Sweet Gum Farm is a small family farm located in Central Alabama. We started our farming adventure in 2015 when we got into beekeeping due to the decline in the honeybee population worldwide as well as for the delicious honey. After that we had the opportunity to get 11 laying hens so we decided to try having layers and were surprised at the huge difference in the non-GMO pastured eggs our hens laid versus the organic eggs we had been purchasing in stores.
Concern about the quality of the main source of meat in our diets had been on our minds for years–chicken meat bought in stores didn’t have much flavor, the meat tended to be blah and tasteless so needed a lot of sauces or flavorings added to give it taste– but we didn’t really know what to do about it. We also had started realizing that the food system in this country is based on hiding behind anonymity and denial about the misery the animals live in; we have no idea what goes into producing the animals that feed us or who is preparing the food that is supposed to nourish our bodies. In fact, when we picked up that package of meat in the grocery store, it was easy to forget that it ever was a live animal, much less consider the importance of how the animal was raised and its quality of life while it lived. We had read many articles and seen documentaries showing that the animals had lived miserable lives in horrible conditions (such as the picture below from an article)
as well as raising a lot of questions about their care and even the health of the birds, which isn’t something anyone wants to read about what they are eating. If the commercial chicken we buy from the store has to be butchered before it has a heart attack or other serious health problems, is it a healthy source of nutrition? What does that do to us as consumers who eat it? And what about those of us who didn’t want to support a miserable life like that for our food animals? These were the types of questions running through our minds but, again, we didn’t know what we could do about it. We were just two people dissatisfied with the established system.
After getting our own laying hens and tasting the difference between the organic eggs we had been purchasing in the store (because at the time we hadn’t realized that organic was only about the feed the chickens were given, not about their quality of life) and the eggs from our hens, we started to consider that we could raise our own chickens for meat as well as eggs. We set about researching it and learning all about the process.
Broilers are meat chickens, layers are chickens who lay eggs. The large poultry operations who raise chickens in the indoor buildings by the hundreds of thousands use the Jumbo Cornish breed. Jumbo Cornish chickens have been bred to have a lot of breast meat–the meat many people want most–and little leg meat, as well as to grow as big as possible in as short as possible a time. This produces a bird that is sometimes referred to a “frankenchicken” for its disproportionate physique; in fact, it can become so top-heavy that its legs cannot support its weight. According to a scientific study published in 2003 on the Michigan State University web site,
It is also generally accepted that the main cause of leg problems is that modern broilers have been selectively bred (often referred to as “genetic selection”) to grow extremely quickly. Today’s broilers reach their slaughter weight in around 41 days, which is twice as fast as around 30 years ago. These accelerated growth rates have been achieved primarily by selective breeding, but also through the use of rich diets [high-calorie feed] and, until recently, growth-promoting antibiotics. What grows quickly is the muscle (meat), but the supporting structure of legs, heart and lungs fail to keep pace with the rapid body growth, and can buckle under the strain of supporting the overgrown body.
That is the kind of animal-used-as-food problems that we wanted to get away from so we looked at the breed used by most pastured poultry farmers: the Cornish Rock cross. These are a smaller version of the broiler chicken than used by most commercial factories, still producing more breast meat in correlation with what the industry feels people want and still having the same health concerns of heart attacks in the birds. Frankly, one we had seen the breed in person, neither of us cared for it. The ones we saw were slow and inactive, choosing to sit by the feeders all day. They are the result of being bred for a lot of meat in as short a period of time as possible. We started looking for other broiler breeds to raise, looking for one that could live to adulthood naturally without having a heart attack if not butchered young and with a strong foraging instinct. We wanted chickens that acted like chickens.
After a lot of reading we found a breed that was developed in the 1960s to meet the high standards of the French Label Rouge program. The Label Rouge program focuses on high-quality products, mainly meat, with poultry as the flagship product. It emphasizes quality attributes such as taste and food safety as well as free-range production practices. This breed was developed before American crops began being altered to allow commercial pesticide application on them and Europe does not allow GMO crops so this breed was raised separately from what is an American commercial industry standard. Further, we are able to choose to purchase chicks that are specifically from lineage that has not been fed GMO feed. Once we read that possibility, we knew we had found a breed we wanted to try: the Freedom Ranger(TM) breed, a slower-growing, more active breed than the Cornish.
Concerned about this country’s meat animals being fed a feed that consists of ingredients that were genetically modified to allow them to be sprayed with commercial pesticides (such as RoundUp) and how that might impact our health as consumers, we knew we wanted to feed the meat birds a feed that had non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO). We don’t want to eat something genetically modified (so it could be sprayed with commercial pesticides) so why would we feed it to our food animals? We felt very strongly that we wanted to use a non-GMO feed to supplement the broilers’ foraging for bugs and tasty grasses.
We raised those first Freedom Rangers (TM) and, upon tasting the finished product, were immediately hooked.
We both simply knew at first bite that this was something we had to do. The taste was a huge improvement over the chicken meat we had been buying in stores–it actually had flavor! For someone who had considered giving up meat because commercial chicken was so bland and unappetizing, it was a huge revelation that raising this breed under the right conditions could produce such a tasty meat. In addition, there was the satisfaction of having given the chickens a very good life for their time here. They were able to range on fresh grass in the outdoors, dig in the dirt and take dirt baths like chickens do, scratch at grass and chase/eat bugs. We had managed to produce a meat that came not from the misery of a chicken raised in a factory farm in confinement but from a chicken that had led a good life full of the things that chickens like, engaging in chicken behaviors in a natural environment. Combine that satisfaction with tasty meat and we knew we couldn’t go back to buying commercial chicken. We had found our answer of how to get chicken that was not raised in the mass-production factories system and how to get a chicken that wasn’t of the same breed that had all the health problems we wanted to avoid in our food.
