Tom Delehanty’s Poulet Nu appeared on the cover of edible Santa Fe’s first issue in fall 2006. Photo by Carole Topalian.
I began this story with a simple, if somewhat spurious, question: Where is all the New Mexico–raised chicken? Embedded in that question was a stack of questions that could be laid out in a diagram not unlike a diagram of the vertically integrated model of production that has come to dominate the chicken market in the United States (and world). While the answer seems to be about markets and distribution, I found myself returning often to the other end of the spectrum, wondering, as if lost in a Zen koan, Just what is a chicken?
Having spent years researching the meat industry, I knew about Tyson, the first corporation to take control of chicken production from the feed mills to the hatcheries, the slaughterhouses to the tractor trailers. I knew about Cargill and Perdue and JBS. I knew that an unassuming brand name like NatureRaised Farms often traces back to one of these four, and that many supermarkets slap their name—Trader Joe’s, Simple Truth, even 365—on chicken purchased from those processors. I also knew that, as Merriam Webster’s Visual Dictionary notes, chicken “is cheap” or, at least, expected to be; that an American eats an average of ninety to a hundred pounds of it a year; and that people who keep backyard chickens often name them.
A chicken, of course, is a bird, and it is the most populous bird on Earth. Chickens, along with turkeys, belong to the order Galliformes, a ground-dwelling order of birds whose ancestors were the primary survivors of the mass extinction event that concluded the Cretaceous period some sixty-six million years ago. While I knew that the chicken was domesticated long ago—roughly eight thousand years ago in what is now northern Thailand, according to archeological and genomic evidence—I did not know that its wild ancestor, the red junglefowl, still ranges across South and Southeast Asia.
Chickens, like juncos and robins and geese, are omnivores. Given the opportunity, they peck and dance, digging up grubs and bugs and seeds, leaving trails of poop that help to fertilize the gently disrupted earth. But commercially raised broiler chickens live in large houses with floors of often manure-soaked litter in the company of thirty to fifty thousand of their peers. If they’re lucky enough to be organic or “free range,” they might have theoretical access to a small porch. As veteran pastured poultry farmer Tom Delehanty comments of such conditions, “People, unless you’re at a Rolling Stones concert, you’ll drive each other crazy. Birds are the same way.”
“It’s a different bird grown outside, they’re expressing themselves as a bird, and they’re happy right till the end,” says Delehanty, who raised pastured poultry for about thirty years in Socorro. Now, as he moves out of the business at age seventy-three, he says, “I’m encouraged by the scale of [pastured poultry], the small scale. I do have a lot of passion about it. I want young people to realize that they can do this and produce a bird that the industry can’t.”
Chicken tractors at Sile Pastures. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.
“These guys are awesome,” Sage Hagan tells me, his arms wrapped around a stately Broad Breasted White. “Turkeys are a dinosaur. They’re amazing predators on a pasture—super-smart birds.”
I’m too late in the season to meet any chickens at Sile Pastures, Hagan’s farm outside Peña Blanca, so he’s brought me to this pasture to meet the turkeys. It’s hard not to be dazzled by the beauty of the birds, and the same is true of the landscape. A canopy of black-eyed Susan seed heads protects a vibrant micro-understory—cattle will come in to graze after the turkeys are harvested—and beyond the field, autumnal cottonwoods stand as radiant flags to the Rio Grande. The turkeys live in mobile coops known as tractors, floorless structures that are moved daily, allowing them to forage a new plot. After lifting a tractor from the front end and pulling it forward to show me how it’s done, Hagan says, “You can see them already grazing and hunting that new little section.”
Left, top to bottom: Sage Hagan moving turkey tractor; turkey tractors. Right: Hagan with adopted hen and turkey tractors.
Photos by Stephanie Cameron.
Hagan calls himself a YouTube farmer—“first generation, self taught in a lot of aspects”—and he expresses great appreciation for old-timers, like Delehanty, who have served as mentors and helped out. “I’d always wanted to live off the grid, raise my own food,” he tells me. A culinary school graduate with stints at fine restaurants, including Spago in Beverly Hills and the erstwhile Milagro in Bernalillo, Hagan connects his journey toward recognizing food as art to his journey toward becoming a farmer. Initially deterred by the cost of starting a farm, he came across the concept of a market garden and built seventeen permanent beds at his home in Bernalillo. “I told my wife that I was going to quit working as an electrician and start growing lettuce. That’s the family joke.”
