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story.lead_photo.caption Janelle Jessen/Herald-Leader Despite a gentle rainfall chickens chose to be outdoors, although they didn t roam quite as far as usual. - Photo by Arkansas Online

The chicken houses at Crystal Lake Farms look like broiler houses seen all over the countryside -- but it's what's outside and around them that's unusual: chickens.

Every warm morning at the crack of dawn, white broilers pour from the chicken-sized doors that dot the sides of the long buildings. The birds head out into pastures to forage for food. Low-to-the-ground shelters offer protection from the sun as well as marauding hawks, eagles and other birds of prey. Feeders stocked with soy- and corn-based feed (which contains no animal products) supplement what the birds find during the day.

"This is a happy chicken," said Robert Smith, farm manager. "This chicken gets to be itself. Whatever it wants to do, it has the ability to do."

Blake Evans, Farm owner and company CEO, is proving that doing things different from the traditions of commercial broiler operations -- by going back to the roots of chicken raising -- offers advantages for the birds, for consumers and for business.

Evans, grandson of poultry pioneer, Lloyd Peterson, is pioneering his own way into the free-range-pasture-produced chicken business.

Decatur-based Crystal Lake Farms -- which grew out of his grandfather's company, Peterson Farms -- has produced a new breed of chickens called Crystal Lake Free Rangers. The bird thrives outdoors while efficiently producing meat. He is selling chicks to other free-range poultry growers and marketing broilers raised on his farm for retail sale at health food stores and smaller grocery stores as a specialty product. The meat is not yet available locally. Evans plans to have Crystal Lake Farms chickens on the shelves of health food stores sometime between January and May of 2014, although he said he can't reveal which retailers he's partnering with.

Crystal Lake Farms began focusing on raising free-range poultry about five years ago, Evans said.

In 2008, Peterson Farms sold their broiler division to Simmons Foods but kept their breed lines, Evans said. Peterson Farms built its business on the Peterson Male line, which in the late 20th century dominated the international breeding market.

Evans brought back the Peterson Male and worked with some old-style genetics with a focus on making a bird suitable for raising outdoors, Evans said.

The resulting chicken has some of the same qualities as conventional broilers, such as a large breast and a quicker grow out time. But they are also more rugged and have a strong immune system required to live outside without antibiotics. The chickens can tolerate lower quality feed and 105 degree days in Arkansas as well as colder climates, according to Evans.

Free Rangers take 58-60 days to grow to market weight -- about a week longer than conventional broilers, Evans said.

Their longer-term growth gives them more time to build a frame and organs to support their bulk so they don't face the same leg problems as their conventional counterparts, Evans said.

Free Rangers also look different because their necks are naked and their bodies have about 30 percent fewer feathers, which helps them handle temperature extremes in warm climates.

"This product, if it's raised on the organic side, will perform very well," Evans said.

The business is selling baby chicks to several small farmers. Crystal Lake Farms has customers who buy hundreds of chicks every few weeks and customers who buy thousands of chicks every few weeks, he said.

"They absolutely love our chickens and they get great reviews," Evans said.

Evans is also planning to export chickens to countries where there are a lot of small farmers who supply live-bird markets. Later this month, he plans to export birds for trials in countries where the climate is really hot and humid, such as Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean.

Evans is working to exploit a niche that's developing -- people willing to pay for food produced like their grandparents ate.

"There's definitely been a renaissance with food and where food comes from, so I definitely think there's a lot of growth opportunities," said Anne Malleau, acting executive director of Global Animal Partnership. "I definitely think there will be a growing market for that type of bird."

Crystal Lake Farms was given a Step 4 rating by Global Animal Partnership. The non-profit organization is dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals, according to its website, www.globalanimalpartnership.org. It has developed a five step animal welfare rating system to rate how pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle are raised for meat, the website states.

When the chicken house doors slide open, the birds head to the feeders for a bite of breakfast, then they head into the field to forage. The chickens spend their time running down grasshoppers and taking dust baths and enjoy doing pretty much whatever chickens enjoy doing.

Evans said that not only are chickens happier living free range but they are healthier for consumers. They have less cholesterol and saturated fat and higher Omega 3 and 6 than standard USDA chicken, he said.

He plans for his chicken packaging to have QVC codes that customers can scan using a smart phone to take them directly to his website. He hopes to set up a live web cam so customers can see the conditions the chickens they are buying were living under.

Chickens at Crystal Lake Farms have twice as much room inside their houses as chickens in mainstream houses, according to Smith. Outside, they have no limits on how far they can roam other than a perimeter fence around the entire farm.

Free Rangers eat a diet free of animal by-products. The feed meal is very basic compared to most commercial broiler chicken feed, he said. The feed is not yet organic nor free from genetically modified grain, but Evans hopes to offer non-GMO feed in the future.

Smith has a lifetime of experience in the poultry business, starting when he was about five years old helping his dad on the farm. He's using that experience of how things were done in the old days to find ways to manage the free-range chickens.

One surprise Smith and Evans found is the peaceful atmosphere inside the houses that house the tiniest chicks. When commercial chicken houses get new chicks, there is a buzz of chirping that can be heard some distance outside; but in Crystal Lake Farms houses all is quiet.

"We think chirping is anxiety," Smith said, noting that chicks can be seen dozing off to sleep, something that's normally not seen in commercial houses.

"After we've got into this, it's neat to realize we're giving the chicken what it wants," Smith said.

"I think what Blake and his family have done is the happy medium where animals do very well outside and animals produce efficiently," Malleau said. "His family has a lot of experience in the breeding system. He's raising a slightly different chicken and a large part of the success is having the right bird."

If Evans is correct, the right bird is enjoying its day outside, doing what chickens do.

General News on 01/08/2014

Print Headline: Decatur company has begun hatching free-range chicken

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