In addition, we kept some of the Freedom Rangers (TM) from that first group to see if they could live to adulthood without the health issues experienced by the Cornish breeds. Indeed they could live to adulthood without heart attacks, broken legs that could not hold up their bodies, or any of the other common health problems suffered by the commercial factory chicken sold in grocery stores. The Freedom Rangers (TM) not only survived but thrived in adulthood, laying eggs (for the hens, not the roosters) and continuing to live the pastured life. Yes, we had found a breed of chicken that not only tasted good and made us feel better about the humane, happy lives these birds led but also met our criteria in our search for a healthier source of meat. Knowing that we couldn’t be the only ones who are concerned about our food and our health, we decided to offer our Freedom Ranger (TM) broilers to others as well.
The foods with which we choose to nourish our bodies are too important to leave to nameless, faceless corporations whose only concerns are numbers, not quality. Don’t you want to know who is producing your food? Don’t you want to know how that food lived? Wouldn’t you rather feel satisfaction that your food was raised humanely and locally, reducing your carbon footprint on the planet? Wouldn’t you rather buy from a local farm that raises chickens on pastured grass like the photo directly above than from a faceless corporation that sub-contracts the raising of your food in the misery in the photo at the top of the section? Try our chicken and taste the difference while also feeling the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a difference by choosing to support a local farm that cares about the quality of life its chickens have.
About the Meat Chicken
We have chosen to raise Freedom Ranger(TM) Chickens. Some of the reasons we chose this breed are:
- It produces tender, succulent meat
- Does not have the health issues that some of the other breeds do
- Grows at a moderate rate for 9 to 12 weeks, compared to the 4 to 6 weeks of the Jumbo Cornish used in standard commercial poultry operations and the 6 to 8 weeks of the Cornish X used in most pastured poultry farms
- Active and robust breed for pastured environments
- More yellow omega 3 fat and less saturated fat than fast-growing breeds
Freedom Ranger(TM) birds were derived from an American and European heritage breed that was developed in the early 1960s to meet the high standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range program. This program, started by the French government in 1960, requires very specific slow-growing genetics that have been qualified through taste and other sensory evaluations to be significantly superior to other products in the marketplace. The program also has very specific growing and processing requirements that are much more stringent than any other program in the world. To learn more about the Label Rouge program the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas) put out a document that goes into more detail.
How They Are Raised
We raise our birds in mobile chicken tractors that are moved regularly to new locations in the pasture so that they always have access to fresh grass. This allows them to scratch the ground, forage, take dust baths, and be outside in natural sunlight as we believe nature intended. They are supplemented with a high-quality non-GMO feed to ensure that their feed was not treated with commercial pesticides while being grown. They are also given constant access to grit to ensure proper digestion. They live outside on the pasture and are put up at night in their mobile tractor to protect them from nocturnal predators while they sleep.
About the Egg Layers
The breed of chicken we use for egg laying is called the AmberLink. It is a breed that originated in the US but was eventually replaced by smaller, cage-oriented strains of chickens in the 1980s, although it remained widespread in South Africa and other countries with a requirement for large, robust birds. This breed is an excellent forager, egg layer, and needs room to roam.
All of our hens are pastured year round and are moved regularly so that they have fresh grass. They also have free access to a high-quality, non-GMO feed to supplement their diet, as well as free access to grit and oyster shells. We provide our hens with insoluble grit so that they can grind down their food in order for proper digestion to occur as chickens do not have teeth with which to chew. They also need the oyster shells to help replace the calcium that is lost during the egg-laying process.
In 2007 Mother Earth News, a strong advocate of better farming practices, ran the most thorough nutritional comparison of pasture-raised and factory eggs that we know of. The study involved 14 flocks across the United States whose eggs were tested by an accredited Portland, Oregon laboratory.
They found that the benefits of pasture-raised eggs include:
- 1⁄3 less cholesterol
- 1⁄4 less saturated fat
- 2⁄3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D
In addition to the Mother Earth News research findings, there have been a number of other studies showing that pasture-raised eggs are healthier than those produced by confinement-raised hens. Findings include the following:
- Pasture-raised eggs contain 70% more vitamin B12 and 50% more folic acid (British Journal of Nutrition, 1974).
- Pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamin E and omega-3s than those obtained from battery-cage hens (Animal Feed Science and Technology, 1998).
- Pasture-raised eggs are 10% lower in fat, 34% lower in cholesterol, contain 40% more vitamin A, and are 4 times higher in omega-3s than standard U.S. battery-cage eggs, and pasture-raised chicken meat has 21% less fat, 30% less saturated fat, and 50% more vitamin A than that of caged chickens (Gorski, Pennsylvania State University, 1999).
- Pasture-raised eggs have three times more omega-3s and are 220% higher in vitamin E and 62% higher in vitamin A than eggs obtained from battery cage hens (Karsten, Pennsylvania State University, 2003).
All of this leads us to believe that we are better nourishing our bodies by choosing to eat eggs from pastured hens who happily free range and peck, scratch and dig, as well as munch on the greens of their choosing all day long. We have been amazed at the difference between commercially available eggs and the eggs produced by our hens, and want to offer that opportunity to you as well by making our eggs available for sale.