Chef Joshua Smith, Local Roots in Roanoke, VA visiting the food he serves

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can you believe they actually say that?! "Better than Free Range" Really??

In the world of high ethical and humane treatment of farm animals the plight of commercial poultry is the most difficult to resolve. Farmers want the biggest bird, the cheapest to feed, and the fastest to market weight they can – all a part of good business. However, the way America has satisfied those desires has been well documented in movies like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh”. It is not a pretty sight.

The local food movement and disdain for genetically engineered produce and animals has led to renewed interest in Heritage breed chickens, ducks, and turkeys. However, alternative hybrid breeds of poultry, slower growing than the commercial white Cornish cross chicken, namely Freedom Rangers and Label Rouge, have gained much interest of late.

Some of the animal welfare labels that audit farms to ensure good care of farm animals from birth to the table have standards that dictate growth rates to ensure that the animal anatomy is not compromised by excessive growth rates. The harsh reality of the spectacular growth rates of commercial chickens has been grossly depicted in recent documentaries and movies, thus, the renewed emphasis on slower growth rate birds.

Whenever a standard is created, business motivations will ensure that the industry will just meet that standard. Economics will rule and poultry farm care has come to resemble a manufacturing operation more than farm raising and nurturing of animals.

The creation of the Label Rouge hybrid was one of the first commercial ventures in Europe to create an alternative to the commercial Cornish cross chicken. However, it still is not a sustainable bird – the genetics are owned by corporations much like Monsanto owns the genetics of modern corn.

The following is from a document of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service:

“In Europe the slow-growing genetics are mainly supplied by the poultry breeding companies SASSO (3), and Hubbard-ISA. (4) They do not sell the actual broiler chicks, but rather the parents; however, many pastured poultry producers have hatching capability. SASSO's typical Label Rouge cross is T44N male x SA51 female (using a different male—the T44NI—results in white underfeathers in the offspring). A typical Hubbard-ISA cross is S77N male x JA57 female. Broilers from both of these crosses will have red feathers, yellow shanks, thin skin, and a naked neck. Other parents are available for broilers with white feathers and skin, black feathers, barred, non-naked neck, etc. or for faster growth.

At the time of this writing, SASSO and Hubbard-ISA genetics of this type are not available in the U.S. However, a U.S. company called Rainbow Breeding Company (5) is developing similar genetics and offers Free Range (FR) Broiler parents. FR Broiler chicks (day-olds) are also available. Male chicks are regularly available; female chicks are available only sometimes since they are used more in breeding; females grow at 85% the rate of the males.”

We have been surprised and amazed that in a day and time where the public rails against GMO and Monsanto’s dominance of seed production and genetics that the public has not been equally disturbed and vocal about corporate ownership of commercial poultry genetics. That there is not more concern about the birds they eat that are unable to naturally mate, or in the case of Label Rouge and Freedom Rangers, that a farmer must purchase parents as they can not be breed and raised on the farm surprises us. That chicks and “parents” are placed in the US Mail to farms instead of being born on the farm like all our other meat animals is still a wonder and why consumers and animal welfare groups do not protest such actions.

Sysco and US Food Services provide the vast majority of protein to restaurants in the US. As the local food movement has gained steam, so has their marketing of “new lines” of “natural” meat.

US Food Services advertises that they distribute the natural poultry of Ashley Farms in North Carolina. Let’s look at what Ashley Farms says about their poultry on their own website:

We could not make this stuff up!

First, they claim their poultry is better than free-range. Why, because “they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors”. Read it for yourself:

“Better than Free-Range

Some consumers like the idea of "Free-Range" Chickens, assuming they are naturally healthier and better-tasting than chickens that have spent their lives indoors.

The problem is, by allowing a flock outdoors, the grower loses control of what the birds eat and drink, making them vulnerable to any and every disease carried by wild birds overhead and wild animals passing through.

Also, ironically enough, to have a flock classified and sold as "Free-Range chicken" in the United States, a grower need only provide the chicken access to the outdoors. Since most of the white-feathered commercial breeds commonly grown in America actually prefer the indoors, many so-called "Free-Range chickens" spend their entire lives indoors by choice, often in over-crowded conditions. Also, these birds are not bred to withstand many of the perils of growing outside, and actually are healthier and grow better in a protected environment.

At Ashley Farms, our chickens experience the very best of both worlds. They enjoy all the benefits of the great outdoors - fresh air, fresh water and plenty of room to roam free inside their clean, climate-controlled houses. But they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors. There is never any risk of exposure to disease, never any stress caused by exposure to the elements, and never any chance the chickens will eat or drink something they should not.

