bender, the research and technical program manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a touchstone organization for rare-breed farmers around the country, told me. “I’d like to see monitoring” within the area of infection. “But we don’t know whether [the order] will be to monitor or to destroy.”
Chickens have survived health scares and mass slaughters in the recent past. With luck, they will survive new ones. In the meantime, pasture-raised birds finally offer a way to taste the flavor that has been available only to the farming few. Order some, and you might even be able to make chicken and dumplings.