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June 22, 2012

Back to the Land, Page 3: David Pitman Brings the Old Country Home

Chicken farmer went to France to learn how to raise his birds the old-fashioned way

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • The chickens on Pitman Family Farms forage and dustbathe outdoors.    David Paul Morris

by Karen E. Lange

Farm: Pitman Family Farms
Location: California
Certified Step 3 for 16 chicken and turkey farms: Animals live in an enriched indoor environment and have access to the outdoors during the day.
Certified Step 4 for one chicken farm: Animals are bred for the outdoors and spend their days on pasture or foraging areas.
Certified Step 5 for two chicken and turkey farms: As with Step 4, animals are on pasture or in foraging areas; all physical alterations are prohibited.
Website: maryschickens.com

In order for David Pitman to raise chickens in the most humane way possible in California’s flat, dry San Joaquin Valley, he had to go to northern France. That’s because conventional broiler chickens in the United States have been bred primarily for massive breasts and fast growth. The birds’ bones often can’t support their unnatural weight. Their immune systems aren’t always tough enough for life off antibiotics. Put them out on pasture in the Valley, with its hot afternoons and cold nights, and they won’t survive long, even with a mobile chicken house for shelter and plenty of corn and soybean meal to supplement whatever food they find in the grass.

So Pitman traveled across the Atlantic to learn how birds were raised in America before industrial farming introduced chicken CAFOs. Now, every four weeks, a French breeder sends him eggs. From these hatch the slow-growing, Step 5 Rhode Island Reds Pitman markets as “Mary’s California Bronze.” (They’re named after his mother, who for decades has coped with food allergies by eating the healthiest food she can find.)

These birds lead the sort of life that could be featured in a commercial—except it’s real. “If I was a chicken, I’d want to be raised in a pasture,” says Pitman. “... They can run and jump and perch and climb.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, because of consolidation in the poultry industry and the departure of companies from California, the slaughter plants that once bought the Pitmans’ turkeys shut down until the family had just a single customer left. They raised organic turkeys, but it was hard to market birds for 20 cents more per pound when buyers make decisions based on a half-cent difference.

"Global Animal Partnership's 5-step program has really been a blessing for us. It's the first of its kind to finally teach consumers the truth behind the food they eat."

“I was studying to come back to the … farm,” Pitman remembers. “My dad said, ‘… Better change majors. … By the time you get out of college, we won’t be here anymore.’ ”

The family tried selling unprocessed organic chickens to ethnic markets in Los Angeles. In 2002, they risked all the money they had to buy and renovate an old processing plant. In 2003, about three months before it seemed they would lose everything, they got a contract to supply Whole Foods stores with organic birds who have access to the outdoors. Two years later, Pitman began producing pasture-raised chickens, partly at the urging of his soon-to-be wife.

“She hones in on this chicken that is having trouble walking, she gets a tear in her eye, and she said, ‘David, what’s wrong with this chicken? Obviously, this chicken is in pain.’ [And] I said, ‘Well, you like boneless breast meat.’ ”

Achieved in 2010, Step 5 certification has allowed Pitman to continue raising chickens on pasture and ask a higher price for birds with smaller breasts (and bigger thighs). Sales have doubled; the manager of the Whole Foods stores in Las Vegas went from begging Pitman not to send him any more birds because he had unsold cases stacked in the freezer, to pleading with Pitman to increase the weekly deliveries from three cases to eight.

Pitman’s mother, Mary, is relieved—and proud. “It’s just so exciting for me that he and my husband are raising food that I can eat, and that we’re changing the whole industry. … They’re … changing the way meat is produced.”

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