By Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer

Americans have become accustomed to jumbo portions of poultry, and few of us remember a time before oversized boneless breasts were the norm. These days, most chicken meat comes from birds bred to grow at an abnormally fast rate—as much as six pounds in six weeks. If humans grew this quickly, we would weigh 260 pounds at age two!

Accelerated growth takes a toll on birds’ health and quality of life. “Breeding for these qualities doesn’t produce animals that thrive in natural settings,” explains farmer Dede Boies of Root Down Farm. “Chickens’ legs and hearts can’t keep up with the weight gain, so they’re not able to move well. Turkeys’ breasts are so large that they are physically prevented from mating naturally, so they have to be artificially inseminated.”

Learning about the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture inspired Dede to start Root Down Farm in Pescadero, where she raises heritage chickens, turkeys, ducks, and pigs humanely and sustainably.

“As I learned more about the food system and farming, it became a political passion as well as a love of the physical work,” she says. “Even though my farm is just a teeny tiny drop of change, I am trying to do the best I can to raise animals in a way that is healthy for each creature, the land, and the bellies they feed.”

Water-Wise Pasture Management

Raised in the New Jersey suburbs, Dede got her first taste of farming by volunteering through WWOOF in New Zealand and Hawaii. She later found herself at Pie Ranch in Pescadero and “totally fell in love with the place.” As she gained more farming experience raising baby goats at Harley Farms and helping to start Echo Valley Farm, she realized her heart lay in raising livestock.

In 2014, in the midst of California’s deepening drought, she decided to start her own project. Root Down set down roots on 62 acres owned by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). Having limited water has led Dede to certain decisions, like growing fewer annual crops and more perennials. She doesn’t irrigate the pastures, which impacts the cycle of rotational grazing, requiring longer periods of rest for each paddock.

“We get all of our water from the creek on the farm, and it almost dried up that first summer,” she remembers. “At first, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a crappy year to start a farm.’ But it actually turned out to be a good thing because we started the farm knowing that we had to deal with water issues, so we established drought-wise systems from the beginning.”

Animal Welfare Approved

The ranch is certified through Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a program with rigorous animal welfare and environmental sustainability standards designed to ensure animals live in “a state of physical and psychological well-being” from the pasture to the slaughterhouse.

New Hampshire, Delaware, Barred Plymouth Rock, and Chantecler chickens—all heritage breeds—eat bugs, grubs, and grass on the pastures, and Dede supplements their diets with organic grain. They take 15 to 16 weeks to reach maturity, almost three times longer than industrially raised chickens. Similarly, the Bronze, Midget White, Bourbon Red, and Blue Slate turkeys on the farm take 27 weeks to reach maturity (compared to 16 to 18 weeks at large-scale operations). The slower growth of these heritage breeds increases the cost of raising each bird, but also improves the meat’s taste. 

“A chicken that is raised naturally, moving freely and developing muscles at a normal rate, has superior flavor,” explains Dede. “Meat is more evenly distributed around the bird, and it develops more dark meat. It’s amazing what a huge difference it makes to the taste.”

Due to its greater complexity, meat from heritage chickens needs to be cooked longer at lower temperatures. “Cooking requires more effort and time, but the end result is so worth it,” according to Dede.

Root Down also raises heritage pigs: crosses of Berkshire, Large Black, Red Wattle, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Mulefoot breeds. They’re kept outside all day long and are fed a diet of organic vegetable scraps from nearby Blue House Farm. “We give them showers and wallows on hot days,” says Dede.

She divides the pigs into small groups of 12, rotating them to different pasture areas each week. This requires more work for Dede and the farm’s three part-time workers, but “when the groups are smaller, we can develop strong relationships with the animals and be more in tune with them,” she says. 

Humane Treatment On and Off the Farm

After investing so much effort and personal care in the animals, Dede says it can be difficult to say goodbye and send them to the slaughterhouse. “I feel better knowing that they had very good lives, that we gave them a lot of love, and that they are going into people’s bellies to nourish them,” she says. “I want people to recognize that bacon and pork chops come from living creatures, and that a ton of work and a whole life make the food possible.”

During the first year, Dede slaughtered all the poultry on site, which was labor-intensive and also limited where she could sell the meat, since meat sold at farmers markets and other off-farm locations must be processed at a USDA slaughter house. She now sends all the chickens that she brings to market to an AWA-certified processing facility in Stockton. “It’s all about speed so that the animal doesn’t suffer,” says Dede.

Root Down also offers poultry harvesting workshops to train others in how to humanely process chickens. “I get a lot of calls from people who want to bring their chickens to the farm to learn how to process them,” she says.

Deepening Roots

Dede credits Root Down’s successful start to supportive relationships she’s developed with other Pescadero farmers. “I feel like I wouldn’t be here without my community. You just have to lean on people with a range of skills to help you with building, equipment, and other advice.”

She has also benefitted from business and financial planning guidance from Kitchen Table Advisors, and infrastructure support from POST, which has invested in rebuilding the 100-year-old barn on the land she leases. “All of this support makes me feel like I’ve started the farm at the right time.”

She is delighted to share her love of raising livestock humanely and sustainably with others at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “Public education is a big piece of what I’m doing,” she says. “So much of my story has to be told verbally. I’m really looking forward to engaging with customers face-to-face at the farmers market and letting them know how they can affect change.”

Support Root Down Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Root Down Farm photos by Federica Armstrong. Market photo by Amanda Lynn Photography.

This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 19, 2016. View it here.