How did two Prescott College Graduates become Willamette Valley Chicken Farmers?
That was the first question I asked Laura and Robin of Red Bird Acres after meeting them for the second time at this year’s Corvallis Farmers Market.
I met Laura and Robin the first time at the 2014 Oregon Small Farms Conference at OSU in Corvallis. I was attending the conference with a friend from Washington state who is the Founder of Barn2Door, a new ready-to-use web store for farmers and easy to find farm food for buyers . I remember how fascinated I became while listening to Laura and Robin speak passionately about their chicken farm. Both intelligent individuals who exude a passion for sustainable farming and the future of our food supply.
Laura and Robin are both graduates of Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. Receiving degrees in Wilderness Leadership and Adventure Education. While working as Outdoor Education Guides they discovered there was a huge disconnect between educating the public about protecting our environment and our less than perfect food supply.
After a visit to Oregon, Laura and Robin decided to switch careers and put their knowledge and passion into helping change our food supply by pursuing agriculture. Robin completed a yearlong internship with Afton Field Farm in early 2014. Not long after, Red Bird Acres was founded.
I saw Laura and Robin every Saturday at the farmer’s market and I always stopped at Red Bird Acres stand to pick up a broiler. One Saturday I couldn’t help but ask if I could visit them at their chicken farm and possibly photograph some of their birds. They smiled and were kind enough to oblige my need to visit with their chickens.
We set a date, I cooked food to say thank you and one lovely Autumn evening I drove out to Red Bird Acres for a visit.
A beautiful hillside location just outside of Philomath, Oregon, Red Bird Acres is home to several flocks of Freedom Rangers. Some refer to the chickens as French Rangers or Poulet Rouge and they are hatched by the Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Pennsylvania. The Freedom Ranger breeding stock is imported from Burgundy and Brittany, France. According to the Label Rouge Poultry Program, this breed was derived from an American and European heritage breed that was developed in early 1960 to meet the high standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range program.
Laura and Robin raise their Freedom Rangers on pasture from the time they are three weeks old; large enough to have grown adult feathers to survive well outside the brooder. The birds roam free range and have access to shelter where they can roost and are protected from the elements as needed. Portable electric net fencing is set up to separate the different age groups. During the height of the season, Red Bird Acres will raise four flocks of 100 birds on the field.
Each flock’s shelter is moved within each paddock twice a day and the entire paddock is moved every four to five days as the birds graze down the pasture. Laura says “the benefits of this system is that the birds are truly able to express all of their natural behaviors. They can choose to be in their shelter, or they can run in the paddock seeking forage, so it is the most natural, healthy and humane way to allow chickens to live when you are raising them for human consumption”.
Laura and Robin feed their birds a high quality, non-GMO feed milled locally by Union Point Custom Feeds in Brownsville, OR. Laura says “our broilers do a great job of supplementing that feed with what they forage on the pasture. The pasture is definitely not wasted on these birds. That is evident in the flavor of our chickens and the beautiful yellow color of their fat”.
While I was roaming the paddock with the chickens, I noticed the hearty bone structure of the birds – thicker legs and feet that seem to thrive in this free range setting. Friendly, calm and somewhat animated, the chickens were as curious about me as I was about them. Several of the birds decided I should be greeted and that maybe my shoes required a little taste.
I’ve raised chickens in the past and I have never seen such a happy and playful group of chickens. It was obvious they had grown attached to Laura and Robin; following them all over the paddock.
I asked Laura and Robin about their philosophy on raising chickens in this method and why they felt it was important: “Our biggest values as producers of meat is that we are raising the animals with the utmost care and attention to humane techniques. This goes from breed selection, feed selection, providing the most natural and stress free life on pasture and gentle handling when it comes time to slaughter (which they do themselves). We are trying to raise meat with attention to the impact on the land and acknowledging that eating meat (as opposed to a vegetarian diet) has a bigger footprint, so what we encourage is that our customers eat less meat. But when they do, they should eat better meat. Better meat usually comes with a higher price. It takes a huge amount of labor to raise chicken in this method but also the feed costs are higher with quality feed. The benefit is a chicken that lives a healthy life and in turn provides delicious and tremendously nourishing food”.