That makes Ashley Farms Chicken far superior to free-range chicken, a difference informed consumers really appreciate.”

In case you still are not convinced, they also state:

“Ashley Farms producer grows its own pullets in its own houses, complete with concrete floors (rather than dirt) under the litter for the cleanest possible conditions.”

After all, who would want their chicken to forage on actual dirt? Yuck! How dirty?!

Danny Williamson, General Manager of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch says "commercial chickens are too fat and lazy, to go outdoors but true Heritage Chickens thrill in chasing bugs and eating grass and digging in the dirt, this is natural for chickens. After all, the Red Junglefowl, is of historical importance as the likely ancestor of the domesticated chicken, and it still roams free in the jungles of Southeast Asia, where they live outdoors. Yes, after all these generations and centuries, the Red Junglefowl has found a way to survive the “dangers of the outdoors”.

Obviously, the reason their birds are safer in a climate controlled building with a concrete floor is because commercial birds of today have lost their immune system through the genetic manipulation and development. They are a fragile bird devoid of their natural heritage and ability to forage.

Ashley Farms claims their poultry are Heritage Breeds when in fact their poultry are the same hybrid birds with genetic crosses symbolized like serial numbers on an automobile. Heritage Breeds are defined by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy ( No serial numbers or hybrid genetic designations required.

If you want great natural sustainable poultry just follow these simple steps:

1. Ask the farmer where they get their chicks and poults from. Animal Welfare Approved does not allow chicks and poults to be sent in the US Mail – who thinks they should? Chicks, just like lambs, calves, and piglets should be born on the farm.

2. Ask the farmer where the parents are? Sustainable poultry require that you can breed future parents as well as create the livestock that becomes our food source. If you can not see the parents than it is not sustainable.

3. Visit the farm and see the birds forage on pasture and real dirt. Poultry can not forage on concrete and what would be natural about that?

If ever in doubt, search out the Godfather of American Heritage Poultry – Mr. Frank Reece in Kansas. He will help any farmer get started in heritage poultry and has been the voice of sustainable slow-growing poultry. Or contact us, the FarmerandChef, will help any farmer or chef embrace truly natural, sustainable, and wholesome poultry.

"Just a Hillbilly Operation" Benton's Smoked Country Hams

The FarmerandChef made their first road trip to one of the most special venues in the pork world, Morrisville, Tennessee. South of Knoxville and North of Chattanooga in the middle of Appalachian off the beaten path is simple operation the envy of every foodie, and fine restaurants from Chicago, New York, Atlanta and the gems throughout all of America, Benton’s Smoked Country Hams.

Early one morning the Farmer and the Chef started their journey down I-81 to Knoxville and then south along I-75. Assuming that the Tennessee Department of Transportation would know the significance of Morrisville, TN to all who enjoy bacon and would have an exit sign if not a historical sign indicating how to find Benton’s we casually drove an hour south of our exit before calling Mr. Benton to ask for directions.

As the morning started early, we asked if there was a place he would recommend for lunch that may serve some of his products. He assured us there was not and that “we are more famous in New York City than we are around here”.

We drove up to Benton’s Smoked Country Hams, a dozen miles or so off the highway and not a downtown nearby. The simple building was bellowing the soft aroma of hickory smoke on a cool winter day.

When we entered the building, we were greeted by a man, wearing his overall’s and sitting on a bench placed there for all of the locals to congregate, drink coffee, share gossip, and critique the work of all those bustling about actually working.

Mr. Allan Benton, proprietor, generally answers the phone, gives tours, greets each customer with the respect and excitement you would think would be reserved for the President or the Pope. And he gave us the same treatment. Although we know famous chefs from across the country have visited his shop, he was gracious and incredulous that “a chef would travel all the way from Roanoke, VA to visit him”.

He also appreciated the reality of farming when he assessed that The Farmer “must be the most successful farmer he has ever met if he had made enough gas money to travel all that way to see him”.

As Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, SC, a fan of Mr. Benton and a good customer of all of Benton’s products, told us prior to our visit that we would never meet a nice gentleman. He was right.

Allan Benton started his career as a high school guidance counselor after getting his Master’s Degree. Having grown up in Hillsville, VA and being raised by parents who lived off the land and worked the land with horses rather than tractors, he always had an appreciation for the country arts of survival.

