Raising Heritage Chickens with Brice Yocum
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A Royal HeritageAugust 2015
By Jordan Venema
Brice Yocum isn’t exactly what you’d call a conventional farmer. He doesn’t look the part, anyway, dressed in casual business attire, smart watch on his wrist, Starbucks mug in hand. But watching Yocum navigate through a recently irrigated orchard, with chicken feed in tow, is like watching a man who was born for this.
Yocum manages 20 acres of walnuts, though he admits he’s not the one out shaking trees. He isn’t trekking through mud to collect loose nuts, anyway. Yocum’s here to feed his stock, about 100 chickens roosting and ranging and pecking at pasture, the sum of Sunbird Farms.
Farming is a relatively new gig for Yocum, though, which he calls his premium hobby. “I didn’t grow up a farmer, I just grew up on farms,” he explains. But one day he found himself on the other end of his relationship with food, not just eating, but growing, raising and producing it, too. “Long story short,” he says, “chickens were a way to have good food at our house.” But short story longer, Sunbird Farms goes back to a challenge he made to a classroom full of students, and even farther back to the countryside in France.
When he’s not farming, Yocum teaches courses at Fresno Pacific University, where, “as part of a project, I was trying to prove to my MBA students that you could start a national business on anything using the Internet today.” According to Yocum, the Internet leveled the playing field by offering entrepreneurs the means to start businesses in just about anything and anywhere. And with the virtual world his oyster, all Yocum wanted was chickens.
Not just any chickens, and not just your grass-fed, free-range organic chickens, either. We’re talking birds of another feather altogether, birds with pedigree, birds with history, birds with heritage.
Consider the poulet de Bresse, a heritage chicken that originates in the Bresse region of France. “That line has been around for probably 500 years,” says Yocum. “They process food differently, and they really develop a meat that is unbelievable.”
It’s so unbelievable that renowned French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called the bird “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings.” But monarchs no longer have the monopoly. Heritage birds once bred in the small, local corners of the globe are now being bred and raised right here in our backyard, at Sunbird Farms.
Think of heritage chickens like heirloom tomatoes: non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties dating back generations. Basically, they’re the better-looking, better-tasting version of your average garden variety.
Or as Yocum puts it, a heritage chicken “is a bird that breeds true without the help of humans.” They mate naturally, live productively outdoors, and grow at a slower rate than non-heritage birds. If that sounds absolutely mundane and uninteresting, that’s probably because it’s natural. There’s nothing spectacular about birds being birds, doing birdish things, right?
But consider the Cornish Cross, a non-heritage, hybrid chicken that Yocum guesses makes up about 99 percent of chicken sold in supermarkets. “Its body can’t support its own weight and it can’t walk more than two feet without falling down” – let alone range, mate, and, you know, do birdish things. Leave a Cornish Cross alone with its food, and it will eat itself to death. Now that’s interesting, but it’s also as unnatural as a corndog.
There are no corndogs at Sunbird Farms, only birds being birds, pecking at the mud, mounting each other and dodging diving hawks. There’s something idyllic about this orchard, but it’s also a jungle out there.
Yet that’s precisely what makes birds like the Bresse the “queen of poultry, the poultry of kings.” Kings don’t want common, and Sunbird’s chickens are truly rare avis, rare birds – chickens worth the wait.
Because for breeds like the French Barbezieux, Austrian Sulmtaler, and Spanish Isbar, there will be a wait. “You’re feeding them four times longer, 16 to 20 weeks,” explains Yocum, compared to the six weeks it takes to plump up a Cornish Cross. But that’s part of the experience, he says. “There’s a lot of mentality that goes into eating food.”
The best chicken Yocum ever ate? The Barbezieux, a premium meat bird only recently exported to the United States from France. “I doubt more than five of them have ever been eaten in America,” he guesses, making the bird as rare as the goose’s golden egg. And yes, the Barbezieux was delicious, says Yocum, “but what made it fantastic was it took six months to raise, and I saw it every day.”
“And because they’re fed the way they’re fed, they’re healthy,” adds Yocum, which means healthier meat. “They’re eating soy-free, they’re eating pasture, they’re exercising and getting fresh water, so they literally have better nutrients for you.”
A chicken’s individual health doesn’t just translate to a better tasting breast, but also to a better, stronger breed. Yocum isn’t in this just to produce food; he’s preserving heritage. Healthier, stronger birds aren’t necessarily better for business, since the cost of breeding and feeding a Barbezieux demands passion before profit. To process a chicken at a USDA-approved plant costs Yocum $6.50, which is already more expensive than the $4.99 rotisserie you can buy at Costco. But ask Yocum if his premium hobby is worth it, and he offers
an interesting thought. “I want to be a craftsman,” he says.
Raising a Cornish Cross would be faster and cheaper, but Yocum doesn’t give a cluck about a buck. “Lack of biodiversity puts us in a dangerous place with our food,” he says. “Without these different, pure varieties, you start to get one common variety, and if that becomes susceptible to disease or any genetic issue, you lose all diversity.” Plus, it’s boring.
So Yocum’s out to prove it’s possible – that heritage chickens aren’t the sole property of heritage farmers, people born into farms that have been passed from generation to generation. “My desire is for other people to have small, local poultry farms where they’re providing the highest quality to their communities.” Where there’s broadband, there’s a way.
Like a true craftsman, Yocum offers a product made slowly, carefully and in relatively small batches. As a one-man, 100-bird operation, Sunbird can’t possibly supply all the demand. And sincere there’s a corollary between care and quality, getting your hands on the best-tasting chicken in the world, even though it’s raised right here in Visalia, will probably take a couple months at least. This doesn’t bother Yocum, because “it’s better that you can’t serve everybody than you have too much. We’ve got plenty of food loss in the world.”
If you want to eat poultry that’s fit for a king, you’ll have to get in line like everybody else. Or you could always start raising them yourself. If Yocum’s right and that’s good for biodiversity, then it’s also good for heritage breeds. Which means even though it will eventually end up on your dinner table, the chicken’s going to thank you. And you are going to thank the chicken. •
Sunbird Farms • www.sunbirdfarms.com • Find them on Facebook
Find Sunbird Farms eggs at Enjoy the Store in Visalia and Sage Roots in Three Rivers