Turning chickens back to nature

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Cape Girardeau County family has started a farm founded on chemical-free, natural principles

Family Friendly Farm got started because Rachel Fasnacht wanted to make homemade chicken soup. Rachel and her husband, Matt, a chemistry professor at Southeast Missouri State University, moved from Maryland two years ago, and bought a big old-fashioned farmhouse on Route V outside Cape Girardeau near the Trail of Tears State Park. Rachel said she was ready to settle in and be a good wife.

"I was going to make homemade chicken soup," she said. "That's a good wife thing to do."

She bought a whole chicken and simmered it, but when she removed it from the pot and sampled the broth, she didn't like the results. It tasted bad and the chicken bones had crumbled. Her self-confidence as a wife and cook plummeted.

"Bad cook, bad wife," she said.

Turns out it was bad chicken. She began reading books about raising chickens and came across one about raising chickens on pasture.

"I thought 'We can do this,'" she said. "We can raise our own chickens. If we want good food, other people want good food."

Thus, the idea for Family Friendly Farm was hatched.

The Fasnachts raise chickens for eggs, chickens for meat, pigs and beef cattle. None of the animals are given feed containing hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants. All of the animals have unlimited access to fresh air, natural sunshine and exercise and are raised on pasture. Everything about the farming operation is natural.

The Fasnachts chose to raise Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock chickens for their egg production because "those breeds have not been monkeyed with over the years," Rachel said. The hens also mature later, so while they may not lay as many eggs in their lives as other breeds, they lay better quality eggs.

To supplement their diet, the chickens have unlimited access to pasture to feast on grass and on whatever crawls in the grass. The pens are moved to different parts of the pasture daily. The chicken manure mixes with the straw and wood chips in the pens and fertilizes the pasture and the gardens on the farm. Because the pens are moved so frequently, the manure does not accumulate.

As visitors walk through the pasture, the Fasnachts caution, "Watch out for the cow patties." One has to look for them because, like the chicken manure, they are incorporated into the soil and don't leave a lingering smell. It is one of many ways the Fasnachts recycle on the farm.

"Only the meat leaves here," Matt Fasnacht said.

The feathers and entrails are composted and recycled as fertilizer. They even make their own blood meal for fertilizer.

Everything about the farm is also safe enough that they feel confident in allowing their 2-year-old son, Darrell, to play in the chicken feed the way some children play in sandboxes. Large chicken operations often feed their birds arsenic, which makes them feel hungry so they eat more and gain weight faster, Matt said. Besides being hazardous, arsenic comes through in the manure and poisons the soil and water.

Matt said he grew up on a farm in Minnesota and looks forward to summers off from teaching to get back to it full time. He gets up at 5 a.m. and often works until 10 at night. It's a satisfying life, he and Rachel say, but it's difficult to go on vacation or take an overnight trip because someone has to feed all those animals and move them around from one pasture to another.

The Fasnachts sell directly to their customers, they get to know them. They sell eggs and take orders for meat at the Cape Alternative Farmers Market every Wednesday morning at Arena Park, where daughter Amanda helps with sales.

Unlike big chicken operations where the birds are crammed into buildings and do nothing but lay eggs, at the Family Friendly Farm the 150 hens and seven roosters have few physical restrictions, and serve as a learning laboratory of social hierarchy. Rachel said she noticed that some hens show a preference for which nesting box they lay their eggs in. A hen is likely to squawk if she finds another hen in her favorite spot when she's ready to lay her eggs.

Studies have shown that pasture-raised chickens who grub for worms and bugs produce eggs that are higher in vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids and lower in cholesterol, Rachel said. Pasture-raised broilers, which the Fasnachts raise in a separate pasture, are sufficiently low in fat to qualify as USDA fat-free chicken.

On another area of the farm live three pigs. One is already sold and will eventually become ham, bacon and pork chops. The other two are breeders. The pigs are what Matt calls "garden tiller pork." Their regular diet is supplemented by winter wheat in a plot they root in that was planted just for them. Then as the Fasnachts' personal garden dies back, the pigs are let loose to root for their food, as is the nature of pigs. Having their own breeders and feeding the stock naturally ensures that no antibiotics or synthetic materials are passed genetically to the animals sold for meat.

Rachel says it's easy to look at a pig and see a ham developing, but it's different with cattle.

"It's hard to look at cattle and see steak," she said.

For that reason, she quit naming the steers and calves that graze on another pasture. It's too easy to become attached to them. Two cattle named T-Bone and Sirloin are still grazing and fertilizing the pasture where they live, but all the other calves and steers are numbered. The cattle docilely follow Matt when it's time to move to a new pasture, and aren't afraid to greet visitors who tour the farm.

The chickens are butchered on site, and the Fasnachts say they take steps to make sure it's done humanely.

A system set up in the yard includes a step that opens the pores of the feathers to make plucking the birds easier and cleaner. The new plucking machine makes it possible, Rachel said, to pluck 60 birds in three hours, as opposed to a bird an hour a year ago.

The Fasnachts say they appreciate knowing that what they are doing follows their philosophy that it is a privilege to be stewards of the land. They believe they should leave the land in a better state than when they got it.

"It's sustainable agriculture," Matt said. "It makes the land better, the people better and everything better."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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