Farmer Rico and The Boschendal Chickens

Many of you who have been to the store of late have seen Boschendal chickens, our latest farm we’re pretty excited about. I was down there recently to spend more time with Farmer Rico and to check it all out for you, get some photographs and get up close and personal with the nature of this farm. I go as much to ‘feel’ farms as I do to interrogate, interview and write an article.
When it comes to animals, being with them in the environment they are raised in is especially important from the feeling perspective. It always fascinates me how cocky and plucky chickens are when they’re happy. The energy of a happy chicken stays with me long after a farm visit. I remember being filled up with the contentedness of Eddie Ferreira’s hens and it was very much the same with Farmer Rico’s Boschendal chickens.

Finding chicken that has been meaningfully raised on an outdoor pastured philosophy isn’t easy and heaven knows conventional chicken is no compromise option for anybody who reads these newsletters.

I’ll go as far as to say that finding chicken for this store that I’m happy with has been one of the most challenging areas of all. The only way to get access to chicken that has been raised well and in a meaningful free-range environment is to find very select small family run farms who operate outside of the commercial paradigm. It has to be a real farm, such an obvious thing to say – and yet – not much easy to find. The real chicken farmer – a rarity indeed. This would have much to do with the fact that chicken farming is not much profitable until you scale it, which means conveyor belting the lives of chickens efficiently. That’s the truth of it. We pay far too little for chicken.  The prices people expect to pay for chicken – based on what industrial chicken farming has provided – are outlandish.

When you raise animals outdoors, feed them well, allow them space to exercise their natural behaviors, don’t feed them pellets full of antibiotics and growth promoters and allow them to live for longer than 5 weeks, you have an inefficient business model. There is no way to gloss over that truth. Chicken farming – can only meet the consumers demands for cheap protein – and only be as cheap as it is – with volume and scale.
Which leads me to explain one of the most difficult aspects of this business. I have to find farmers who farm the old-fashioned way, I have to connect you to them and convince you to pay the right price for the chicken – in other words I have to ask you to pay the farmer for not doing volumes. I have to work with farmers and the constraints and tensions their farming gives them and bridge both needs. I somehow have to convince people to accept something that they don’t want to and deliver a message no successful business is taught to say – I have to let my customers know that they have been paying too little for chicken. This makes it likely that I’ll never be in line for an entrepreneur of the year award any time soon.  I have to explain why the chicken they’re accustomed to buying in conventional stores is cheap and where the real costs actually lie – most of which in the quality of the life of that animal as well as the final product on the shelf which isn’t what it appears to be. The old paradigm of business success is supposed to revolve around telling your market things they want to hear and yet in this business – I have to do the opposite and I need to do it urgently and loudly because for heaven’s sake the chicken we have available to us is not an option for anybody who wants to eat it with a conscious connection to what their choice means and asks ‘how does this food arrive on my plate.’

Weak fleshed, water cuts defined as ‘tender’ which are actually much due to the weakness of the broilers short life, the antibiotics that tenderize the already poorly muscled form and then the additional growth promoters – all which sit in the absurdly young chicken you buy and get into your system is what most people are paying for and know as ‘chicken’.  

Unless you grew up on a farm, and remember chicken from your grandparent’s days – most people don’t actually know what a chicken is supposed to taste like. There was a reason chicken was a once a week or at that – once a month Sunday roast treat back when chickens weren’t industrialized. It was never cheap meat nor was there an expectation that it should be. If it was your grandparents slaughtering their own backyard chicken for a family roast, this too was not something that would have occurred on a daily basis. It was an occasion, it was work, it had reverence. The disconnection to all that the reality of having a healthy chicken at size meant for the family table, has been created by the industrial model of scale chicken farming which gave the consumer chicken available at an accessible cost readily available in tidy portioned packs at any day of the week. The costs of not using the whole bird and having to make up convenient packs of same cuts made up from more than one chicken ended the whole bird roasting that didn’t include waste as much as the time spent to roast and cook something at leisure. People actually ended up paying more for the convenience of those ready to cook quick chicken breasts – the best cuts with the most flavor and as far as I’m concerned nutrition became demonized – and our relationship to chicken at this point in time is an almighty mess.
One of the saving graces of this work, those small and significant places where I get to celebrate a feeling of accomplishment about the small strides forward we make – is related to how we have helped repair that relationship in this store. Starting with the Haversham chickens where we had to get you to overcome your fear of roasting a properly sized chicken – once that was overcome, people re-connected to the pleasure and taste and texture of what chicken is meant to be. They became firm favorites in-store and were a source of joy and continue to be.  A joy, slowly returning as this farm had 3 months of a delay in supplying us with the country wide shortage of chicks after the mass culling due to the Asian bird flu epidemic that chicken farmers are only just recovering from.
Then we introduced you to the joy of Jan’s heritage chickens. Original breeds, dry aged in linen and again, the pleasure I experienced at your response to these, a highlight of our year. Chicken was never done poorly in our store, carefully chosen you missed them when they weren’t available and once converted back to the taste of the old fashioned real chicken and the pleasures and better value from whole bird roasting, you backed these farmers with fervor. Because of this, you invested in your own availability to access this chicken into the future – every time you buy chicken from these special farmers – it is akin to purchasing shares in the type of farmer who can give you supreme nutrition into the future. You secure your food future. Your support of them is a large deal – you help us keep them in the game. We’re still a way off to being able to get these farmers to a place of higher profitability as the reality is that we are still a very small group – the conscious consumer who votes for the good farmer but our numbers grow each year and each year in this business, I see us moving forward.

