A Visit to a Free-Range Chicken Farm

Grower Tour

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Who: Craig and Kellie McHugh of A Joyful Noise Farm
What: An organic and self-sustaining 10-acre farm.
Where: Black Forest, Colorado

A quest for organic, farm-fresh eggs and a little information about how to potentially raise chickens myself led me recently to A Joyful Noise Farm in the small town of Black Forest, Colorado. It didn't take me long to learn that these free-range chickens do a lot more than just provide eggs; their presence is actually an integral part of the lifecycle of a farm that also cares for pigs, goats, and cattle.

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In 2005, after 18 years in the computer services industry, Craig McHugh decided to take what he had earned and purchase a rundown farm on ten acres. Joyful Noise Farm began with only six backyard chickens, a homeschooling project started by his wife, Kellie. But with the help of Joel Salatin's book about practices for a four-season farm, it soon grew into something much bigger.

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Although first drawn to the beauty of this small town outside of Colorado Springs, Craig and Kellie made their decision to build their farm here for more conceptual reasons. The couple thought this area of the Colorado, which imports more than 90% of its foodstuffs and is studded with chain restaurants and drive-throughs, was ripe for change. At first, the idea of building a small, independent farm nestled in a "virtual food desert" seemed unfeasible to the surrounding community, but the family's careful planning, strategic marketing, and hard work proves there are other means of providing food and generating income aside from the typical model of large-scale production or monoculture.

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The McHughs follow a farming model where different animals and plants coexist. It is in this format that free-range chickens not only thrive, but also serve valuable functions. The chickens' primary role on the farm, of course, is egg production; however, they also contribute to pasture quality, fertilization, pest control, and reseeding. These functions are facilitated by a mobile chicken coop. Without it, and left in a confined area, chickens will decimate the terrain, leaving it, in Craig's words, "looking like the surface of the moon."

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The mobile coop can house up to 200 chickens — although, after having lost 65 chickens during the recent evacuation due to fires, the flock is currently 75 strong. The McHughs and the farm interns move the coop every seven days, so that the chickens have new territory to peck and explore. The chicken coop is confined to a specific portion of the pasture, surrounded by an electric fence, which keeps out predators. Within these confines, the chickens, searching for insects, break up the cow manure, till the soil in the process, and leave behind accessible fertilizer for the pasture. The chickens are fed an all-organic diet of rice, millet, barley, oats, lentils, and peas, and any undigested seeds germinate, eventually providing fresh grazing material for the cattle after the coop moves along. A perfect symbiotic relationship.

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The McHughs teach workshops on farming, host tours and farm dinners for the community, and sell their eggs, produce, and meat both at their farm and at local markets. They regularly collaborate with other local farmers and are in the process of writing their first book.

My visit to A Joyful Noise Farm reminded me, yet again, of the necessity for holistic thinking when it comes to farming, and of the integral role that chickens play on a farm, even a relatively small one. Who knew? Now I do.

A Few Quick Questions for Craig and Kellie

1. What is the most important thing, in order for a small farm to be successful?
You must run a four season harvest operation. Greenhouses are mandatory. We have built three greenhouses, and they are the cornerstone of our farm.

2. How else do you maximize your income on a small farm?
We sell a lot of our produce in its raw form, but we also create finished products, using those raw ingredients. For example, instead of simply selling cucumbers, we make and sell pickles. Instead of simply selling basil, we make and sell pesto. The profit margin is much higher on these items, and there is more demand for the finished product.

3. Other than chickens, what other animal might be important on a small farm?
Goats. The land that we farm is honestly too arid for cattle to thrive. Goats have a very light footprint; they are easy to care for and are adaptable. Most people don't know that goat is the most widely consumed kind of meat on the planet, and we make as much money from the sale of our goat milk, as we do from the sale of our chicken eggs.

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4. What paradigm shift is needed for continued success in the farming industry?
We envision a new generation of "gentlemen farmers," where individuals who already possess the means and have found monetary success in other fields come back to the land with their dollars.

5. Other than purchasing your produce and products, why do people visit your farm?
Information. People stop in every week and want to know what we know. They ask how it is possible to make this sort of life for themselves. They also want to see the inner-workings of our farm, so we, in turn, must run a very transparent operation. We also receive a lot of requests for volunteer opportunities and internships.

Thanks, Craig and Kellie! I will be sure to visit your farm in January, when I am craving some farm-fresh eggs and produce in the midst of Colorado winter!

(Images: Jayme Henderson)

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