Field Sparrow Farms Pastured Chicken
Henry and Sarah Bakker have been producing pasture-raised meats since 2005. While working in Toronto in the winter of 2004, we had the opportunity to become partners in an education-based farm in the Kawartha Lakes.
It was while working there that we developed our love of raising a variety of meat on pasture. In May 2008, an opportunity came up for us to purchase some Angus from one of our Amish neighbours. We couldn’t pass up the chance to develop our dream, and so Field Sparrow Farms was born. Over the past several years, we’ve moved on to purchase our own farm in Bobcaygeon, ON, expanding to pastured pork and now pastured chicken!
Field Sparrow Farms is a family-run business, and we believe responsible and innovative farming strategies benefit our customers, producers, the community as a whole, and the health of the earth. We are committed to producing premium, pastured meats in an ecologically sustainable way and providing our customers with a local alternative to factory-farmed meat.
Have you ever wondered why conventionally raised chicken tastes so bland? It’s because they’re fed a diet made up primarily of corn and soybeans, and while that mix puts on weight, there’s not much flavour. There are many benefits of eating pastured chicken – for you, for our soil, and for the birds themselves.
First, chickens were not meant to eat a purely grain diet. They are omnivores and prefer a diet that includes grain, leafy greens, and insect protein. By starting them on pasture from the beginning, they get to forage from two weeks old. In our system, they also get fresh air and sunshine. In some systems, the chickens have the choice of going outside, whereas ours are out there no matter what. The research says that pastured chickens eat diets that are higher in Vitamin A and Omega 3s, which produces a healthier meat and healthier animals.
Second, the benefit is to our farm. Pasturing chickens and moving them daily across the pasture in our portable shelters increases the fertility of our fields. This spring we could see a distinct section where the chickens had been the previous year that greened up two weeks prior to the rest of the pasture. It also saves fuel and greenhouse gas emissions.
Our shelters can be moved by hand, and the manure is spread out on pasture as we go meaning we don’t need a tractor for either of those activities. We are also grazing cattle ahead of the chickens, which is a nice symbiotic relationship. The cows graze the grass down to chicken height (if the grass is too long, the chickens’ crops can be come impacted), and the chickens spread out the cattle manure and eat insect larvae, reducing the fly population, which makes everyone happy.
The final benefit is, of course, to you the eater. You get meat that not only tastes great but is higher in Omega-3s, which reduce cholesterol. Recently, I was listening to an America’s Test Kitchen podcast, and I heard Mark Schatzker talking about his book The Dorito Effect. He noted that our whole foods tend to be getting blander, while our fast food has been engineered to taste delicious. It made me think about what people have been saying about our meat for years:
It tastes so good.
I remember meat tasting like this when I was a kid.
It has such a great flavour.
It actually tastes like chicken.
This goes to show how much we have been hoodwinked as a society to think of meat as the vehicle for sauce or breading. Good meat (even white meat) has a great flavour. I believe it all comes down to feeding the animal a varied diet. As humans, we would grow bored with just one type of food our whole lives. Animals aren’t that different. Even cows who are fed “grass” get a lot of variety if the pasture is good – timothy grass, birds foot trefoil, clover, and alfalfa are just a tiny number of the variety of plants that make up the “grass” in a field. Our chickens are eating this same variety with the addition of insects.
How we do it
We have 1,000 units of basic chicken quota that allows us to raise approximately 5,000 chickens each summer. Every two weeks a van pulls up and delivers 500 day-old chicks. We bring them into one of the two shelters that serve as our brooder. The brooder has wood shavings on the ground for some insulation and several feeders and waterers set up all around. We dip their beaks into water, and off they go. Immediately they start pecking at the GMO-free chick starter and drinking some water.
After two weeks, the chicks have acclimatized and need less warmth, so we move them to a portable shelter on the pasture. The shelter is a 13’ x 12’ hoop house that provides protection from weather and predators but is easy to move to fresh grass once a day.
As the birds get larger they are split into smaller groups to maintain a healthy social dynamic and make sure the feed, forage, and water are shared adequately. The sides on the shelter roll up to allow for adequate ventilation on warm days.
Our chickens are processed at our local custom abattoir, which is only a twenty-minute drive away. The birds are loaded into crates out in the pasture the morning they are scheduled at the abattoir, and delivered fresh to the Big Carrot the next morning. From our pasture they can be on your plate in less than 36 hours.
Henry and Sarah Bakker are the owner operators of Field Sparrow Farms.
They received a Nature’s Finest Fund grant in 2014 from The Big Carrot to expand their pastured chicken flock. This seasonal product will be available at The Big Carrot beginning Saturday July 25, 2015 with weekly deliveries until the snow flies!