Home on the free-range
It’s happy chicken season at Chaffin Family Orchards
There’s a farm near Oroville, at the intersection of Highways 70 and 149, where white-feathered chickens loll about in yurts, wander happily through grassy pastures pecking at bugs, and enjoy the overlap protection from guardian dogs assigned to watch goats and sheep.
If there’s such a thing as happy chickens, they’re the pastured, free-range, organically fed fowl found at Chaffin Family Orchards.
The farm dates back to when UC Berkeley professors planted Mission Olives at the location almost a century ago. Del Chaffin, the first farm manager, bought the farm after working there as a Berkeley student and then expanded it. The 2,000-acre farm is now owned by Del’s granddaughter, Carol, and her husband, Kurt Albrecht, and prides itself on using a combination of organic, natural and biodynamic farming methods.
The chickens keep bug populations in check and deposit high-nitrogen manure. Goats keep the weeds in order and perform light pruning, while cows and sheep mow and keep the orchard floors clean of tall grasses.
Using the symbiotic relationships between livestock and crops for the past 10 years has allowed Chaffin Family Orchards to keep the farm’s tractors almost permanently parked.
The farm still has olives, and olive oil, plus a wide variety of stone-fruit trees (apricot, peach, nectarine, avocado, Bing cherry), including some heirloom varieties; citrus (navel and mandarin oranges, grapefruit); plus figs, persimmons and pomegranate.
In addition to raising the chickens, Chaffin offers grass-fed beef, lamb and goat, and of course the always-fresh deep-yellow yolked eggs that their Web site boasts provide added lift to baked goods and are higher in omega-3 fatty acids and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) than eggs from chickens not raised on pastures.
Chris Kerston, sales manager for the farm, said what drove him there was his desire to work somewhere that used crops and livestock symbiotically.
The farm raises its meat chickens in batches of 250—with four harvests in the spring, and two in the fall. After spending their first two weeks in a brooder house (which simulates a mother hen), chicks go out on pasture, living in open-bottom chicken yurts for a couple weeks (moved a couple times a day to new areas of grass), before moving on to free-range foraging.
At four weeks, Kerston said, they can free range an entire area. The birds are ready for harvest at seven or eight weeks and dress out at about five pounds.
Kerston said that pastured free-range, organically fed chickens are the “crème de la crème,” adding that people come from 300 or 400 miles away to stock up on Chaffin chickens.
“You sleep at night [after a chicken harvest] because you know you gave a good life to that animal,” Kerston said, “and now it’s giving back to the life cycle.”
Cheryl King has bought chickens at Chaffin for the past three years, since taking her grandkids there for a tour. “I’m really impressed,” she said during a recent telephone interview, “because their farm is efficient and clean.” She described the chickens as “free-range—really free-range.”
She grew up in a small town in Illinois where she was raised with the idea that locally produced food is important. She places orders for Chaffin chickens and stocks her freezer with them. “They make it easy for you,” she said. “They send you an order form through e-mail.”
And King puts forth a challenge to fellow chicken-eaters: Take one of the Chaffin chickens and buy a chicken at a supermarket, put them side by side, and clean them. “You won’t find any extra fat on the Chaffin Family Orchards chicken,” she said.