Some 35 years ago, the smoke house that would cure and smoke all the locals’ pork, decided to close. The smoke house was in the back yard of the owner and the school quidance counselor started working with him and eventually bought the operation. Working at school during the day and the smoke house at night, Allan Benton kept an important local resource open and providing a service so many had come to rely upon.

Although after a few years, Mr. Benton, built a new smoke house and moved out of the back yard of his friend and former owner. But he proclaims over and over again, ‘it’s just a hillbilly operation”.

As the years went by, Mr. Benton grew the business by focusing on what every chef cherishes, good products from the best farmers he could find. Allan created business relationships with farmers of Heritage Breeds of hogs and now works with farmers such as Fudge Farms. Fudge Farms, in Georgia, not only raises heritage breeds of hogs but is also Animal Welfare Approved. “Good food requires good ingredients” says Benton.

As we take our tour, we see racks and racks, made of 2 x 4’s, to hold hams and pork bellies, during the various stages of production. There is no automation, no fork lifts, just people who personally handle each ham and put personal pride into each one.

On each rack is a simple card that states when the ham was first salted, had the second salt applied, when it was smoked, and how long it had been cured. Hams older than a year hang on racks in every nook and cranny. But Mr. Benton took us to the hams that have been curing over 2 years. Try to find a Smithfield Ham that has been cured for over two years!

We had the pleasure of seeing a new batch of hams start the process of being salted, see Mr. Benton’s smoke house and fire box, and talk to him about the reverence so many fine chefs have for his product.

When I asked about buying some of his famous sack sausage, a product he will not ship so one must pick it up in person, he became cautious and concerned. He told us how he “had some for breakfast this morning and it just was not right. I used a new batch of sage and it may not be right”. The Farmer and the Chef each brought some home and thought it was exceptional.

We can assure everyone, that there is no better smoked bacon. It redefines what bacon should be.

The 25 month old cured ham, sliced for prosciutto, creates a heavenly culinary experience. The full hickory smoke flavor is soft and delightful. The “European Style” prosciutto will inspire a chef who has never had the chance to use artisan pork.

The FarmerandChef left with arms full of bacon, prosciutto, and cured hams. The Farmer will never buy bacon in a grocery store again and is already looking for a slicer so that he is never without Benton’s prosciutto.

Check out Benton’s Smoke Country Hams on their website: or better yet, personally visit Mr. Allan Benton and pick up an extra sack sausage for us!

Welcome to FarmerandChef

The Farmer, Dr. Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm LLC in Patrick Springs, VA, and The Chef, Joshua Smith of Local Roots in Roanoke, VA are teaming together to share experiences and advice on Farmer and Chef collaborations.

Local Roots is a leader in the local food scene in Southwest Virginia under the guidance of executive chef Joshua. Over the years, the Chef has had many wonderful experiences working with inspired farmers who are raising exceptional products. As in any business not all experiences are positive and the Chef also has had lots of experience with bad local food and farmers who just don’t understand the restaurant culture. The Chef will try to pull back the curtains on the mystery of the chef’s world and how to increase a farmer’s chance of making a good first impression.

Border Springs Farm raises sheep and heritage turkeys in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in southern Virginia. The Farmer is presently providing his gourmet quality lamb to some of the finest chefs in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast from Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick, Maryland, to Jose Andres and Mike Isabella at Zaytinya in Washington, DC, to Sean Brock of McCrady’s in Charleston, SC and Richard Blais of Flip Burger Boutique in Altanta and Birmingham. The life and schedule of a farmer has very little in common with the life and schedule of a chef. The Farmer will share his experiences on how to structure a fine-food business from inside the fences of a working farm.

The FarmerandChef will post regular blog entries but they encourage readers to submit their questions and experiences as well. Every farm is different and every restaurant has its own unique personality, thus, the more experiences we share the more complete the picture will be for those getting started or trying to expand their interactions with restaurants or farmers.

From time to time, the FarmerandChef will visit farms, CSA’s, Farmers’ Markets, restaurants, and other food related businesses. Our first trip together was to Benton’s Smoked Country Hams in Madisonville, NC where we met Mr. Allan Benton and had a tour of his self-proclaimed “hillbilly operation”. What a treat it was and we look forward to sharing with you our impressions.

So, please submit your questions, share your experiences or suggest a farm, restaurant, distillery or other institution devoted to local food that you would like to see the FarmerandChef visit.

We look forward to getting to know you.

Farmer Craig and Chef Joshua