I can tell you from personal experience, the broilers I’ve purchased from Red Bird Acres are premium in every way. Because this particular breed has a lovely distribution of fat, the taste is much more flavorful than that of a conventional chicken, which also makes the texture more moist and tender. As well, the birds are not outrageously priced. Red Bird Acres sells their chicken for 4.99lb which is less than some of the organic brand names in the market.
Red Bird Acres will continue to vend at the Corvallis Saturday Farmer’s Market until the end of the season. Eventually, they would like to include pastured heritage turkeys, as well as raise hogs and lambs. Their largest goal is to grow into a multi-species pastured livestock operation, but finding land is the biggest roadblock. They are currently looking for new land to lease to expand their farm.
I spent the most delightful evening at Red Bird Acres. We talked, I took photographs and played with chickens until the sun had almost set. It was difficult to leave the beautiful location. Walking back to my truck we stopped by their little garden and Robin gave me a bucket full of the most gorgeous cherry tomatoes. I think I ate half the bucket before I arrived home.
I know many of you do not live in the Willamette Valley. I wish you could taste a Red Bird Acres roasted chicken and I wish you could all meet Laura and Robin. However, you can support your local chicken farms. I encourage you to find local farms that humanly raise poultry, pork and beef. Your body and your taste buds will thank you. Purchasing local supports our farmers and encourages a prosperous and healthy community.
For more information about Red Bird Acres click on their website at http://www.redbirdacresfarm.com/
As well follow them on Facebook and Instagram: https://www.facebook.com/redbirdacres/app_267091300008193
I couldn’t end this post without a recipe. This is a recipe a new friend so graciously gave me while we were dining in Tuscany last year. Giacomo Alari is the DaVinci Wine Ambassador and as we were chatting at dinner one evening, I asked Giacomo what traditional dish he remembered from childhood. This braised chicken dish is one that his Mother would often prepare. Simple, with fresh chicken, onion, garlic and balsamic vinegar. His mother would serve it over mashed or roasted potatoes.
I have now prepared this dish at least twice a month for the last year and adapted it a bit to suit my family. I can tell you it’s just as delicious with just the onion, garlic and balsamic vinegar as it is with all the fresh herbs. So however you prepare it, you will relish in the flavor and the simplicity.
Grazi! Giacomo Alari for sharing your family recipe.
Pollo Giacomo (Balsamic Chicken)
8 bone in, skin removed, Chicken thighs or 4 chicken leg quarters, or ONE whole chicken broken down into 6 or 8 pieces
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 onion, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 handful of fresh herbs, sprig of rosemary, Italian parsley, sprig of oregano, sprigs of thyme, sage is nice too. (no need to chop just toss in with stems)Sometimes I just throw in some thyme and it’s still fabulous.
1 cup high quality aged balsamic vinegar (or as Giacomo’s mother would say “one wine glass of balsamic vinegar”)
Serve with mashed potatoes or creamy polenta
In a Dutch oven heat the oil over medium high heat and then season the chicken with salt and pepper. When the oil is hot brown the chicken on both sides.
Turn down the heat to medium (so the onion doesn’t burn) and add the onion and sauté until soft, then add the herbs and garlic and sauté another minute.
Place the chicken back into the Dutch oven and pour the balsamic vinegar over the chicken. Cover and turn the heat to low or medium low and simmer for about 30- 45 minutes or until the chicken is done. Chicken should reach 165F when done.
Remove the pot from the heat and then remove the chicken to a platter. Strain the remaining sauce and pour it over the chicken. Serve over creamy polenta or mashed potatoes.
**OPTION - I haven't tried this recipe in a slow cooker but I think using a slow cooker would be a good option. Brown the chicken, add it to the slow cooker, top with onion, garlic, fresh herbs and balsamic vinegar. Cook on low for about 5-6 hours or until the internal temperature has reached 165F. Remove the chicken to a platter, strain the sauce and pour over the chicken. Serve with mashed or roasted potatoes or creamy polenta.