“When I started off working for my grandpa, we were very much a mainstream company at that time,” recalls Blake Evans, a third-generation poultry farmer from Decatur, Arkansas.
“I’d bring chicken home, and my wife didn’t necessarily want to eat it. She would go off to the store and find something different. When your wife wants to eat somebody else’s chicken, and you’re running a chicken company — that kind of makes you scratch your head.”
Blake points to his wife’s concerns about antibiotics and animal welfare as one of many moments that inspired him to found his own company, Crystal Lake Farms. “We reached back to the heritage genetics. We were looking for traits that would allow us to have a healthier bird, one that wouldn’t grow as fast, one that would have a healthier immune system.”
After five years of getting back to basics, Blake introduced the Crystal Lake Free Ranger, a slow-growing breed with a penchant for the great outdoors.
Why Breed a Slow-Growing Chicken?
Today’s typical broiler chicken has been bred to create the greatest amount of meat in the shortest amount of time. “Chickens grow so fast now that they outpace their organs, they outpace their skeletal systems. They can’t stand up for long periods of time, they can’t be active,” Blake explains.
In contrast, the Crystal Lake Free Ranger is an active bird with a long, rangy frame. “When we open the doors of the chicken house, the birds are lined up to get outside like kids at recess,” Blake says fondly. “It’s very important for them to get outside and be able to forage for worms, crickets, grasshoppers, etc.”
Blake estimates that his chickens take at least two weeks longer than a typical broiler chicken in coming to maturity. As a result, he says, “they’re incredibly flavorful and very juicy.”
Giving Chickens Room to Grow
Developing the Crystal Lake Free Ranger allowed Blake and his team to reevaluate every aspect of their process. “If you were to drive up on one of our farms today, you would see an older-style chicken house with curtains on the side,” so that chickens have access to natural light, even on days when the temperature dips below 45° F and the birds must remain inside.
“The single most important thing is the space that you give the chicken,” Blake continues. He likens a crowded chicken house to a crowded airplane for humans. “In the winter time, you always hear somebody coughing and, when you’re in that close proximity, with that kind of air circulation, you might be more likely to get sick.”
“Mainstream chickens grow so fast that their bodies are stressed, and there are so many of them crowded into the house—it’s hard not to use antibiotics in an environment like that.”
Like all Whole Foods Market chicken suppliers, Crystal Lake Farms raises birds without the use of antibiotics. This and other practices — including more spacious chicken houses, complete with enhancements such as hay bales to encourage the expression of natural behaviors — have allowed Crystal Lake to earn a Step 4 in the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating Program.
Due to the unresolvable welfare issues inherent in fast-growing breeds of chicken, Global Animal Partnership recently announced its intention to require slower-growing chicken breeds for certification for all levels of its 5-Step® Rating Program by 2024.
These days, it seems like Blake’s old-fashioned bird might just be the wave of the future.