Friday, August 26, 2011

Dewberry Hills Farm - Lexington, TX

Greetings from Texas! I just finished two and a half weeks on a chicken farm 50 miles east of Austin. Before reading further, you should know that Dewberry Hills processes their chickens on site, so some of the images I’ve included are a little gory. If you’re eating – especially if you’re having chicken – maybe read this later.

I’ll spare you the gore long enough to take a quick detour to Chicago for Lollapalooza, which happened between leaving New Orleans and coming here. Some of you were there with me – yay! Highlights: Ratatat, Phantogram, My Morning Jacket, Local Natives, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The weather was perfect until the last part of the last day. But the skies made for good photography.

Afterward, there was a double rainbow all the way across the sky! What does it mean??

This is what my friend Neha thinks I will look like if I keep farming. Or it’s what she thinks I look like now. Either way.

We rocked out pretty hard for three days and then it was time to fly to Austin and find out what chicken farming is all about. Terry, one of my hosts, picked me up and brought me along with him to finish making deliveries before heading out to the farm. He and his wife, Jane, have 20 acres of pasture, on which they raise 2,400 chickens. The chickens live for six to eight weeks before they’re processed and sold to restaurants, a co-op grocery, and at a farmers' market.

Here is the front pasture, with the chicken pens and the nearly full moon.

Here is Jane and Terry’s house, and my trailer on the right.

The model of chicken farming Jane and Terry use is called pastured poultry. The chickens live outside but are kept in 10x10-foot tents, which are moved every morning to keep the pasture beneath the chickens fresh. This helps keep things organized and clean (and fertilizes the soil), but more importantly it helps protect the birds from the Texas heat. This part of east Texas is in the middle of a really severe drought, and has been for the last three summers. The temperature hangs around 105 degrees every day, and Austin just recently broke the record for consecutive 100+ days with 22. That was three weeks ago and I think the streak is still intact.

Here are the tents in the front pasture, full of (relatively) happy little chickens.

Here is what it looks like inside one of the tents. Please imagine the ground lush and green, which it would be if it would rain, just once, ever.

The farm puts out around 350 chickens each week, so everything that happens here happens on a weekly basis. Four days a week, Jane and Terry spend most of the day killing chickens while their employee Earl and I feed and water the others. Every Wednesday, they deliver their chicken to a farm-to-table wholesaler, several restaurants, and the co-op. Every Thursday, they get new feed from a feed mill nearby. Every Friday, they get a new flock of chicks and put another set, the three-week old birds, out in the pasture. Every Saturday, they make more deliveries and sell at a farmers’ market.

The chickens begin their life here after being shipped from a hatchery. This can be traumatizing, and sometimes dozens of birds are lost before they even make it into the brooder pens. When new chicks arrive, we count them and introduce each one to the waterer by dipping their beaks.

Here is a shipment of new chicks ready to be unloaded.

Here is a chick being introduced to its first sip of water in the brooder.

Chickies! Some of them have been overzealous in trying to get a drink.

Om nom nom nom nom nom.

Since Jane and Terry have their operation more or less under control, they decided to share me with a nearby farm that is just getting off the ground. This being Texas, these neighbors are about 40 minutes away. The farm is called Slow Food Farm and is run by another couple, Jen and Harry. They put out 200 chickens a week and are using the exact same model.

Here are Slow Food Farm’s tents. They’re a little smaller than Jane and Terry’s and are made out of metal instead of PVC. There’s a lot of room for innovation in this kind of farming.

Here is the inside of one of Slow Food’s brooder pens. The younger chicks live in here for three weeks before they’re big enough to live in the pasture.

Here is a week-old chickie.

Baby chicks can’t produce enough body heat to survive on their own, even in a Texas drought, so heat lamps (on the underside of the table-like object you saw in the brooder) do the job their mothers normally would.

Then, once they’re out in the pasture, they need to be kept cool. In addition to the shade, irrigation misters are attached to the inside of the tent – if the misters fail, every chicken in the tent can be dead within an hour. This means chicken farming is an exercise in vigilance, and the chickens are given constant attention. Even so, things happen, and during my stay Slow Food lost 75 chickens in one day due to a mister failure. The week before I arrived, they’d lost 90 birds.

