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April 13, 2006

Heading: Talk of the Table, by BOB DORAN, Chicks Gone Wild, photo of a glaring chicken

Let's get this straight from the start: Sarah Brunner and Shail Pec Crouse, the owners/operators of Wild Chick Farm, are women, not chicks. The "wild" chicks in the name of their operation on Old Arcata Road are laying hens, and not exactly your typical hens -- these are pasture-ranged, organic chicks. They're not truly wild, but closer to nature than most chickens you'll find on American farms.

When there was a break in the rain this last Sunday afternoon, Sarah and Shail took a few minutes to meet me at the farm, gather some eggs and introduce me to their flock: 120 hens and three roosters strong. They'd spent the morning hard at work on their business plan, getting ready for the final phase of the soon-to-end Economic Fuel contest. If theirs is deemed the best plan, they could get $25,000 in start-up capital to take them to the next stage in their nascent business.

Besides putting the final polish on the plan, Sarah had been fine-tuning the "elevator pitch" she'll deliver at this Thursday's E. Fuel workshop, a speech describing the business short enough to spin out in the course of an elevator ride.

Asked for a rehearsal, she began, "We're starting the first organic, pasture-ranged chicken farm in Humboldt County for chicken products, including meat and eggs. We'll be directing our marketing directly to consumers. We're already selling at the Farmers' Market -- and we'll be selling our products on-site, on our farm."

The wild idea for the chicken biz grew out of discussions around revised planning for a Danco-built co-housing project in the Arcata Bottom, one involving shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm sold along with houses. Sarah served on an advisory committee for the planned community. "We were looking at the unmet needs in Humboldt County for agriculture," she recalled. "One was chicken meat. We don't have any local producers of organic chicken."

Enter Shail, who shares Sarah's love for birds and passion for sustainable agriculture. A plan was hatched, for the most part drawing on Joel Salatin's book Pasture Poultry Profits, a practical guide to raising chickens in what might be termed a neo-old-fashioned way, at least as opposed to most modern egg production.

While Sarah says, "We're trying to bring back the old fashioned way of doing things," Shail points out that the system they'll implement come summer is far from the way things were done in the past, when chickens typically ranged from a main barn. "We'll have [portable] coops out in the pasture, moving around so they're always on fresh pasture. There's no buildup of manure, which keeps the land and the chickens healthier -- and you don't have to deal with a bunch of poop."

"It started as an experiment to see if we could do it: If we could raise our own flock and bring them to laying age," says Sarah, noting that the experiment has not been without problems. They've lost 50 chickens, in part to predators -- raccoons, skunks and weasels -- while others drowned in a surprise winter flood.

On cue, the loudest rooster butts in, and Sarah tries to shush him with a serious: "Excuse me!" before explaining that their first phase was getting eggs to market. "Eventually we'd like to go into meat as our main product. That's our business plan. But laying hens are easier to manage, and [eggs are] an easier product to bring to market."

It doesn't look like they'll have trouble finding buyers for their high-end designer eggs. Up until last weekend they'd sold all they raised to friends and word-of-mouth customers. The supply they brought to Saturday's Farmers' Market did not last through the day, even at $6 a dozen.

The half dozen I took home were packed in a carton marked "Old Fashioned Organic" from Judy's Family Farm, which according to Shail, is one of the most popular "cage free" brands, along with Uncle Eddy's. Both Judy's and Eddy's eggs come from Steve and Judy Mahrt's Petaluma Farms in Sonoma County.

"Their marketing has been good," notes Sarah. "A lot of people assume they're the best eggs because they think the chickens are happy and healthy, living outdoors and running around. They're actually not."

The vast majority of eggs you find in your supermarket, around 95 percent, come from high-volume egg factories using what are called "battery cages," with up to 10 birds stuffed into each cage leaving no room to spread their wings or even move around. The birds live in these cages all their lives, never touching solid ground. Complaints from animal rights activists have led socially conscious food businesses like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's to switch to "cage-free" eggs and "free-range" meat.

Shail, the researcher in the team, sees "cage-free" as an improvement, but not much. "Basically `cage-free' and `free-range' chickens are still grown in warehouses," she explained. "They're not in cages, but they're crowded on a dirt floor in a big building. If they call them `organic' they have to have access to the outside, but it's usually a very small area that can't hold all the birds at once. There's no grass, no greens at all. The chickens are de-beaked because they're overcrowded and if they had beaks they'd kill and eat each other. It's pretty ugly."

There are no such operations in Humboldt, nor are there chicken factories. "There are only a handful of small time egg farmers who go to Farmers' Market with a few eggs. That's it," Sarah notes. "And there's no local chicken meat at all, let alone pastured organic."

Reviving local meat production -- and moving on to the next stage of their business plan -- will not be as easy as gathering eggs.

"We need more infrastructure -- a processing facility certified either by the county or the state. There's only one commercial meat processor in Humboldt, Redwood Meat Co., and they don't do chickens." So, phase two is to get capital for a mobile meat processing operation.

"We plan on doing all of the processing ourselves. All of the evisceration and cleaning will be done by hand," says Sarah, and I'll admit, with her gentle demeanor, it was hard for me to imagine her eviscerating anything. "There won't be any mechanized equipment other than a scalder, which you have to use, and a simple plucker, which is what most small-scale farmers use. We'll do the slaughtering the most humane way, which also reduces shock and adrenaline in the body so that the meat tastes better."

"Humboldt County was once a major poultry producer back before World War II, but the industry died up here," says Shail. "Poultry used to be commonplace on every family farm until it went industrial. We want to bring it back -- and do it right."

Wild Chick Farm invites the public to Humboldt's first ever Pasture Ranged Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday, April 16, at their operation on Kokte Ranch, at 2182 Old Arcata Rd. -- about a quarter mile past the Bayside Grange. Stop by their booth at the Arcata Farmers' Market Saturday or call 826-1450 for further details including start time.


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