If you have been one of the customers enjoying this chicken and purchasing it – and paying the higher price for it than what industrial chicken charges – please know your importance –– you have brought shares in a good farmer. I need you to know how significant you are.

You aren’t just buying chicken you love – you’re backing the kind of farmer who is responsible with the food he gives you and helping us secure a healthier food future. My job is to carry on trying to expand these offerings for you and to keep securing more farmers of this caliber to help you with more option. Chicken is important and as I said earlier – the chicken farmer we want – a rarity – so when I hear of them, those are the times I will put all other priorities on hold and get onto the road. Which is what had me jumping on a flight to spend time at Boschendal. While I would prefer local models of buying for the store – we just don’t have enough around us to do so yet and good chicken is hard to find so if we need to give you another option from the Cape because Jan and Haversham don’t always have enough, it’s worth it.
So, I’m here to deliver the inconvenient truth and as usual try and keep a business going that has to bring bad news and illuminate food blind spots that people don’t want to look at. One of these is that chicken is not meant to be cheap and when it is – it is because the true cost has been externalized to the welfare of the animal, cheap feed, volume based paradigms that breed weak animals whose short lives are propped up with medication, growth hormones and the inability to walk strongly.
There is no good reason why chicken should be the cheapest form of protein on shelves, without this industrial recipe. Raised humanely and without the industrial props, no reason why chicken should be cheaper than beef, lamb and pork.  You can mass produce much more chicken in a space because of their size. That’s what you pay for when you eat chicken. A chicken raised outdoor on pasture by an actual farmer (not a corporate running processes) who grows their feed and regenerates pasture for them – cannot compete with the price of industrial chicken. We will never be able to give you chicken that is anywhere close to the price of that chicken – the farmers we choose have to raise chickens outdoors on real land – constantly move theme to regenerate pasture, spend a lot more on feed when they aren’t buying the cheap pellets that consist primarily of genetically modified soy and maize, antibiotics and growth promoters and are not able to slaughter at 5 weeks! The bird would be too small without the growth promoters! This type of chicken farming cannot in any way compete with the efficiency of industrial models, and we pay them – not to. This farmer – does not produce unlimited volumes so we cannot always assure supply. Nor do we want to.

