Tastes Like Chicken

When we finally got to the Welsh farm, high up on a hill west of the river, we were treated to the sight of seven eagles circling high above the fields, catching the wind that funnels down the Mississippi and jumps up the hills. (Who knows, maybe they were even catching a few free-range, organic-style mice.) Bill Welsh, one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement, says he has counted 35 eagles at a time on his family's land.

The chicken building on Welsh's farm is down a steep hill from the white Victorian farmhouse. The shed is about the size of half a football field; a foot-high door runs all along its side, and when it's raised, the chickens can venture out into a big, sunny, grassy area ringed by a doll-sized electric fence.

Among the first things that struck me about the chicken building was how quiet it was. Whenever I've seen chickens on film or video, they're always squawking, shrieking, and making the most god-awful noise, but these snowy-white birds were all cooing quietly, like pigeons. Bill Welsh says they only squeal when they're stressed. Also remarkable to me was that despite all their free-ranging room, the chickens were all huddled together in one clump; some had chosen to stand in the crack of space between two seated chickens, so they couldn't even sit down. Food and water couldn't be the reason, since four long water pipes and four long bird feeders stretched the length of the barn. "They're sociable beings," said Bill Welsh. "No matter how much room they have, they all clump together like that."

Kristine Heykants

Location Info

Map

The Wedge Community Co-op

2105 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405

Category: Restaurant > Grocery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

While I stood gazing at the cooing birds, Bill and his son Greg, who works for the organic-certifying organization Oregon Tilth, debated putting trees in the yard. Do chickens prefer nice full grass to peck in, or do they want shade trees and no grass? It's a question I'm sure Frank Purdue never worries about, but for the Welshes, this "happy birds are healthy birds" approach pays off in disease-free premium chickens. Bill Welsh says that in its conventional-farming days, the family spent between $5,000 and $10,000 a year on vet bills, for everything from cattle with runny eyes to sows that couldn't go into labor on their own. Since they went organic 20 years ago, they've only had a vet out to the farm twice.

I also saw the fields where the chickens' feed is grown--acres of organic corn in summer, organic rye in winter, and rotations of alfalfa in between. They use the droppings from the (sweet-smelling) barns as fertilizer. I saw organic-style Angus cattle ranging in the grassy hills, organic-style pigs romping in their pens, and a family of organic farmers who look to be weathering the current farm crisis very nicely, and who don't owe anybody anything for tons of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and vet bills. In the end, driving through valleys of turning leaves, I was happy to realize that I hadn't seen anything to make me doubt my current participation in festive holiday dinners, and that on the flip side of commodity-chicken hell is an alternative that stands up to scrutiny.

TABLEHOPPING

WANT TO BE A WEDGE MEMBER? For $80 you get membership, grocery discounts, voting privileges, and other perks, such as newsletters; if you ever decide to leave the co-op, you get your original $80 back. Call 871-3993 or stop by the store at 2105 Lyndale Ave. S. for further information, or to order a T-day turkey until November 27.

Other natural foods co-ops that offer Welsh birds? Seward Co-Op Grocery & Deli, 2201 Franklin Ave. E., Mpls., 338-2465 (taking turkey orders for Thanksgiving through November 21); Mississippi Market Co-Op, 1810 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, 690-0507 (turkey orders till November 23); Lakewinds Natural Foods, 17523 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, 473-0292 (turkey orders until November 20).

Other co-ops with organic-style birds? Linden Hills Co-Op, 2813 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 922-1159 (turkey orders until November 16); Valley Co-Op, 215 N. William St., Stillwater, 439-0366 (turkey orders until November 12); Valley Natural Foods, 14015 Grand Ave. S., Burnsville (call their special turkey line at 892-6667 to reserve a bird). Also, don't forget the organic meat specialists at Linden Hills Meat, 4307 Upton Ave. S., 926-0222.

BUYER BEWARE: If you plan on buying your free-range bird at a supermarket, be very wary. In today's incompletely regulated environment, birds with labels like 'free range' and 'hormone free' can still grow up on antibiotics and sulfa drugs in their cannibalistic feed. If your butcher or grocer can't tell you and document what farm the birds came from, how they were raised, and what they were fed--well, I hate to break it to you, but consider yourself notified that there's a good chance the bird you're buying ate feathers and drugs.

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