by Rebecca E. McIntosh of Santa Fe, NM
A rooster’s crow is the only clue that this is a chicken farm.
There is no other noise. No bustle of chickens, squawking or pecking as one might imagine 1000 birds would sound, no mind-numbing hum of machinery, no screeching sounds some might associate with the thought of a slaughterhouse. And there is no smell. Only when passing the propane tank is there a whiff of anything other than brisk November air.
Believe it or not, this quiet place is actually one of the most innovative and progressive meat poultry farms in the country. Found two hours South of Santa Fe in the rolling plains of Socorro, New Mexico, Pollo Real is the largest pastured poultry operation in the United States. This technique of sustainable, organic farming is known for not only producing what some say is the best tasting chicken around, but the method also ensures healthier chickens produced in an environmentally friendly manner.
From the entrance, the view is of a somewhat primitive looking farm. A 40’s vintage tractor sits between abandoned-looking buildings and the pasture, which stretches out across the rest of the land. Rows of small grass-like plants can be seen, nourished by the rich, dark soil, and, towards the edge of the green, there are eight miniature chicken coops, each about 12 square feet in size.
Tom Delehanty, owner of Pollo Real, calls them “movable shelters” and they are the cornerstones of his highly developed method of raising meat chickens. This ‘highly developed method’ however, does not include genetically engineered feed, modern veterinary medicine or state-of-the-art equipment. Rather, it is a refined method of organic farming and sustainable agriculture that enables the chickens to live in a natural environment.
In recent years, organic farming methods have become more and more commonplace as consumers’ demand foods produced in non-traditional ways. An increasing awareness of genetically modified foods and suspected health issues associated with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics are at the forefront of the movement.
While industry farms use pesticides to increase their crop yield, genetically modified seeds to make larger (sometimes pesticide-resistant) crops, hormones to speed up animal growth and offspring production and antibiotics to keep the animals from getting sick; organic enthusiasts refuse them all.
“Antibiotics are used because of the closed, confined, crowded systems (where the animals are raised),” explained Delehanty.
Matt Mitchell, owner of Reunion Ranch Beef in Roy, New Mexico, agreed. “When they (the animals) are very stressed, they get sick,” he said.
Mitchell and Delehanty explain that the antibiotics are given in low doses to prevent the healthy livestock from getting sick. In chickens the antibiotics also make the birds grow faster, and in beef, hormones are given to cows to increase production.
According to recent studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, this consistent low dosage of antibiotics leads to an increase of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the animal that can not only be detrimental to the animal but also to a human who eats the contaminated meat.
In one of the published studies, Dr. David White of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and his research group discovered that out of 200 meat samples from grocery stores in the Washington D.C. area, 20% had salmonella (a common food pathogen). Of those infected with the bacteria, 84% was resistant to one antibiotic. Five isolates were actually resistant to nine antibiotics!
Most scientific studies regarding factory-farming techniques focus on the issue of antibiotic resistance because of its crucial contribution to the effectiveness of modern antibiotic drugs. These antibiotics can prove to be ineffective in sick humans and animals if the bacteria causing the sickness are resistant to treatment.
Activist groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Campaign for Food Safety and the Center for Science in the Public Interest conduct and support studies such as these. They also try to lobby for change in factory farming methods and government regulations. Some studies include the use of hormones (especially rBGH in dairy cows) and their association with promoting cancer and early puberty in children, and the use of pesticides and their association with child asthma.
Research in this area reaffirms organic farmers’ beliefs that the use of these methods is potentially dangerous to both animals and humans, and therefore a different way of raising the animals must be achieved.
For Mitchell, in order to make a stress free environment for his cattle, he cannot keep them in huge buildings, nor can he keep as many as a factory farm might. “It takes longer to get the beef to the weight you want,” he said. However, he described his goal as “trying to keep healthy the land, soil, grass and communities” instead of just producing meat cattle.
This holistic approach is not easy or lucrative, but the farmers feel better about their product.
“My saving grace is the quality of my product, the texture, the flavor, the smell,” said Delehanty. He believes not only that his method produces a better tasting chicken, but also that the animal and the earth are healthier. “Healthier soil equals healthier animals equals my children being healthy and consumers being healthy,” he said.
Delehanty’s pastured poultry model is unusual because unlike factory farms, the chickens are outdoors, feeding on grass that is not treated with pesticides and eating organic grains. They are kept in small groups in their shelters so they have room to roam around and are able to have a natural pecking order.
Delehanty explains that in factory farms, the chickens are kept in buildings in unhealthy conditions, living in individual cages surrounded by thousands of other birds.
“If they left the lights on all day (and night), they would eat themselves to death,” he said. He explained that the antibiotics help keep the chickens’ hearts, livers and lungs going.
Even ‘free-range’ chicken, considered by many to be better than factory-raised, is looked down upon by some pastured poultry farmers. It is argued that the natural pecking order is destroyed when there are thousands of chickens loose in a field, and therefore they are painfully debeaked. Delehanty said the chickens tend to go ‘insane’ when they are in such conditions and become very lethargic.
“If there are too many, they won’t range,” he said, “and you’ll get a slop hole (of all their waste in one place) that will stink.”
Delehanty’s method eliminates all of these problems. The chicken shelters are made of chicken wire for the walls and have an insulated, waterproof top that opens in sections. Inside are a small gas powered heater, water and a container holding grain feed. The bottom is open to the grass pasture. The chickens live in groups in the shelter, and feed on the pasture (freshly planted organic millet, oats, wheat, chicory and abrassicas) and organic grains.
The chickens’ waste goes back into the soil to fertilize it, along with some water, and the chicken shelters are moved every day so that the chickens are not living in their own filth. The heaters keep the chickens warm in the winter months, and during the summer the shelters are open to the fresh air.