It’s kind of funny to think about all the things we do to keep these animals alive just so we can kill them later. Dewberry Hills is licensed to process their chickens on site instead of having to send them to a slaughterhouse, so eventually every bird that survives the heat and the predators – feral pigs are a $400 million problem in Texas right now, and dogs, hawks, and raccoons can all cause thousands of dollars of damage – winds up in the processing shed. I didn’t take any photos of the actual moment of death because that seemed undignified, but even so a few of the photos that follow might be upsetting.

First the chickens have to be weighed. For a 3.5-pound processed chicken, Jane and Terry pull 5-pound live birds.

The birds are secured by their feet in the white containers on the right, with their heads sticking out of the bottom. The blood rushing to their heads calms them down, and their throats are cut. Once they’ve bled out, they’re put into the hot water bath on the left, which loosens their feathers for plucking.

Here is Terry using the automatic plucker. It takes less than a minute to pluck each bird.

Terry gives the plucked chickens to Jane, who cuts their heads and feet off and eviscerates them (saving the livers, of course), then puts them into an ice bath to keep them clean and cold.

The finished product is kept on ice until deliveries or market.

Don’t go in that room!

This is considered one of the most humane ways to kill a chicken, and combined with the way they’re raised, it’s a much, much better existence than what the average, factory-farmed chicken experiences. Still, I’ve concluded that there really isn’t such a thing as a “humane” way to raise and kill animals for food on any kind of scale. The two concepts – giving an animal a decent life on the one hand and getting it fat and tender enough to kill and eat it on the other – seem inherently mutually exclusive. Eating meat simply requires a certain amount of suffering.

Which is sad, so here is a picture of a chickie:

And here are some photos of life on the farm that didn’t fit into my narrative:

Here is the truck loaded with coolers for delivery. I’ve never driven such a large vehicle. It’s hard not to barrel.

Here is Jane at the farmers’ market. Their marketing slogan is pretty straightforward.

Here are the obligatory farm dog photos. From left: Eugene Howard/Buster, Newton, and Dixie, who is actually technically the neighbor’s dog but abandoned them years ago because it’s more fun over here – all the chicken heads you can eat!

Here is Dixie, thinking she’s coming to help with deliveries.

Here is one of the brooders, which is actually an old World War II-era mobile army machine shop. Making a profit from a chicken farm requires a lot of upcycling.

Here is a mutant chickie with an extra wing! His name is Charles.

Here is the organic feed mill Slow Food Farm uses. Dewberry Hills prefers to support a local farmer (it’s cheaper and Terry uses his own formula for the feed), but it’s not organic. That’s often the trade-off in alternative farming.

Did I mention that Jen and Harry also keep pigs? This is the “small” one.

Alright, that’ll do, I think. There’s always more to add, especially since this is the first animal farm I’ve stayed on, but if I told you everything I’ve learned here you’d stop reading. So instead I’ll close with some shots from Austin, the coolest town in Texas:

I tried to make the same face as this longhorn. I actually nailed it in another photo, but the photographer was laughing so it’s blurry…

Here is Barton Springs pool, a natural-bottomed, spring-fed swimming pool in Austin.

Here is the Texas statehouse, built four feet taller than the Capitol because everything's bigger in Texas.
This isn’t in Austin, obviously. I hadn’t been horseback-riding in over a decade; it turns out boat shoes and cutoff jeans aren’t the best riding gear.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. They all fly out in one huge ribbon at dusk.

Almost forgot: the link for the Lamanche Urban Farm’s Kickstarter campaign is now in the sidebar, so please check that out when you get a chance. There are also many, many more photos (and stories!) on Flickr. My journey continues with another northern detour to see my friend Lea in Montana and road trip through Wyoming. From there, I’m flying to New Mexico to work on a farm near Santa Fe and hopefully after that I’ll be on an alpaca farm in Arizona. Somewhere in between, I’ll send another update.



  1. This is awesome. Thank you so much for writing. Love, KaKa

  2. Pete,
    I think it's awesome too! I LOVE your posts. Love, mom

  3. them other chicken heads they dont ever leave the coop