The Free Ranger: Hillside Poultry Farm
Hillside Poultry Farm lies along the Pamet River in Truro, nestled between the highway and Cape Cod Bay, commanding a spectacular view of hills, valley and blue ocean. It is an ancient site, the valley where Indians farmed corn and buried their dead. It is home to Corn Hill, where the Pilgrims, desperate for winter food, opened an Indian grave and stole its ceremonial offering of dried corn. Later, the survivors of that horrific first winter made good and returned in kind the corn that had helped prevent their utter starvation.
Drew Locke is the site’s youngest guardian and the youngest Perry. His mother’s family, the Perrys, has owned and farmed this land since 1850 when their ancestors, Azorean fishermen out of Provincetown, retired from the sea and went to farm in Truro. The picturesque hills have been a prehistoric agricultural site, a King’s grant, a family retirement venture, and finally, a modern working farm. Hillside Poultry Farm has appeared through the generations in many guises.
Clair Perry sates that, “Farming is still today a way of life”. She is Drew Lock’s step-grandmother and the keeper of Hillside’s stories. At one time there were many farms in Truro and she relates that within living memory the Perrys farmed dairy up until the 1930s, when they changed their emphasis to poultry to escape a rigorous milking schedule. Drew tells how after the war the emphasis for farms was on size and volume, so the poultry operation grew with the times. It could not grow enough, though, to keep up with the truly huge operations in the Midwest, and Drew’s own grandfather urged him out of farming the land again. But Drew Locke wanted to farm and luckily the pendulum has swung back. Drew is 24 years old with recent degrees in sustainable food and farming from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. He draws his inspiration from a childhood on his family’s farm. Here he watched his grandfather Steve Perry, farm chickens (also a Stockbridge graduate, class of ’59). Although the Perrys always produced vegetables, which they delivered to Truro until they opened their own farm stand in 1977, Drew knew he wanted animals. He chose meat birds because they would work with his schedule while he was away at college. To a point, this has brought the farm back to his grandfather’s day, although with many twists and much modernization.
The road to Hillside Farm rambled from the highway towards the bay until we climbed a high hill to stop at the road’s end. We could smell salt on the air and see distant ocean, but buildings housing tiny peeps and greenhouses greeted us first. Just down the hill was a picturesque pond with waterfowl, and next to that, on a green acre, the moveable chicken pastures pioneered by Joe Salatin at Polyface Farm in Virginia and made famous by Michael Pollen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Drew found inspiration in Salatin’s approach to pasturing, and after researching it, adapted it as his own. Now, in his fourth year as a chicken farmer, he plans to produce 100 chickens a week for sale. The chickens are called Freedom Rangers, and come to Truro by mail from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country at one day old. They are a heritage French breed imported from Burgundy and Brittany, with genetic stock from American and European old breeds. They were developed in the 1960s to meet the standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range Program and are favored by non-factory farmers for their meaty texture. One hundred birds a week can be achieved by staggering the birds by age. The smallest birds are kept inside for warmth and are separated into two groups by age: the tiny ones and the slightly bigger ones. Their job is to grow, and when they are big enough, they go outside into the movable chicken pastures.
The rest is very Salatin. A moveable chicken pasture is a sturdy floorless pen 10 by 12 feet wide and two feet high that accommodates 100 birds. The pen’s top is three-quarters covered, so sun or shade is an option, and the pen contains food and water. Its sides and top are open to the air while some provision is made for protection against the elements and predators. The idea is to provide continually fresh pasture in an outdoor setting while instilling some degree of safety.
The pens sit on fresh grass, a lushly pastured area fertilized by the chickens themselves and enclosed all around by a five-foot high deer fence. The grass is a patchwork, showing the outline of the pens’ progression: the spots where the pens most recently sat look as if a bunch of chickens have recently picked over, trampled under and generally worked the lush green into more of beaten down, slightly brownish state. The spots become lusher and greener as the eye progresses to the ones occupied longest ago. These are green, green, green, and the grass is kept at perfect chicken-rooting height.
Pastured chickens consume 20 percent to 30 percent of the greens available and this aides their digestion, producing a cleaner, healthier bird. (Interestingly, this environment is lacking in 98 percent of the U.S poultry industry.) Other feed includes hormone- and antibioticfree grains composed of corn, soy and oats. While not organic, it is good, clean and healthy, as are the resultant birds.
The pens are moved daily at sunrise, and the perfect green patches are the morning’s destination for the two pens full of active birds that are moved with gentle herding motions as the pen is lifted slightly, allowing them to walk en masse to their new digs. The other benefit of the Salatin method is its constant provision of clean pasture. True free-ranging can lead to the destruction of the grass the chickens need. Salatin’s rotation nourishes the grass to ensure a constant green space, while simultaneously nourishing the chickens. It also provides Hillside Farm a workable modern poultry farming method appropriate to its environment.
In the sky a hawk is circling, and on the ground nearby is a pile of feathers from last night’s attack. The pen’s necessity as protection against predators is clear, and is mostly successful. Unless, as happened the previous night, a hawk waits next to the pen wall and simply grabs a victim who gets close enough.
When the time comes, the birds are processed humanely by crews of seven to ten people with the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPUU) owned by the New England Small Farm Institute. The end product is a 3- to 5½-pound bird: local, fresh, clean and ready for sale.
Later that morning we departed Hillside farm with our own bird to cook. I was fascinated to find how it would differ from its conventional cousins. We stopped at the Hillside Farm stand down the road, which is run by Drew’s aunt and stocked at this time of year with lettuce grown hydroponically by Drew’s uncle, Scott Perry. Hillside remains very much a family affair, with Perry houses surrounding the cultivated land. In addition to poultry farming, Drew works 40 hours a week for his uncle, who grows the vegetables. Tomatoes are their biggest crop and I saw 560 tall tomato plants in one of the greenhouses. They also produce all the summer crops, and are using hydroponic methods to extend their growing season. Clair helps out generally and together the Perrys produce an amazing amount of delicious food.
I cooked the chicken that night as simply as possible, roasted at 400°, rubbed in olive oil and salt. As I had hoped, it was wonderfully meaty, with real texture. It had a pleasant chew and tasted of rich chicken-ness, and we stripped it to the bone, not a scrap left. We paired it with perfect asparagus from Not Enough Acres Farm in Dennis, the last stop on our way home from Hillside.
As we finished dinner, I thought of Drew offering a chicken for my young son to hold while he explained how he wants to expand his market to the community. He currently sells chickens to the Truro Elementary School’s monthly farm-to-table meal and is aware of the importance of price balance between profit and accessibility. The chicken, who could hear his fellows being fed, fussed as my son held it and Drew showed us how to rock it calm, like rubbing a lobster’s tail to put it to sleep. The chicken rested in my son’s hands and Drew continued, saying the more he can produce, the better the price he can charge consumers for his product.
Drew is convinced that grass fed produces an omega this generation is lacking and which could go far to explain myriad allergies and other disorders. He believes in “getting it back to where it all started, in keeping it small”. My son had held his first chicken and connected it to what he was going to have for dinner that night. Drew returned it to the boisterously feeding fold, exuberant in the warmth of the spring moment.