Farmer Jan’s Heritage Chickens
Two weeks ago, I was on the phone to a farmer I have been looking for, for years. I could barely contain my excitement talking to a very humble and unassuming farmer from Bethlehem who wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. For me, this was a pivotal moment, I had only been looking for a farmer like this for years – somebody doing heritage breed chickens with no GM soy or maize input in a true outdoor foraging and pastured environment. So I had my dream farmer on the phone and do you know I have learnt over the years – that every single time I meet a farmer who is doing food like this, with a compelling farm, just doing things with a true spirit and philosophy of wanting to produce clean food sustainably – they are always the most humble people. What is also remarkable is that the best of them generally don’t seek you out because they aren’t marketing – I stumble across them on my farm hunts and when I find them and am over the top excited, it takes them a while to understand why. They’re just farming. They don’t want or need the glory or praise, and being farmers, are used to being in the background, while we’re in a food (r )evolution here wanting to raise them to the hero status they deserve. Most of the best of them just don’t want the accolades or attention, they just want to get on with farming but appreciate knowing that what they are doing in meaningful.
Sitting in his car with his wife on the drive from Clarens to Bethlehem, Jan had time to unpack his story and how it was that he ended up with heritage breed foraging chickens on his farm. Told to my son whose photography now means he can join me on my writing travels, (I write, he photographs), we listened to the most incredible story unfold, as interesting as the landscape rolling gently next to us as the car moved into vast farm land territory.
Jan Scheepers had no intention of ever selling heritage breed chickens to any market. Heritage chicken is probably sort of like gold treasure to us – so rare for us to find and source and yet it wasn’t never the intention to sell them that had this farmer invest in them.
Some years back, this farmer was actually producing lamb for a large retailer – of course I can’t mention names. There was much talk about how that process got worse and worse as he was forced to keep meeting the retailer’s specs that had farmers forced to use a growth promoter called Zilmol – growth promoter related to Zilmax which is used in beef feedlots, on the lambs. The constant pressure to increase growth and size and reduce the age of slaughter and make them grow as efficiently as possible. It got to a point where this farmer would not feed his own family the lamb he was having to produce for one of our most respected retail chains.
That experience turned him and made him want to convert to a smaller farm with mixed breeds and crops and to get chemicals out of his farm altogether. He decided to grow his own maize – found non- GM seed and started the process of converting his farm to something smaller.
There were many hurdles as all farmers experience with doing this. As we approached his farm land he pointed to large wooden posts standing out amongst his crops. He told me that this was his first problem to resolve – how to get rid of rats that plague crops without using pesticides. So he posted owl boxes and resting poles for owls. This was how the rat problem was managed.
Then there was another problem that is apparently common in the area – flies. He has a small herd of cattle and lamb on the farm and flies become an incredible problem in that area. Again, wanting to move away from using pesticides on the farm, he wanted to find a natural solution. So he looked to chickens. He wanted a heritage breed chicken because they still have their instincts to forage around outside intact unlike broilers that have had them bred out of them.
Just to quickly divert – a quick lesson on chicken and how we ended up with broilers – chickens bred to have large breasts, weak legs and large thighs. These chickens are a product of the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture. They are not original breeds. So they were bred to have a higher breast and thigh ratio for more efficiency in price, their legs became too weak to carry the inflated size of their breasts and thighs but this didn’t matter to the chicken industry.
What mattered is that they were able to fatten quickly, not run around or forage and the broiler that we are accustomed to now typically is a very, timid and weak chicken with a poor constitution not bred for longevity but for factory productivity. Broilers are not easy to raise on real outdoor foraging or pasture. A farmer that wants to do this has to put great effort into making them go outdoors as they fright easily and prefer to be still. I will never forget the lengths a great free range farmer Ruth Mylroie in Magaliesburg went to, to try and re-kindle her broilers instincts which she did expertly. Nigel doing the Haversham chickens has a slightly different approach, he doesn’t give them a choice, a sort of a tough love attitude – you will go outside and that’s it rather than Ruth’s empathic coaching :).
Anyway so the reason heritage and indigenous breeds are becoming part of the evolving conversation about what truly sustainable farming is, is because they are able to forage outside, are part of a mixed farm symbiotic relationship – they control ticks and flies and any unwanted gogo’s which means that farmers don’t have to depend on using pesticides or poison.
The other reason they are an important part of sustainable farming philosophies is because unlike industrial breeds, heritage and indigenous breeds of animals are more efficient at living off the land rather than industrial feed and serve a vital part of a mixed farm system, providing vital manure for compost, scratching nutrients into the soil and eating insects.
So that’s how it came to be that Jan Scheepers came to be running a cross heritage breed on his farm. He wanted the natural instincts of an African indigenous breed with something very plucky but less aggressive as Boschvelders can be so he crossed them with a heritage breed Rhode Island White from the US, another heritage breed that is calmer.
These chickens are exceptionally beautiful to look at, long legged and very fast on their legs. While they have an indoor roosting barn that they go into at night and that is open for them all day – they are far more interested in running around outdoors to forage. Jan has to keep growing crops and fencing off different areas as they are highly efficient at forage and will peck any pasture down to the ground in short time. The only other feed given is non-GM maize that Jan grows from his own non-GM seed and milk in the last 2 weeks of their life when he needs to start restricting their movement to calm them down for slaughter. It can take much to round these chickens up as they run fast and are pretty wild so when it is time for slaughter, they have to start a process of calming their down so it doesn’t end up a stressful process of having to catch them. They start restricting them to smaller grazing areas and providing more food to gently curb their strong foraging instinct.
The chicken roasted is very different to the taste we are used to in broilers. It has such a full flavor, not gamey, not tough either and far less white to brown meat to ratio than you get on a broiler which his delectable if you love flavor as I don’t think too many people would disagree with me that the white chicken flesh has never had much in the flavor department.
I was so excited when I left this farm and was so hoping that they were going to cook well and survive the taste test as they are thin, tall, long limbed and I have never tasted a French bresse style dry-aged chicken. They are literally hung wrapped in linen to age in a cold room before frozen and this makes them tender. Boy, does it. I was expecting some degree of toughness due to the nature of them but was over the top delighted to discover they weren’t. I didn’t want to slow cook them – I wanted to see how they would roast on the worst setting first – 180 degrees for an hour.
It was perfect! They roast to a crisp golden skin very quickly – so for my second attempt I reduced the cooking time to 50 minutes.
They are small and delicate but so delicious. The skin is un-fatty, thin and crisp – the flesh succulent, firm and packs a flavor punch way beyond any expectation created by its weight.
This is the African equivalent Jan believes to the famous and best known for flavor chicken in the world from the Burgandy region in France – Poulet de Bresse. For French customers, I would love to know how you think this compares.
They are also only slaughtered at 22 weeks which is unheard of for chicken rearing. Bear in mind standard store chicken is slaughtered at 6 weeks – a chick basically who has their growth inflated by steroids. We don’t buy younger chickens and want them grown to at least 8 weeks, preferably 12 for a full size bird. These take 22 weeks to get to this size so it’s a different paradigm of chicken eating altogether but very exciting to be returning to heritage breeds which are far more sustainable.
If you want more information on why heritage breeds and more sustainable and how to cook them and the differences you’ll find with them, there is a wealth of information on the web if you just google ‘heritage breed chicken’, it’ll help you realize why I’m so excited about this.
Thank you to yet another farmer who has decided to farm with a philosophy of no harm and sustainable mixed farming philosophy because of him, we now have access to healthy food again.
These are the humble farmers responsible for helping us to carve out an alternative food system and returning us to original food.