Why chickens? is one of many questions that Hagan answers without being asked. “My main goal on the farm was to be diversified,” he explains soon after I arrive, standing outside the hoop-house-turned-brooder where chicks spend their first three weeks on the farm. “We didn’t want to just be a poultry farm, we didn’t want to just be a produce farm, we wanted to be diversified. So we have grassfed, grass-finished lamb; we have a herd of sheep that we run on our pastures; we have our turkeys, we have our chickens, but we also have a herd of cattle. We raise heritage hogs.”
En route to the turkey/cattle pasture, we cruise by a spacious pen full of hair sheep and another full of Mangalitsa pigs, then stop at the pasture where, over the course of a long summer, Hagan raised about 1,800 Freedom Rangers and Cornish Cross hens. The Salatin-style chicken tractors, early popularized by Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, are shorter than the turkey tractors but operate on the same principle of daily movement. “It was really cool to see the effects that the poultry had on the soil health,” he tells me, noting that the fields had been fallow for several years before he and his wife, Andrea Romero, moved their farm up from Bernalillo in 2021. Instead of breathing in the ammonia fumes of the manure of thirty thousand confined birds, these chickens spread their manure across the pasture, delivering nitrogen to the soil they’ve aerated through pecking and grazing.
“You’re not a birder, are you?” I ask upon learning that Megan Lanford was trained as a wildlife biologist. “I am,” she confesses. “I was a waterfowl biologist.” Originally from Phoenix, Megan says she never would’ve guessed that she’d be raising chickens for a living. “I love it here,” she says of the canyon outside Truth or Consequences where she lives with her family, “and I would never want to move back to a big city ever again.”
Broad Breasted Whites at Lanford Livestock. Photos courtesy of Megan Lanford.
Megan’s father-in-law, Doc Lanford, has operated Lanford Livestock, primarily a cattle ranch, since 1981. Her involvement began with convincing Doc to let her start selling beef directly to consumers. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want, I don’t want any part of it,’” she recalls. That involved a lot of education in and of itself; she and her husband, Dick Lanford, took butchering workshops and watched YouTube videos to learn about all the cuts. Then they bought a new property adjacent to the ranch that included twenty acres of irrigated pasture. “The guy had it in alfalfa for seven years,” she says, and “the soil was really bad.” They tried planting it three or four times, and “nothing came up except kochia.” Having listened to some podcasts about poultry and the benefits of rotational grazing to soil health, Megan proposed bringing chickens into the mix.
“So we bought twenty or thirty chickens, sold ’em in half an hour at the farmers market.” And, she says, “the pasture looked really good in the spot where we’d moved them around.” Like Hagan, the Lanfords found a mentor in Delehanty, who sold them chicken tractors and processing equipment and helped them butcher several times. “If we wouldn’t have had him, we would have failed and quit,” she says. Instead, the next year, they raised six hundred Freedom Rangers, a breed they chose based on taste and adaptation to the high-desert climate.
“My husband was like, chicken’s chicken,” she says when I ask what distinguishes theirs. “He was shocked at how good our first chicken was. We’ve had everyone tell us they taste so much better. Obviously at the grocery store, you’re getting chickens that’re cooped up . . . ours are getting sunlight and grass and bugs and a much more well-rounded diet.”
Freedom Rangers and calves on pasture at Lanford Livestock. Photos courtesy of Megan Lanford.
“I meant to work for the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations],” Chris Loeffler tells me early in my first conversation with her. “My degree was in international ag development with a specialty in soils,” she says, and for a while she worked for a top agricultural consultant in California. This was in the 1970s, and she describes using “Chris” on her résumés and walking into “a room of dropped jaws” that always concluded with explanations of how a woman couldn’t do the job she’d applied for. Ultimately, she pivoted to teaching.