Small- scale pasturing model chicken farmers cannot produce volume without vast tracts of land and we need to pay them the right price to make what they do sustainable. I find it exceptionally difficult to maintain my patience when people want to haggle about the price of chicken or eggs – when I know well how these farmers struggle to make ends meet doing things the right way and how long a road we still have to walk before I see any of them get rich off farming this way alone. The black and white truth is that while our market for sustainably reared food in this country is still in its infancy – the farmers committed to this can only do it if they have their base income sourced elsewhere in other ventures.
It still astounds me how many people believe that chickens come from farms when the truth of it is that this it is rare to find that sort of chicken. Most chicken available isn’t being raised in anything remotely resembling a farm as you and I think of them. With our market too flooded with cheap imports, the pressures our local chicken broiler industries face to try and stay alive aren’t cute either. The industrial chicken industry is fraught with difficulties to maintain their own survival and to be even more efficient with the pressures they face from foreign import dumping. Africa is still an attractive continent for the EU and US to dump products onto us, and they do.
To make the kind of profits food producers consider worthwhile require scaling up the volume based mass market paradigm that dominant food is – and that means finding ways to raise and slaughter the largest volume of birds you can in the shortest period of time with the lowest costs. Which is why chicken isn’t something I contemplate eating if it isn’t from our store and our farms. It’s a particularly dark model before you even go near processed and added value ‘re-working’ and brining of cuts and pieces, think chicken nuggets on kiddie’s menus all over the country and you get an idea of how absurd our way of eating has become. Yet this is normal. What we’re doing on this mission is entirely revolutionary attempting to eat food from farms we know and trust. This isn’t how food is done nor the recipe to get rich easily. We also need to be mindful that the choices we have are not available to the masses in this country who do not have the income to afford high quality protein and for whom the only option is brined frozen chicken portions, sold cheaply while the water that plumps them up leaves them with a minute portion of what they think they purchased. For them, even industrial cheap chicken that is fresh, is still in-affordable. Being able to choose, puts us in an elite category and we must be mindful of our privilege and responsible with it.
In South Africa we eat more chicken than any other form of protein – and it is eaten on scale. I’m not entirely sure what came first in the chicken and egg debate on this one. Was it the mass production of conveyor belt chicken that made it so cheap and available that created this or was it the consumer demand for chicken that grew the industry? Either way, it is the conveyor belt it is and one that is ever facing the need to become more and more efficient. The local chicken industry has a time of it to remain profitable with the flood of chicken imports from both the EU and the States – a practice called ‘dumping’. ‘Dumping’ roughly speaking, is where the EU and the States floods our market with their surplus in order to strengthen their own market conditions. With an excess of industrial chicken on their side and over-supply in their own markets, dumping the excess on more vulnerable countries alleviates their problem and protects their pricing. If you have a surplus of a commodity, the price falls so best to get rid of it to protect the profits in your own country which the EU and the States does with chicken. We pay the price.
Our local farmers cannot compete with the cost at which they dump this chicken, consider more than 48 000 tons imported in 2014 alone – jobs are lost on our side and worst from the perspective we always come from – the pressures to stay alive come at extraordinary cost. You need to reduce food costs, reduce slaughter age and increase growth promoters to increase the slaughter mass. We do not get away with what we extract though from nature with this perversion.
As I introduce you to Farmer Rico from Boschendal, his chicken and his philosophy, I might best introduce you to him here by quoting him on an opinion piece he sent out in his last newsletter to his customers which now includes you and I – where he believes that the outbreaks of disease are nature’s way of responding to the mass production of animal protein, at any cost. It’s perhaps the best way to introduce you to the spirit of the man I met at Boschendal, who he is and what he stands for. In his own words – meet the intent of Farmer Rico, he says:

“….and  realize these eggs and chicken, beef, pork, veg produced by the people who have taken on the responsibility to change the way food is produced is actually very affordable for what you are getting and how your Rands (financial energy) is impacting the environment, people’s lives, the way we look at food, jobs, holistically try to look at the whole game, and realize we are a part of that system, and if we do not change the way we look at food and how we occupy the food (fuel) system, and the way we look at money to spend on food, we have had no impact….we have to stay conscious of the impact our methods of producing and consuming food affects our lives.
 From what I can tell,  the industrial model is falling apart, so whether you believe its karmic, or simply coincidental I try to look at it from a holistic perspective, these systems of industrial agriculture are built on principles that go against nature, against natural laws, and this is part of what is causing the destruction, – a polluted environment results from a polluted consciousness –  the consciousness from which was born our industrial models are now bumping up against natural laws, and systems are falling apart….if we look at the effect of Avian flu, on these systems, we can see…. these systems are crumpling under the threat of natural occurring mutation of ‘disease’ and if we really take time and step out of our perspectives as it affects us, we understand diseases do not take it personally, they don’t target certain people, and businesses, they follow natural laws, it’s a natural occurrence in nature the way the weakest links in the natural systems are exposed and eradicated… it’s also reflecting light on the true cost of ‘low prices’ why are we trying to keep costs low?
While battery and ‘free range’ egg prices may continue to rise, to reflect the true cost of an egg? It seems the lower we are willing to pay for food, the more the fallout of that, low cost is destruction of our environment.
 The natural world seems to me at least to be self-correcting system, from a pathogenic level, a blow has been struck to pathological industrial models even if only to wake us up perhaps….??  … To the unstable nature of such high-density animal concentration camps and that resulting blow to inflate ‘low’ food prices.
 And what kind of energy are we fuelling our beings with, products from systems born of ignorance, or those produced from consciousness?

I’ve found us another gem indeed. That’s what I met at Boschendal, a sensitive soul with conscious awareness shining out of him, a gentle yet purposeful and powerful spirit on a mission, and again, another farmer with a kinship love for chickens.

