Question of the Week: Why Aren't Chickens Available Every Week on FLF&LR?
NOTE: We'd like to thank our member Deborah M for sending us this great question. Betsy Trice of Peacemeal Farm was instrumental in helping me answer, and we appreciate her time in explaining the ins and outs of raising local pastured chicken. Other farms that supply us with chickens will differ slightly in practice, but most of what applies here will apply to other farms, too. Thanks, Deborah and Betsy!
Betsy and Chris Trice, the farmers at Peacemeal Farm.
People probably aren’t aware that laying hens, raised for producing eggs, are much heartier birds than the chickens raised for meat. They deal pretty easily with winter cold. Meat chickens, on the other hand are more sensitive. Pasture-raising them in Virginia during the coldest months of the year just isn’t feasible, so between December and March, the only chickens on local farms tend to be the laying hens. That’s why chickens are hard to come by in the late winter and early spring.
At Peacemeal Farm, to cite an example from our producer list, the first meat chicks of the year arrive on the farm in early to mid-February. They spend three or four weeks in the brooder, which is a small pen, often heated with a heat lamp or heat plate. It contains the chicks and keeps them safe, warm, fed, and watered until they develop their adult feathers. Adult feathers allow a chicken to regulate its own temperature and handle the early spring cold.
Chicks in the brooder.
Once they mature, the chickens live in chicken tractors--small coops that roll around the pasture on wheels and allow the chickens access to the wonderful minerals and nutrients found in the pasture. They also keep the birds safe from predators that might carry them off—especially during the night.
In about 8 or 9 weeks, the chickens are ready to process. At this point, the birds are between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds. The males are generally a bit larger than the hens. (Yes—that large “chicken” you’re eating might actually be a young rooster!)
Peacemeal Farm's handmade "shabby-chic" chicken tractors.
The bottleneck in bringing these delicious birds to market happens when it’s time to process. Small farms like Peacemeal and our other chicken producers process the birds themselves. The number of birds any farm can process depends on the number of folks on their team and how much time they can spend on that one task. Other limiting factors include space in the chicken tractors and the freezer. A processing session makes room in the chicken tractors, so that the cycle can begin again,but there can be a lapse of a few weeks. That's because only so many chickens can be accommodated in the chicken tractors, and it takes 5-6 weeks for them to reach the proper size for processing.
There has always been strong demand for delicious pasture-raised chickens like you’ll find on our pages. COVID-19 has affected the general supply of meat, and has put even more pressure on producers. As Betsy points out, “Ramping up production to meet increased demand takes increases in all of these areas—including building new structures and adding freezer space. We small farmers can do it—we can do it! But it takes planning and time to bring the chickens to market." This week, Forrest Green Farm had a few chickens on our list. In mid-June, the birds from Peacemeal Farm will begin to appear again.
If you're a really huge chicken fan, you might want to purchase an extra when they're available again and stash it away in your freezer for future delectation!
Thank you again Deborah M. and Betsy for this opportunity to give us all some insight into seasonal and local eating.
Do you have a question that you want answered in the next Sunday newsletter? Ask away! Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put "Katie: Question of the Week" in the subject line.