“I was just gonna have a few,” she says when I ask how she got into chickens. Having started Loeffler Farms at her home in the Zuni Mountains after retiring from a twenty-eight-year career in education, she knew that she wanted to be low impact—on her own body, on the land, and on the wildlife of the surrounding national forest. “I started selling excess eggs to El Morro Feed. They kept asking for more, so I decided to put a second house in.” That led to her first sales of meat birds—layers stop producing enough eggs to cover organic feed costs after a couple years—and even though she now raises about 250 Freedom Rangers every summer, she “can hardly keep those [older layers] in stock once people realize how good they are for stews and things.”
King, a Maremma Sheepdog, with young laying hens at Loeffler Farms, photo courtesy of Chris Loeffler.
Loeffler also has thirty-five sheep that are rotated from one part of the pasture to the next, and raises organic vegetables. Talking with her brings home something integral to small-scale chicken farming: it’s personal. I don’t just mean the losses when ravens were getting her birds, leading her to start using electric poultry fences with chicken wire over the top, nor am I thinking of her relief when the spike in egg prices allowed her to raise hers enough to meet her costs. What I mean is her relationships with her customers: she raises soy-free birds for one, let another preorder a turkey from the farmers market so he could pay with SNAP benefits, and sells roosters born to her heritage-breed layers to a local customer from Jamaica who prefers their firmer, darker meat for her recipes.
“I had never in my life cooked a whole chicken,” Kimberly Bostwick admits when I ask how raising chickens has changed her and her husband Toby’s relationship to the birds. “Before, most of the chicken we ate was boneless, skinless chicken breast, because it was simple and easy.”
The Bostwicks, who own Barnhouse Farms, located between Clovis and Melrose, are recent converts to regenerative farming. For about twenty-five years, they ran a cow-calf operation and raised hard red winter wheat and sorghum—commodity crops that mostly went to livestock. But like so much historic ranchland in the West, theirs was overgrazed, with topsoil blowing away in the wind and running off their fields when it rained. With help from a healthy soils grant, they began a full-scale transition of their operation, planting cover crops like nitrogen-fixing cowpeas and getting comfortable with the accompanying weeds.
Laying hens and eggs at Barnhouse Farms and Elevated Eggs.
Photos courtesy of Kimberly Bostwick.
“We’ve always had an appreciation for the land,” Kimberly says, “but we didn’t realize we were just stealing from it. Now we’re doing everything we can to take care of it; we see ourselves as stewards rather than users of the land. So it gives us a purpose and responsibility around it. We were contributing to desertification before and now we’re bringing it back to what it used to be.”
Like Loeffler, they first raised chickens for eggs. But their commitment to soil health—and to growing healthy food—led them to slowly expand, first raising enough laying hens to start selling eggs at the farmers market and then adding meat chickens, which they rotate through the pasture with Salatin-style chicken tractors.
“They’re amazing fertilizers. They scratch up the ground. They eat some of the seeds, but not all of them—enough to allow some of the seeds to get into the soil.” Explaining how Toby studies the impact on the land, tracking the growth of grasses, forbs, and flowering plants after animals are rotated through the pasture, Kimberly says, “The chickens do as well as the sheep; the best has been the chickens following the sheep.” Some of their pastures are enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, where landowners receive grants in exchange for taking sensitive lands out of commodities production, and they’ve already started seeing the return of native species. “Indian blanket flower is my favorite,” Kimberly says—because the yellow-centered red flowers are beautiful but also because they have long taproots.
When her husband chimes in, he emphasizes that the changes have also made them healthier. Real food, he says, “has kept us out of the doctor’s office. I think when people start realizing that the food they’re eating is directly related to their health, their energy levels, everything about them, I think that will hopefully bring us back into a real food setting.”
The chicken industry has been touted as a model for the future of food production in the United States: a streamlined machine that drives down prices while making a few people very rich. To devalue chicken, this system compartmentalizes each step of production and greatly reduces the birds’ quality of life—and death. A large modern processing plant can slaughter more than two hundred thousand birds a day, at a maximum line speed of 140 bpm (birds per minute).
