Move Over Chicken McNuggets: A Story About a New Heritage Poultry Farm

“You are what what you eat eats.”

― Michael PollanIn Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Although born and raised in San Francisco, Carla always knew she wanted to be around animals.  At 15 years old, she got her first job as a Veterinary Assistant and continued to work in the field through high school and college.

However, during college she developed a strong interest in journalism and ended up a corporate copy editor in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she realized corporate life didn’t agree with her, and she longed to do more physical, outside work.  Inspired by reading about the existing food system, animal treatment on factory farms, and her long history of being surrounded by animals, Carla made a choice that is becoming increasingly popular: rather than make small changes to the food system by eating local and supporting sustainable farmers, she decided to become the sustainable farmer.486703_10151160755109483_1756305738_n

In time, she saved money, quit her job, and started a series of farm internships that took her to farms in four states in as many years.  It was her first taste of farm life and she immediately realized that this was the life she wanted. Through word of mouth and the farming network World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), she found inspiring mentors who were happy to share their wealth of knowledge and skills with a farming novice.

In between restoring farm houses, milking cows, and cleaning chicken coops, Carla decided she wanted to work on her own land. By some stroke of luck (or fate?) she found a couple in Oregon who invited her to live and start a farm on their 20 acre property.

Enter Mountain Bed Farm.  Located 30 minutes south of Portland in Sherwood, Oregon, Carla is now working hard to turn raw land into a farm that will provide high quality, nutrient dense food to the local community.

Carla is particularly interested in raising heritage poultry as an alternative to the Cornish Cross genetic hybrids that dominate the existing food system.  “The Cornish Cross are bred for fast growth at all costs,” she explains. “They often break their legs and have heart attacks because they grow faster than their bones and organs can keep up. Heritage poultry are not only naturally healthier, happier animals, they taste better!”

To explain the benefits of diverse foods, “think of a grocery store tomato,” Carla explains.  “They all look the same and are mealy, bland, and basically taste like cardboard,” she says with a laugh. “But get an heirloom tomato and your farmers market, or better yet grow one in your backyard, and the second you bite into it you’ll understand why heirlooms are worth saving.”

“People are starting to realize that we’re missing out on something, on variety,” Carla says.

Like an heirloom tomato, heritage poultry breeds have long histories, unique flavors, and characteristics that make them all around hardier birds.  Around Thanksgiving, sales of heritage turkeys soar as consumers begin to understand not only the historic importance of preserving rare breeds, but how much better they taste.

Carla plans to start a breeding program with chickens, quail, ducks and geese to offer eggs and meat of exceptional quality, and a little bit of history as well.

Like the heirloom tomato, heritage poultry preserve genetic diversity in food and taste better that the average chicken sold at the grocery store.  As Carla explains, “in any grocery store you’ll find the same chicken.  We provide an experience in flavor that you simply can’t get at the supermarket.”

What are these better tasting breeds?  Dorking, an “ancient breed” that consistently wins taste tests as well as Dominiques and Faverolles, known for laying delicious eggs. Carla is getting guidance from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which promotes the preservation of threatened breeds and genetic diversity in livestock.

For Carla, it’s not just about taste – it’s also about the way the animal is treated in its lifetime.  Increasing journalistic reports on the state of the food industry – and the animals shuttled through to slaughter on industrial scales – horrified her.

Providing a healthier lifestyle and improving the food system go hand in hand for Carla.  Cornish Cross chickens, she feels, are a good example of how mainstream agriculture uses just one highly specialized breed that doesn’t allow for any genetic diversity.

“Without genetic diversity, we’re putting our food system at risk. Diseases are constantly evolving, and our factory-farmed animals are not. All it would take is one illness to start making these birds sick, and it would spread like wildfire.  We’d be screwed.  It’s not something people talk about often, but it’s a conversation we need to start having soon.”

Carla’s not sure how many other farms are raising heritage livestock breeds, but she knows they’re out there, just not as many as she hopes there one day will be.  “It’s not just about providing an alternative,” she says.  “It’s also about inspiring people to eat better and think critically about their food buying choices.”

Carla prides herself on this and other values.  “I try to take my environment into consideration literally from the ground up,” she says.  “I believe that if we feed the soil using natural methods like organic matter and crop rotations, the soil will do a better job of feeding our plants, and our plants will do a better job of feeding our animals and ourselves.”

So how does this city girl manage an entire farm?  She’s hoping to one day be able to hire help, but for now she’s stuck with five of the laziest horses you’ll ever meet and one reluctant “farm” cat, Zilah, who spends most of her time lounging in her electric blanket. Zilah will be supervising the development of a line of organic catnip toys and treats, mostly by taste testing.

This portrait is part of our series on Green Social Enterprises. Learn more at Gatherwell.com

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