Tastes Like Chicken
2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.; 871-3993
Welsh Family Organic Farm
1509 Dry Ridge Drive, Lansing, IA 52151; (319) 535-7218
I got to thinking about Thanksgiving the other day and was trying to figure out who was going to supply the turkey. Of course it would be free-range, local, and as organic as possible, because I have a horror of conventionally raised industrial poultry, but I got to wondering: What exactly am I buying when I buy one of these highfalutin birds? What does free-range mean? Is it chickens roaming the forests with pith helmets and compasses leading lives of derring-do? Or does it just mean a marginally larger cage?
As a city slicker, am I merely buying a myth, imaginatively participating in some bucolic happy-poultry fantasy that has no equivalent in reality? And what if that awful saying, "Anyone who enjoys sausages or respects the law should never watch either being made"--what if that really is as universally applicable as I fear? I headed down to the Wedge for some applied scrutiny, admittedly hoping that this little jaunt of investigation wouldn't make me a sad tofu eater this holiday season.
The Wedge is a co-op grocery store founded in 1974 that has 5,400-plus members and does an annual business of slightly more than $14 million, more than half of that with nonmembers. One of the store's great attractions is the meat counter run by Paul Heimel, a self-described third-generation West St. Paul "meat guy" who spent the first half of his career involved in some of the biggest corporate meat operations around. After 16 years working for places like the Swift beef-processing plant in Des Moines and the food-service distributor Sysco, Heimel switched to the world of natural and organic meat because working closely with farmers, watching the sick animals that came through his operations, and reading books like Jonathan Kwitny's Vicious Circles and David Steinman's Diet for A Poisoned Planet, had convinced him that working with conventionally raised animals in the "protein market" was morally unacceptable. "When you see that 70 percent of the beef livers coming down the line are [diseased], it's something you can't ignore," he says.
Heimel doesn't fit any of the stereotypes that go with organic foods. He isn't a hippie, he isn't a yuppie, he isn't bleeding-heart or paranoid. He's a guy's guy: He smokes, he fishes, he drives a sport-utility vehicle, which he uses to do chores on his small Wisconsin farm. He has a mustache, and he doesn't even think to slow down to explain unnerving phrases like "chain speed" (how fast a beef carcass moves down a dis-assembly line) and "hand evisceration" (when an animal's guts are removed by humans instead of a mechanical claw). Let me tell you, when a man so unsqueamish that he kills chickens in his yard with an ax; so unsentimental that he looks at live animals in terms of sides, quarters, hams, and bacons; when a man like that tells you that current industrial meat practices sicken and dismay him, it's about as powerful a canary-in-a-coal-mine moment as you're likely to get in this life.
Heimel led me through his meat counter, explaining how the Wedge's ethical standards--like promoting sustainable land use and avoiding artificial drugs and hormones in food--find expression in chops and chuck. "That's Danny's pork chops, Bonnie's lamb, Bill's turkey, Bob's chicken, Howard's steer," he rattled off. "How close are we to our food? Dang close!" Fewer than a dozen farms supply Heimel's products, and all are subject to surprise inspection visits and chemical-residue testing. But I had to see for myself.
It was an exquisite, golden morning when we started for the Lansing, Iowa, farm where the Welsh family raises organic-style chickens. (Why "organic-style"? By law, no meat can truly be called "organic" until the much-contested federal regulations are finalized.) Sunlight lit the fog spilling from every little pond and hollow, making the beautiful fall day look like a beautiful fall day with meringue topping. Lansing is in the tippity-top northeast corner of Iowa, just a few miles out of Minnesota, right on the shores of the Mississippi.
Now while I drive down sun-drenched roads toward Lansing, let's have a brief visit with all the reasons I fear and loathe conventionally raised commodity poultry. The first concern is about what the birds are fed--a laundry list of things I don't want to eat, like antibiotics, sulfa drugs, animal by-products, and the pesticide and herbicide residues that come with conventionally raised feeds. The birds are fed antibiotics from the moment they hatch, in "sub-therapeutic" doses used to ward off the infections caused by overcrowding and stress. These antibiotic-saturated chickens breed antibiotic-resistant diseases--like salmonella and the intestinal bug campylobacter--which kill people. Some of the products fed to chickens also include other chickens' unused parts like feathers and heads, and even manure. I think mad cow disease already taught us that farm-animal cannibalism is a bad idea, so why keep messing with it?
My second worry about conventionally raised chickens has to do with the way giant industrial poultry operations--like ConAgra, Tyson, and Purdue--drive small farmers out of business and produce massive pollution problems. My third reservation is nakedly selfish: Industrial chickens have weird soft, cottony textures and a faint ammonia aftertaste, the product of living in a soup of chicken-poop fumes. Free-range, organic-style chickens taste like chicken. Some taste faintly of apples, some have a hint of mushrooms, some are sweet, some are gamey, but they taste like chicken, and they remind you why chicken is the most widely cultivated and beloved bird in so many cuisines, and not duck or partridge or pigeon. Chicken tastes good! Finally, even in the hard, selfish heart of a carnivore, there still lurks the belief that there's a big difference between eating an animal versus extensively torturing it (in tiny cages stacked like blocks) and then eating it.
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."
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.
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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