A Bird With a Rich Heritage
February 18, 2011
If you’ve visited the Mountain Ranch Organically Grown stand at the market lately you may have noticed that some chickens on their table have unusually large legs. The birds are a heritage breed called Lonkong and their legs are thick and bulky because — unlike most birds raised for meat — they’re always on the run.
Until recently, Mountain Ranch’s Norman and Aimee Gunsell raised Cornish Cross and Freedom Ranger chickens — two breeds designed to grow very fast and convert grain to meat efficiently. “The Cornish Crosses and Freedom Rangers are really great chickens but they are not adventuresome,” says Norman. The Gunsells had raised laying hens before venturing into meat, and they were surprised by the contrast. “Birds bred for meat are lazy, so they don’t burn off all the calories they eat. And they grow really fast. Which to us seems a little bit unnatural,” he adds.
The Lonkongs, on the other hand, are anything but lazy. “They really like to be outside,” says Norman. “As soon as you open the door they’ll almost knock you down to get out. We lock them up at night and when we let them out in the morning it’s really quite a thing to see. They come out flapping their wings and running as fast as they can into the woods to look for food.” Once in the woods (on the Gunsell's property) they’ll scratch for seeds and bugs, and even eat grass. But that doesn’t slow them down at the feeders. They eat more per pound of growth than the other breeds — and for Norman and Aimee's a certified organic operation, that means more organic grain is used per bird.
The flavor of the Lonkongs, says Norman, is also less common, and a little richer — in part because the animals use their muscles more.
The Gunsells have raised around 1,000 Lonkongs — along with some of the other two more standard breeds — and they have their eyes on some other heritage birds next. It depends on what the hatchery has to offer, of course, but they’ll be looking for similar qualities.
Some of the Gunsells' customers still prefer the non-heritage birds, which get bigger and have a slightly higher meat-to-bone ratio. They also cost a little less.
The fact that the Gunsells are even willing to delve into raising heritage chicken that is also organic, at a time when most chicken producers opt for one or the other, is telling of their commitment to their trade.
“The cost of organic grains is going up — organic feed is about twice as much as conventional feed — and we see a lot of producers who are certified humane and pasture raised, but who don’t use organic grain,” says Norman. “We would not raise any animals for our friends, family, customers if we didn’t have access to organic feed.” He cites the heavy applications of pesticides and nitrogen on conventional grain, and the heavy toll its taken environmentally, such as the ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf. [link] “When you buy chicken, what you’re actually buying is grain that’s been concentrated by the animal. And if that grain has been grown in a non-sustainable manner, we need to be aware of it as consumers.”
Because they own so much land, Norman says the Gunsells could easily raise four times the amount of chickens they raise now, and do so in a sustainable manner. But the market just isn’t there. So with high costs and a consistent but small customer base, the Gunsells won’t be expanding their operation any time soon. They’ll also raise a crop of tomatoes to sell to grocery stores in our area to supplement the meat business.”
“We were hoping to get out of vegetable farming,” says Norman. "But we’ll be planting a garden again this year.” The Gunsells live modestly but manage to get by while running a business they feel good about.
“We enjoy doing this and we get enormous encouragement from our customers,” says Norman. “So we’re just gonna hang in there for now."
Photos (all courtesy of Mountain Ranch), from the top: A prime specimine of the Lonkong, Aimee with a Lonkong chick, Norman with the farm's small flock of turkeys.