These farmers are different. They see themselves as the custodians of the nature they are here to steward and they are always farmers who serve their duty with animals with love and care, wanting to give them an alternate reality in their partnership with us. All of nature exists because of the evolution of species who thrive best in terms of how they partner within the food chain.

With humans now being the dominant and most prolific species who control most of the earths’ resources, we have become the custodians of animals. Animals, I believe want to stay in the process of life and in their relationship to the cycle of it. Biodiversity cannot be maintained without them and the world cannot be complete unless animals are in their relationship to the eco-system that nature intended. Grass doesn’t work without a partnership to animals, soil health and the universe of life within it doesn’t work without animals, they are all intricately connected in a relationship of symbiotic partnering. The more intelligent the partnership, which in nature’s terms means the more symbiotic – the greater their evolutionary success.
Without it, species become extinct and the ‘whole’ weakens. So, a farmer that understands the evolutionary and innate wisdom of nature accepts that he serves as a custodian of natural processes and as the custodian of animals in the limited spaces we have left for them, his or her job is to provide them with protection from predators, certain healthy food, respect their nature and to minimize suffering in their death. Without humans, the Karoo wilderness taught me how humans can provide a better survival rate for animals than if they’re left to natural predators.
We are supposed to serve them with the consciousness we have been given – when we meet a farmer who is aware of that – we meet a sacred knowledge that we must support – for they are the people we need to pioneer an alternate food system where we can get access to good nutrition once again while industrial models wreck the natural world and our health to boot. I have no understanding of how the eco system would work without animals so whilst I accept that a vegan philosophy is a response to the extreme of industrial farming and helps negate the horrors of it and the lack of conscious awareness of the suffering of animals, I do not see it as a sustainable real solution for the whole world. I can’t for the life of me work out how we are going to maintain grasslands or soil fertility all deeply connected to animals if we make them all extinct so my belief is that we need to support the real farmers who re-establish a more responsible relationship to animals as nature intended and to support these rare species – the uncompromising natural farmer – when we meet him.
Boschendal Farm is on a long-term sustainable path. It never ceases to amaze me while I’m there how committed they are. They have a long road to walk as the size of their ventures are huge but their plans are long-term and they are making progress year in and year out. Their first priority is to produce food using organic and sustainable farming methods to provide for their farm needs first – so that their restaurant and establishments can all be supplied by the farm in a sustainable manner. Excess is then sold in their deli on the farm and then onto selected customers like us.
Farmer Rico worked for many years with Farmer Angus from Spier who he has a deep affection for citing him as a strong and sturdy mentor who changed his life and set him on this course. It is clear when you meet Farmer Rico that he has been shaped by Farmer Angus, acknowledges him as a key figure in his life and in the direction his life has taken and somebody he holds dear.

It was through working with Farmer Angus that Rico came to love chickens. An offer came up for him to start the mobile tractor method of chicken farming at Boschendal and this is how Farmer Rico has ended up heading up Boschendal’s move in this direction. He proudly shows me how he has doors either side of the mobile that get opened in the morning so that the chickens can jump out and run about on the vast pasture they have set aside for them in the day. Protecting chickens from predators and theft is an African trouble that makes pasturing models particularly difficult. They have already experienced theft when people broke in and stole many of them and security of chickens from theft as well as hawks, mongoose and various other natural predators always on the hunt for chicken is part and parcel of pastured chicken farming.

The mobile tractors mean a safe environment at night for the chickens and a space where their manure concentrates in one place to regenerate the grass for the pastured aspect of their diet.

The supplement feed is not yet entirely GM free but free of antibiotics and growth promoters. They are looking for a non-GM feed and working on it as we speak and committed to doing it so we support their efforts and trust that this piece will be resolved shortly.

Every aspect of their farm has a sustainable forward growth path, their Black Angus beef project is exciting and has cattle raised in holistic grazing camps to keep them on a broad range of re-generated pasture with no supplementation or grains at all and I was also introduced to their new project where they are keeping forest pigs grazing in their WWF natural corridors, something I’m hoping to bring to you next year as well.
Look out for the Boschendal chicken – we only get it up in one large order to make the transport costs work which means its best for us to freeze the bulk of it immediately. Once in the larger store next year we can risk having more unfrozen options available for you but for now this is the best solution.
Farmer Rico and his Boschendal chickens will be represented in-store together with the heritage birds and  Haversham chicken as our pastured chicken farms of choice that I find meaningful.
Thank you for your investment in these farmers and this road, shaping a stronger and healthier food system.

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