Jamie, who spends most of her time on her two blogs, Best Kids Apps and Travel Saavy Mom, asked about local sources for pasture-raised, meat chickens. Since I find myself in the process of stocking the fridge with just those items, sharing my technique and sources seemed like a friendly thing to do.
First off, when we are talking about meat chickens, those are chickens that we eat, as opposed to hens who lay eggs. Meat chickens are often Freedom Rangers, Cornish Cross, or New Hampshire Reds (if you are planning on adding some to your backyard flock).
Pasture-raised chickens are allowed to roam around the farm, often with portable pasture shelters for evening roosting. The chickens eat whatever is in the pasture, avoiding the additives sometimes included in animal feed. Chickens, and the eggs from them, tend to be lower in fat and have larger amounts of vitamins and omega-3 fats (the good kind). These chickens are typically processed at about 8 weeks of age, and the good ranches control the finishing process themselves to ensure ethically raised protein.
Bay Area Resources
In California, especially the Bay Area, it is becoming easier to find pasture-raised chicken and eggs.
At our farmer’s market, we have a stand devoted to eggs each week. Naturally, you need to get there early, since these tend to get snapped up quick. Our fruit CSA, Happy Child CSA, also has an egg add-on for weekly orders, which is convenient. And the Early Bird Ranch, which provides our chickens, also sells eggs at their regular drop. Sometimes (like now!) my chickens are molting and not laying, so I find I need to buy local eggs.
Pasture-raised chicken is also a straightforward find in our area. I buy a couple whole fryers (actually good for roasting) from Early Bird Ranch and stick them in my freezer. Marin Sun Farms, a meat CSA, offers chicken and eggs as single add-ons or regular orders.
Out of Area Resources
Don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area? Don’t dispair! Visit your local farmer’s market or check localharvest.org to find a ranch near you selling pasture-raised chickens and eggs.
Can’t find a local source? Then be thoughtful about what you buy in the grocery store.
For eggs, organic eggs must be from chickens fed organic food and given access to the outdoors, and not raised in cages. The USDA does not have a legal definition of free-range chicken eggs – free range is supposed to mean the chickens have free access to the outdoors and don’t live in cages. Cage-free birds don’t live in cages either, but usually live indoors. And just because chickens raised organically and free-range chickens have access to the great outdoors, it does not mean they use it. It a situation like this, I would try to find the most local eggs available on the shelf.
With chicken meat at the butcher counter or available fresh or frozen, a little more detective work is required. “All Natural” has no legal definition, although it sounds nice. Hormone-free and steroid-free are also misleading, as the USDA prohibits any hormone or steroid use in poultry and pork farming. Free-range is the same as above, producers just have to show that the chickens have access to the outside, not that the chickens necessarily take them up on the offer. “No Antibiotics” can be claimed if producers provide significant documentation that the chickens were raised without antibiotics. “Organic” seems to be the safest label, although to wear that label, products only need to consist of 95% organic materials, and there is lots of differing opinions on whether or not organic chicken is really better for you and worth the extra expense, and while the chickens have access to the outside, it is not a given the chickens will use their access. In a situation like this, I would try to find the most local chicken available, shopping at a trusted source, or move to another meat.
Where do you buy your chicken? What influences your decision?