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The future of Big Chicken

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

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BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.

At the end, I lingered over the final step, the packaging of chicken headed for grocery stores, and my eyes glanced upon the magic that they call "private labeling." At the entrance of the processing plant, these chickens had all looked the same: big, flapping white birds. The end was a different story. In some of the packages, I noticed that light green color of "all-natural" marketing, the hue that telegraphs the spirit of words like "ANTIBIOTIC FREE" whether or not we really know what it means, enveloping packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But in other packages, I noticed that bright yellow of conventional Styrofoam carrying skin-on multi-packs of chicken thighs. It was a sinking feeling, the realization of the consumer fear that what we're buying is all the same. The strange twist, at least in the case of Fieldale's products, is that those yellow conventional containers might be slightly better than you think they are.

As promised, the tour included a stop at the Allman Brothers museum or, more accurately, Arrendale's basement. His collection is beyond impressive, crossing the line from rare tour posters and a complete discography of the band's recordings into ephemera of questionable origin, like cashed checks made out to the band. He also owns a motorcycle with the band members' faces airbrushed on the tank. He showed all of this off with the air of a successful, lifelong bachelor that feels free to be exactly as eccentric as he wants to be.

Springer Mountain was his idea and, according to the accounts in A Cut Above the Rest, it was regarded by his family as somewhat eccentric. Raising an industrial-volume of chickens without antibiotics seemed not just impractical, but also impossible to his forebears. He's the one in charge now.

Not long after that visit, I was walking through a grocery store and stopped to linger at the poultry counter. I noticed three different brands that, though they were presented side by side as different options, I could recognize all as being Fieldale birds. Standing there in the meat aisle, I realized that Springer Mountain Farms is not a farm as much as it is an idea. Instead of a physical place, it is a logo and a spokesperson and a method and a product. It is an idea that lots of people are willing to pay for.

In the end, Doty decided not to source his chickens from White Oak Pastures, Springer Mountain Farms, or any other company in Georgia. When the doors opened to the first location of his restaurant Bantam and Biddy in November 2012, chickens for the rotisserie were being delivered from a company just over the border in North Carolina called Joyce Foods. Most of Joyce's chickens fall under that vague banner called "all-natural." They're raised without antibiotics and "free to roam in barns." Joyce also raises a line of chickens called Poulet Rouge with animal welfare standards that are closer to those of White Oak Pastures. Doty told me that it didn't make financial sense to buy the Poulet Rouge chickens, but that buying the natural chickens from Joyce could be a kind of compromise.

"I'm not buying that Poulet Rouge chicken, but I support the company that raises it," he said.

Doty has caught some flack from farmers for talking up the virtues of pastured poultry without serving much of it. Brandon Chonko, who runs a pastured poultry operation in South Georgia called Grassroots Farms, has been a vocal critic of Joyce's vague "all-natural" branding.

"What bothers me about it is that little farmers like me don't cut corners, but Joyce Foods can slide in at a cheaper price without people realizing that it's not a pastured chicken," Chonko says. Doty acknowledges the criticism and says that he thinks of farmers like Chonko as something like revolutionaries, the kind of uncompromising rebels that a movement needs. For Doty, though, compromise is part of his vision.

The menu at Bantam and Biddy does carry glimmers of the future of chicken that he'd talked about months ago. There are pastured eggs in the breakfast dishes, chopped pastured chicken livers in the appetizers, some ground pastured chicken dishes, and the occasional pastured poultry special from White Oak Pastures. It's not much, but it's a start.

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