Real Chicken

Chris Browder doesn’t look like a banker anymore. He’s already got a farmer’s tan in April and sports the farmer headgear of choice, a tatty baseball cap. We are at Browder’s Birds, at the Peconic Land Trust Charnews Farm in Southold. Browder uses part of the big old barn as a nursery before setting the broilers out to pasture, to eat grass and chase bugs and stuff themselves on organic feed until, at 7 to 10 weeks and 4 to 5 pounds, they are ready to be processed. He is checking on the first broiler chicks of 2012. The littlest are only two days old, sacked out in a fluffy yellow heap, taking a nap. They are very cute. The older chicks are learning to spar and eating constantly.

“They do love to eat,” Browder says.

He is thinking today about how to keep hawks from grabbing the baby broilers out in the five-acre pasture. At about three weeks old, the chickens are still small enough to be swooped upon and carried away. Last year, a pair of cheeky hawks took to perching on top of the chicken tractor, unfazed by the electric fence that keeps the foxes at bay.

Now, in Browder’s third season as a chicken farmer, every chicken-related event is a lesson, each step is an experiment, every change is carefully thought through. Browder studied dozens of designs for “Prairie Schooners,” aka chicken tractors, before building two new ones for the flock of organic, free-range laying hens this year. The white half-cylinders about four feet high house 50 chickens and their egg-laying boxes. The new version, Prairie Schooner 2.0, as Browder jokingly calls them, were built by George Agnew, a good friend and CSA member, and based on last year’s prototype. They are quite beautiful; bright white in the green field, with all the brown chickens around. The schooners “sail” in slow motion over the field as they are moved along to provide new forage for the chickens. In their wake, they leave incredibly lush green grass—even if it’s pecked bare in places in the short term—fertilized by pure chicken droppings

“Our goal is to grow and diversify over time,” Browder says. “My way of doing things is slow and methodical, just kind of trying things out and seeing what works.”

Browder and his wife, Holly, a former executive assistant, met in 2006 and were living in New York City. They found themselves becoming increasingly active in the food movement, and inspired by The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, they moved to the North Fork to find a way to a farming lifestyle. During an apprenticeship at Garden of Eve in Riverhead in 2009, Chris raised and processed 50 chickens as an experiment.

“I saw that no one else around here was doing pastured poultry, and I thought I would give it a try,” he says.

The Cornish cross and red broilers are NOFA-certified organic, and the laying hens are expected to be certified in June. The Browders are offering an egg CSA this year. The plan is to raise up to 1,000 broilers this season; growing beyond the 1,000-a-year mark means having to process at a facility certified by the State Dept of Ag and Markets rather than on-site. That would mean transporting chickens at least two hours away. If they want to grow any larger, they will have to develop their own state-certified processing facility, Browder says. They process the chickens on the farm, with minimal equipment, in a temporary structure. There’s the “dirty side” of the processing, the killing, scalding and plucking. The “clean side,” which happens in a netted tent on a stainless steel table, is the beheading/befooting and cleaning out of organs and entrails. Chris knows his way around the inside of a chicken pretty well now.

The first time I tried Browder’s Birds chicken was at a friend’s barbecue last summer. There was loads of amazing food there already: lobster, oysters, backyard veggies, local wine and homemade beer. Chris and Holly turned up, and started slinging chicken pieces onto the hot grill. My curiosity was piqued: I had heard about these paragons of poultry that clock in at about $30 a bird. I hung around waiting for that chicken. I got lucky; I got a drumstick.

“It’s delicious,” I said, with my mouth full. “It is, isn’t it?” said Holly, smiling. “And it’s very filling; you don’t need to eat much to feel full.” The flesh was very white, and had a really good texture; not mushy like supermarket chicken and not stringy or tough like chicken I have eaten in some out-of-the-way places. The flavor was delicate, yet pronounced, aromatic like a good steak.

That summer, 2011, at the Greenport and the Westhampton Beach Farmers Markets, the Browder’s Birds stall sold chickens at a rate of knots. One morning in Greenport, Holly asked if I was interested in a chicken. “It’s the last one,” she said, so naturally I bought it. This bird was the star attraction of a summer feast. Simply roasted, with just a dash of salt, it was delicious, white and firm. We all tasted carefully, discussed its merits and its price. The chicken lasted for a second meal and then became stock. Usually I feel uneasy about boiling a carcass, because I imagine that nasty stuff from the spine and such. With this chicken, though, there was none of the fear and guilt, which, for a mother of two small children is worth any price.

“If we eat one chicken every other week, and stretch it out to a couple meals, and eat more pasta and vegetarian meals, we can afford this,” I thought. But at the next trip to the supermarket, enormous birds were on sale, so I bought one. It was not that good. It had lots of suspiciously bright yellow fat, mushy flesh and an alarming amount of blood-filled meat by the bone that no one would eat.

“People do get sticker shock,” Chris says. “But then they go home and eat the chicken, and come back for more. It’s about expectations—what should we be paying for organic, pasture-raised chicken? I don’t apologize for my prices, given the costs and huge amount of labor involved.”

If 89 cents a pound for chicken is ridiculously low, is $6.50 or $7 a pound really too high? Not according to the law of supply and demand: the Browder’s sold out of chickens at each farmers market. So, this year, it’s fairly certain that demand for Browder’s Birds will once again exceed supply.

The Browders keep moving forward, thinking about the next steps. They have started talking about buying their own land in a few years. Holly has created a line of dry spice rubs and a brine. And they have added a small flock of lambs to their livestock, to take the job of lead herbivores and tackle the long grass in the pasture, but also to be processed for meat at the end of the season. They’ll see how the lambs go, and consider adding them to their annual production. And maybe some goats; but then, the goats might rip up pasture, not just mow the grass nicely like sheep, Browder muses.