Birds of a Feather: Producers Flock Together for Poultry School

In March 2016, Stone Barns Center hosted its second Poultry School, designed specifically for growers interested in raising pastured birds for soil health and flavor. For the second year, it was a success with more than 140 people attending.

“Pastured poultry” means raising chickens directly on green pasture. Their diet is supplemented with grain, and processing is often done on the farm. Over the past two decades, the model of pastured poultry has been evolving and spreading among professional poultry producers as well among backyard growers.

The 2016 program was sponsored by Applegate Organic & Natural Meats, the Fertrell Company and USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Additional support was given by Growers Discount Labels, Moyer’s Chicks, Mrs. Green's Natural Markets and Stone House Farm.

We asked Poultry School’s founder, Craig Haney, and 2015 partner Mike Badger, director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA,) to talk about their impressions of the event.


 

Craig Haney, Growing Farmers Initiative director, Stone Barns Center

What inspired you to create Poultry School?
I had two drivers in mind. For one, I wanted to take a deep dive on poultry. We have mini sessions at the National Young Farmers Conference, with maybe one or two speakers, but not a deep dive. Such deep dives aren’t offered at other sustainable agriculture venues, either.  Second, poultry speaks to a lot of different folks, from both backyard suburban folks to production growers. There’s such rising interest among people about being engaged with your food.  Selfishly, it was a way to help me explore things I struggle with in raising poultry.

What exceeded your expectations?
I was totally blown away about how quickly it sold out. Four days after the Poultry School announcement went live, all the spots were filled. I expected good folks to attend and good conversation to happen, but I was surprised at the level of energy and enthusiasm, really shared by all the attendees and the speakers.

Why the partnership with APPPA?
I’d approached APPPA more than a year ago with the idea. They’re kind of “It” for pastured production. They have heavy-hitters on the board, and I respect them and wanted to get them to Stone Barns. (Craig has recently joined the APPPA board, as well.) Their listserv is one of the best ones around, and I knew we could generate some buzz through it.

How did you decide which topics to cover?
I followed my interests, more or less. I started with the experts I’d heard of and respected, or gotten to know through the APPPA listserv. We had a couple of folks come from as far away as the UK. One is related to Animal Welfare Approved; I respect that they have the toughest standard out there. Another woman works on animal welfare issues on a big scale, with big corporate clients. They’re involved in some impressive research projects at Oxford.

Which workshops were especially popular?
Many were, but two in particular were Karl Hammer’s (Vermont Compost Company) workshop on developing an integrated system for compost and poultry production; and Harvey Ussery’s (author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock) workshop on natural, holistic husbandry for the homestead. Also the tour of our poultry operation at Stone Barns was very well attended.

You’re a seasoned pastured poultry producer. Did you learn anything new?
One session I went to made me question our killing methods; I felt challenged to reassess the way we do it here. I’ve been interested in this for a while, so now I have access to some folks and will go to them to get more research and see some other practices for myself.

What about other poultry practices that you’d like to try at Stone Barns Center?
Yes, several—in particular, how some growers are raising poultry on a diet of compost only. And I learned some new things about ducks and foie gras that I’d like to consider.

Was there enough of a nexus between the interests of professionals and people who raise chickens in their backyards?
Yes, the nexus was there, and the energy and general tenor among the attendees was great. You know, often backyard growers get so into it that they move into commercial production themselves. It can be a natural progression.

Are you hoping to make this an annual event?
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the publication of Joel Salatin’s (Polyface Farm) first poultry manual—and Joel was interested in coming this year, but couldn’t fit it into his schedule—so it might be nice to do it again next year. Given how quickly the slots filled up this year, I’m pretty sure we’ll have a lot of interest.

But I’d also like to deep dive on other species and topics. Two that I’m looking at are a grass-fed conference and ecosystem services conference.

What would you change in Poultry School 2.0?
The roundtable discussions could be stronger; we developed the topics on the fly, as we surveyed what the attendees were interested in. I’d also like to embrace some of the more controversial topics that emerged, such as killing methods (stunning vs. ex-sanguination), which is a pretty hot topic among these folks. Other hot topics are organic vs. nonorganic, and which breeds to raise, as some people really want to move away from the Cornish Cross.

What was the best thing you heard at the event?
Harvey Ussery said in his charismatic southern accent:  “Been to a lot of these all over the country, and this was the best one by far.” That’s saying a lot.

 

Mike Badger, Executive Director, APPPA

With Stone Barns Center funding, APPPA selected farmers to receive 13 scholarships to attend. How did you decide which farmers to select?
I wanted to make sure I got a good range of people. My requirements were they had to be farming already, at least a year; they had to be doing poultry right now, or were starting it up; and I gave preference to APPPA members. It ended up being a nice mix of new farmers and experienced producers.

Did the production poultry folks and the backyard growers have enough in common?
We had simultaneous tracks to address both ends of the spectrum, and they were very well designed. But there was this weird buzz that ran through the whole thing—everyone talking chickens. It was kind of cool. You know, some of the folks there just raise enough to feed their family. There’s nothing more noble than that.

Do you know of another event elsewhere in the country like this?
No. Obviously there’s big farming conferences that draw big crowds, but they cover a diverse range of topics. This was hyper-focused on poultry. People were really passionate and engaged about poultry.

What exceeded your expectations?
I was very surprised when it sold out in four days. I attend a bunch of shows as a vendor/exhibitor, and you always see people milling around while sessions are going on. But not here: Everyone was engaged. The lobby was empty when sessions were going on. That to me was the biggest signal that we had the right things scheduled.

What were some popular workshops?
Without a doubt, three stick out: 1) Karl Hammer’s talk about compost and chickens. It was a real ah-ha moment for folks. 2) Jim Adkins’ workshop on slow-growing poultry was a resonant topic, transcending the spectrum of backyard and production producers. 3) You know when people attended a Jeff Mattocks talk because people come out saying, “wow, I didn’t realize how inefficient I was.” He presents what’s possible, and there’s always room for improvement.

What would you change next time?
There’s probably room for a few more seats. I would like to see more people there. Also, one thing people like to see at this type of event is hands-on, tactile stuff: chickens on pasture, demonstrations. But it was still pretty cold, so maybe another time in the year. Craig did a great, great job organizing the topics, and Stone Barns staff did a phenomenal job with logistics and execution.

What are the top three things you learned at Poultry School?
I was really interested in Karl Hammer’s work feeding his chickens from his compost pile. How it really goes down can be quite different from what you hear, so to learn about Karl’s methods—it’s not just leftover scraps, there are biological processes involved, mixing food wastes with manures—it gave me perspective. I want to apply what he’s doing with 500 chickens to my half-dozen hens.

Did you learn of practices that others are using that you’d like to promote through APPPA?
I met a guy who’s raising 250 egg-laying ducks. That’s pretty amazing. To produce that number for market—I want to spread that around my membership. Another interesting thing came from Jim Adkins with the Sustainable Poultry Network. He’s passionate about promoting heritage breeds, but he knows there’s a market component that you can’t ignore—that you have to make money while bringing your heritage turkeys or chickens into profitable production.

What was the best thing you heard at the event?
I heard a lot of people expressing thanks and gratitude, constantly talking about what they were getting out of it. It was such a unique event to be so focused on poultry. People were hungry for this format; it worked really well.