Spring is always an exciting time filled with fresh starts and signs of new growth. For those of us working with heritage poultry the season is especially magical. Each egg that shows signs of life marks the next generation of rare birds. From the moment they hatch we will be watching closely to assure the breed traits we carefully selected for are represented in each bird. On our farm 2017 holds new excitement, as we are expanding our operation to work with JoAnn McCall of Cirrus Hill Farms to take over her successful White Chantecler operation. In the 16 years that JoAnn has been raising poultry she has developed a large well reputed flock and grown a network of people, in all parts of the food system, who believe that there is a better way to produce food. I am looking forward to being part of breeding the next generations of Standard White Chantecler Chickens and contributing to the growing desire for change in the traits that we value in our food system.
Dr JoAnn McCall has carefully selected and built her reputation on fertile eggs, expertly shipped to all parts of Canada and high quality chicks. Looking to the future, she has decided that the success for the Chantecler project requires a partner to keep it growing. Like many poultry fanciers, I suspect that the first time she and her children raised ducklings, in her kitchen, she had no idea that she would someday be focusing much of her attention on raising threatened breeds of poultry. Those innocent fluffy chicks can end up shaping and enriching our lives in ways that it is hard to envision. The stories, I have heard, of how breeders go from those first few chicks, to breeding heritage poultry are as varied as the breeds themselves, but sooner or later most of us come to some of the same conclusions.
The first realization I came to was that heritage breeds have much to offer that has been lost in commercial breeding. Years of selecting commercial chickens for fast growth, confinement housing and economic value has left them lacking in the stamina and adaptability. The vitality and vigour of heritage birds can be seen at each stage of growth. I learned this the hard way the first year I experimented with heritage breeds. I realized I would have to change my whole brooder set-up one morning when I came out to find that, unlike their commercial cousins, these young chicks could fly. Not far, but far enough to get on the shelf above their brooder and devour all my nicely started seedlings! So much for watermelons in the garden that year!
As they grow the Chantecler requires very little concern or management. They utilize the pasture, forage for their own food and contribute to the farm with pest control, egg production with no health issues. They are generally an independent and integrated part of our farm. The fact that they are able to breed naturally allows independence from commercial breeder and control over supply. The first taste of heritage chicken changed the way I thought about chicken. Our home grown chicken has a texture and flavour that is unmatched by anything I could purchase in the grocery store. Working with these birds has puts into stark contrast for me how far we have come from the days when chicken used to be a universal part of every farm and the pride of every good cook was the ability to prepare chicken at every stage of life. Terms like stewing chicken, roaster and broiler that were common-place in recipe books are rarely seen anymore.
Once I understood the value of these birds, both on the farm and in my kitchen, like most new breeders it didn’t take me long to come to the next realization: we are dangerously close to losing the genetic diversity and traits represented by these rare breeds. Without a place in today’s food system their existence depends on the small flocks of hobbyists and exhibition breeders. JoAnn also came to this conclusion in her early poultry days. After passing through what calls ‘the candy-box stage’ of collecting novelties and learning the histories of the commercial success of different breeds, Jo Ann decided to address this issue by focusing her attention on a few surviving breeds that had once had a place in the commercial food system. She believes the breed she has chosen could once again pay for themselves on small diversified farms. With the objective of seeing these breeds re-enter the local and slow-food niche markets. ‘Eat them to save them’ became the slogan or her farm.
JoAnn and I come to this shared passion from very different backgrounds, but on this point we are in total agreement. I grew up on a mixed livestock, family farm. Feeding our family and providing an income to support that family was and still remains the main deciding factor for anything I do on D&H Newman farm. I originally chose the Chantecler because I was looking for a hardy, dual purpose bird with the ability to lay eggs all year. I also wanted a breed that would allow me to hatch our yearly supply of meat birds. I have been working with this breed for four years now and I have grown to love their gentle temperament and healthy vigour. They are wonderful birds for our pastured poultry set-up.
The Chantecler Chicken was bred specifically for the Canadian Climate in the early 1900’s and to this day it remains the a truly Canadian chicken. JoAnn believes that it still has the potential to return to Canadian farms as the only viable option. That may seem like a strong statement, but you have to remember that chickens are originally tropical in origin, having a breed that is so well suited to Canada very ‘non tropical’ climate is critical. It is not hard to see that as we begin looking for a sustainable alternative to the current industrial food production system we need to be investing in breeds that will once again have the vitality to thrive in sustainable farming situations. The Chantecler does just that. Its small comb and thick layer of feathers keep it warm on cold winter days and it maintains a decent egg production all year round.
Along with maintaining this useful breed, it is important to preserve the knowledge that goes with them. Passing on the skills of the past will help us to protect the future. This is why JoAnn has always made education a large part of her goals. She is part of the rare breed’s community and she is supportive and encouraging to new poultry keepers, helping them to learn traditional ways of poultry keeping. She educates consumers and chefs about the exceptional taste and different methods of cooking heritage chicken. I have already appreciated her willingness to teach and I look forward to working with her for years to come.
With every selection of a bird for new breeding stock you are e
nsuring future of the breed. It is a careful choice that has to take many factors into consideration. It is important to maintain a robust flock with the best traits of the breed. Similarly every choice we make with our food dollar has to be made with care, based on many traits, not only cost. With each good choice we make we can change the future of our food system. Both Cirrus Hill and D&H Newman believe that we can grow a better food system while we breed better birds. The Chantecler chicken is in a better place now than it was when JoAnn began breeding birds and we hope to continue along that path, not only to preserve this wonderful breed, but also to contribute to a food system that is healthier for all of us and the land that feeds us.
Happy Spring Everyone