Our first delivery of Sommerlad Chickens
15 December 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are all aquiver with emotion as we write this today. We are joyful and excited and nervous all at once and bursting with about six years' worth of anticipation because we've been looking forward to this day for so long. No, the Ferals are not flying the nest and no, we haven't won Lotto. It's something even more marvellous and meaningful.
Tomorrow morning, Mr Bone will arrive at the factory bearing a very precious cargo - the culmination of 10 years of research and effort - our first delivery of SOMMERLAD HERITAGE CHICKENS, bred by Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad at their New England farm and raised from day-old chicks over the last nine weeks by the Walmsleys on the fair pastures of Buena Vista Farm.
We think this is a momentous event for several reasons.
Ever since we started Feather and Bone as a provider of sustainably-raised, rare breed produce, we've been searching in vain for heritage meat chooks to source and sell.
Over the last eight years, genetic diversity in crops and livestock has become more popular enabling farmers to take risks and explore different breeds and strains. But the complexities and economics of chicken production have presented an impervious barrier for anyone wanting to explore options to the omnipresent Standard Broiler chicken
The genetics of the Standard Broiler have been fine tuned over the last 40 years to provide an irresistibly efficient meat bird that satisfies all the material requirements of our current market system. It has a large breast because that's the most popular part, it's designed to be raised in sheds in very large numbers and it grows to market weight at a supernatural rate - about five weeks. Which makes it very cost efficient and is the reason we can all eat chicken breast five times a week if we so desire.
But the cost of these efficiencies are manifold, from animal welfare concerns, the pollution produced by factory farming and the disturbing loss of genetic diversity that comes with any monoculture, through to the characteristics of flavour and texture that have been sacrificed in order to get the product to market in double-quick time.
We've been fortunate enough to find wonderful growers who raise these Standard birds for up to eight weeks of age outside on fresh pasture, getting plenty of exercise and green pick and with the freedom to express instinctive behaviours. A Buena Vista Standard chook, for example, grown from one day old on lush pasture is, in our opinion, a different product altogether from to an intensively-raised Standard chook. But, despite the vast difference, we still have only one breed from which to choose.
Fortunately for all of us, for the last ten years or so, Michael Sommerlad has been working on a mixed Australian heritage breed meat chicken that will finally provide us with an option to the Standard chook. A bird that is 'specifically bred to thrive in free-range pasture rearing environments. Because of this careful breeding, our chickens have a range of higher welfare characteristics. These include active foraging behaviour, heat-resistance, balanced body confirmation and strong legs, as well as good liveability with improved, natural resistance to diseases endemic to Australian poultry flocks.'
They are also, according to the Walmsleys who have been observing them closely over the last two months, remarkably animated and playful. One of the funniest things I've seen in ages is a couple of minutes of blurry footage on Adam's phone of the Heritage teenagers jumping up and swinging on a loose loop of wire in the paddock at Buena Vista. One swings and then another jumps up and knocks the swinger off so it can have a go, before being knocked off by the next one who thinks it must be their turn now.
We first started talking to Michael about a year ago and, in July this year, Mr Bone finally visited the Sommerlads' farm and returned filled with confidence and excitement about the viability of the Sommerlad Heritage chicken project. The Sommerlads have selected a small number of family farms across Australia with the appropriate farm management practices and philosophy to grow their Heritage chooks. We put the Walmsleys in touch with the Sommerlads and now, finally, we are enormously proud and privileged to be on the cusp of The Great Day!
We wouldn't presume to paraphrase him so we recommend you taking a trip through the Sommerlad site to find out more details.
Don't underestimate the significance of the Sommerlad Heritage chook for all of us, but we won't pretend we're a tad nervous. Because, at $21.50 per kilo, the Sommerlad Heritage chook is about four times more expensive than a Coles 'RSPCA Approved Large Whole Chicken' which is going to freak the living daylights out of a lot of people. But consider these facts.
Who knows where the Coles chicken was bred, where it was raised and how? If the end retailer - Coles - sells it for $5.40 per kg then it must cost the producer under $4.00 to grow it? The only way a chicken could be raised that cheaply is in a factory farm - hundreds of birds raised in sheds with artificial lighting for a maximum of five weeks.
Sommerlad Heritage chickens are:
- raised exclusively on chemical-free pasture with low stocking densities
- traceable from the breeder to the farm to you;
- raised for twice as long as Standard chickens in carefully specified conditions;
- a mix of at least four different breeds;
- contributing valuable genetic diversity to the food chain;
- the product of 10 years of careful breeding and research;
- bred primarily for flavour and vitality rather than speed and yield;
- air-freighted from New England to the various grower farms;
- grown on only eight authorised farms across Australia so they remain rare.
Wouldn't it be better to eat chicken four times less and spend the same money eating a healthier, better product?
Tonight, Mr Bone and the Walmsleys will feast on Sommerlad Heritage chook (that's fine, really, I'm totally happy staying at home looking after the kids, chooks and dog and doing the invoices, no problem). In the early morning, they'll collect the Heritage chooks, pack them into crates and drive from Gerringong to Summerland Poultry Processors at Kellyville where the birds will be processed and then delivered to Marrickville.