Delehanty employs about three other full-time people, and four half-time people to help him at the Pollo Real farm. Every week the farm receives, raises, processes and distributes about 800-1000 chickens. The chicks arrive at the farm (they come from a supplier) and live in the “movable shelters,” which Delehanty and his staff move once a day. When the chickens are ready to be processed, the Pollo Real farmers, instead of shipping the birds off to a processing facility, do it on the premises.
Delehanty said this is what distinguishes his operation from others, the fact that everything is done on site. This helps eliminate new pathogens from contaminating the meat. Naturally, the chickens may not be pathogen-free, but reducing the number of sources is one of the most effective ways to keep the food clean. This way all the chickens being processed are from the same place, exposed to the same things, and nothing foreign is introduced. The processing facility is also kept as clean as possible and only used once a week in accordance with the size of the farm.
The chicks must be brought in from other farms because all meat chickens are hybrids from different species, said Delehanty. Therefore, he cannot produce his own chicks and is dependent on outside suppliers. He wants to change this. Delehanty and other farmers with whom he collaborates are trying to develop a line-breed so that they can be completely self-sufficient. However, this can take nearly seven years to do.
Tom Delehanty is a sixth generation organic farmer, and has been raising meat chicken for over 15 years. He moved to Socorro from Wisconsin in 1994 to start Pollo Real and lives there now with his wife and their two kids. Although they are only ages four and seven, Delehanty described them as the seventh generation of farmers, as they are beginning to help with the chores. Throughout his career, Delehanty has learned about different types of poultry farms in order to help him develop his own pastured poultry method in which he keeps two ideas in mind: the health of the chicken and keeping a natural environment.
“Trying to balance both of those is why I’ve gotten here,” he said.
Delehanty calls his system a “soil production model” because he is not only sustaining the earth but also restoring it. He said he only has to water about once a year because the soil retains it so well, and he compares this to factory farms that typically waste water. Further, because the chicken waste is composting the soil, he does not have waste products to get rid of as many farms do.
“It’s what makes sense in the whole big picture,” said Delehanty.
Because the chickens are not in confined environments and under stress, Delehanty eliminates the need for antibiotics and counts on the birds’ “real immunities” to protect them in their natural environment.
Overall, Delehanty’s Pollo Real farm seems to fulfill his own personal goal of being healthconscious, animal and earth friendly. Can he live off of it though? Delehanty said that it is hard, but again his pride in what he does keeps him going.
“It takes time to develop,” he explained. But his business is growing, and is in fact larger than other farms of its kind. As a member of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, one of his goals is to teach others and standardize the methods so that they can be more widespread.
Members of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by Associate Director Steve Stevenson, recently conducted a multi-year study of small farms in the United States, including pastured poultry producers. The study, the “North Central Initiative for Small Farm Profitability” was funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and could influence future regulations and funding of small farms.
According to the study’s findings, Pollo Real is clearly one of a kind. “It is by far the biggest in the country,” said CIAS Agricultural Economist Don Schuster, who helped analyze the data. Schuster explained that the pastured poultry methods all seem to stem from one model, created by a farmer named Joel Salatin, but that Delehanty’s is unique in its size and movable shelter arrangement.
Of the 12 pastured poultry farms in the country that were examined in the study (all that were found, but Schuster admits there could be more), all the farms started out the same, with the small movable shelters, said Schuster. However, all except Delehanty’s changed their farms to have a “hoop house” method because it was less labor intensive and did not move all the chickens each day. Schuster believed that Delehanty’s success could be attributed not only to his dedication as a farmer, but also to his extensive efforts in marketing his product.
“Raising the birds is the easiest part,” said Schuster. “Tom has done a fantastic job of building his markets.”
Delehanty’s biggest market is in Santa Fe, two hours north, and he is endorsed by many of Santa Fe’s finest restaurants including Café Pasquals and Geronimo.
David Coulson, General Manager at Café Pasquals, said that their establishment chooses Pollo Real chicken because “the best flavor comes from natural and organic products, and they are also good for you.” He continued, “Pasquals serves Tom’s (Delehanty) chicken because number one, it tastes better, number two, it is good for you and number three, it is good for the environment.”
Santa Fe is a community that supports a number of natural food markets as well, including the Market Place, Whole Foods and Wild Oats. Delehanty admits that he chose his location in Socorro partly because he knew he’d have a decent market to sell his chickens in Santa Fe.
“I sell ten times as much in Santa Fe, a town of 60,000 than in Albuquerque, a town of 600,000,” he said.
He warns though, that not all organic labeled or natural food is the same. Chicken could be fed organic grains while living in a cage in a factory and be considered certified organic. Delehanty and Mitchell alike expressed concern over upcoming new USDA guidelines for certified organic products, saying that the guidelines would reduce the standards for organic food and make it more difficult for consumers to determine exactly how their food was produced.
Clearly, people across the country, and the world (Europe has recently taken more drastic measures to change its agricultural system including banning genetically modified foods) are concerned about what they are eating. Delehanty laments, though, that many do not know where to find better food, or find it inconvenient and expensive.
Lobbyists for organics involved in the new USDA regulations find opposition from big companies such as Monsanto who creates genetically modified seeds and those who support factory farms. The questions of pollution to the environment, health risks for humans and animals and animal well being are some of many arguments being used to try and change an industry whose goal is to produce cheap food in enormous quantity.
In the meantime, farmers like Delehanty and Mitchell hope to contribute to the movement in their own way – with primitive looking but revolutionary farms – by providing healthy meat to consumers in northern New Mexico and trying to increase awareness of the issues.