Poor ventilation and the accumulation of manure does not pose health risks only to birds. To take an example from one area of the “American Broiler Belt,” the Environmental Integrity Project estimates that ammonia air pollution from the poultry industry in bay states contributes twelve million pounds of nitrogen to Chesapeake Bay every year—and that’s not counting the pollution produced by manure washing into streams that feed the bay. Then there are the farmers, also exposed to “poultry dust,” who sign opaque contracts that eliminate most of their choices yet leave them responsible for the outcomes.
“Being a farmer these days, and probably all days—it’s a political act,” Hagan says. He’s talking not about electoral politics but everyday decisions. Whether to use antibiotics (no), what to feed chickens (last year, he used an organic blend from JK Organics out of Kansas; the Bostwicks supplemented pasture with organic grains from Pink Rose Organix in Texas), how to protect birds from predators on the pasture (Great Pyrenees and/or Maremmas)—these are among the carefully considered choices that truly independent farmers make. The harvest of birds is also in these farmers’ hands. Small-scale poultry processors are few and far between (there are none of any scale in New Mexico), and a federal poultry exemption allows small-scale farmers to process on-farm.
“It’s not for everyone,” Megan Lanford says of the processing. As rancher Matt Skoglund put it while speaking at the Edible Institute in Santa Fe, “there is no bloodless kill.” But as I was able to observe at Sile Pastures, birds harvested on-farm have the benefit of passing in a familiar place, without the stress of travel, and with the care of someone whose livelihood depends on theirs. “Definitely it gives you appreciation for the food—when you’re raising it up, you’re taking that life, it does change your relationship with the food. And the land,” says Kimberly.
Being more connected—emotionally, spiritually, physically—doesn’t make raising chickens easy. “We’re basically married to the poultry game from March until November,” Hagan says. “There’s no breaks, there’s no vacations. If you’ve got birds in the brooder, they need to be checked on daily. You’ve got birds out in the field, they need to be watered, fed, moved. . . . And you’re processing, once the season peaks.” Yet his energy is equal parts joyous and serious, and he’s quick to encourage others to try it out, even offering tips. (“Start small.”)
That’s another powerful difference I draw from the conversations I’ve had with New Mexico poultry farmers. Where the corporate tournament system pits farmers against one another, positioning them as competitors, those raising chickens locally are thinking collaboratively, communally. Loeffler offers butchering workshops to anyone in her community who wants to use her equipment to harvest their own birds. Hagan diligently removes the wing and tail feathers from his turkeys before putting them into the plucker, so that he can share the feathers with people on the pueblos and in Taos. These farmers are supporting Earth’s greater community too. There’s the Bostwicks’ extensive work to heal their soils, and the Lanfords have installed bat boxes and built quail habitat—Megan says as many as fifty quail will use a single brush pile of mesquite for shelter and cover.
As for my original question, most of New Mexico’s local chicken is to be found at farmers markets—if it hasn’t already sold out. “We have quite a following for our birds,” Hagan says. “We’ve had trouble keeping up with the demand.” Getting to market is work, and because chickens, especially those bred for meat, struggle with cold weather at high altitudes, farmers in New Mexico tend to raise them only from spring to fall.
According to Delehanty, who once supplied chickens to Albertson’s and Wild Oats, “Small farmers can’t afford to wholesale.” That’s because organic is so much more widely available, he says, but “organics has really faded in the last ten years. It’s local, and know the producers. You should be able to tell. If you can’t, find out more.” That said, independent shops like Polk’s Folly Butcher Shop and Farm Stand carry local poultry when they can. It might not be cheap—for the farmers or the consumers—but it comes without the peripheral costs of industrial production that Earth’s residents will be paying for years to come.
If farming is a political act, so is eating. And while the deliciousness of locally pastured poultry is one worthy criterion, to be community minded requires that we consider more than our palates. As Delehanty puts it, “Soil is really our life. That’s where we came from and that’s where we’re going back.”
Find Lanford Livestock in T or C year-round at the Sierra County Farmers Market; Barnhouse Farms and Elevated Eggs at the Clovis Farmers’ Market; and Loeffler Farms at the Ramah and Grants Farmers’ Markets. Starting this year, find Sile Pastures (affiliated with Tierra Sagrada Farm) at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market as well as the Corrales and Taos markets.
Briana Olson is a writer and the editor of edible New Mexico and The Bite. She lives in Albuquerque.