At our farm, we tend towards open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seed, for reasons practical, sentimental and political. We are suckers for the poetry of seed catalogues and the promise of hopeful January orders. Our seed shelves spell out the history of our journey to this place- cornand shell beans from Oregon, garlic and dry beans from Vashon, pumpkins and sunflowers from Washington, tomatoes from a friend in Spain, greens from California. Carried along like treasures, these things have sustained our farm, and each row seeded has been a remembrance of past labors and their ultimate fulfillment. Similarly, I hope for our animals to grow with us- to carry our farm through their generations as the farm grows with them. Many have spoken passionately and eloquently in recent years about the value and necessity of seed and breed preservation, especially in the face of industry consolidation and economic monopolization. I have little to add; I believe the strongest argument to be made for saving seed, for breeding animals, and for choosing wisely and carefully for your place is an argument of sentiment- these animals and seeds carry us and our history with them, and all the complicated emotions of planting, hatching, kidding, harvesting and slaughter alongside. That lends a power to the relationship we have with each crop and flock and herd.
This is all grade-A small-farm propaganda right here, folks. Easy stuff, tugs at the heartstrings, etc. But let’s tackle the critter that supports our farm and accounts for most of our income— the Cornish Cross chicken. The Chicken Everyone Loves To Hate.
The Cornish are easy to obtain, easy to raise to a predictable finishing weight in a predictable amount of time, and easy to slaughter and butcher. They do well in a pasture-based operation using daily-moved chicken tractors. They finish faster than any other meat-breed. When fully dressed out, their meat is flavorful, well balanced between dark and white to the taste of our customers, and they are neither too lean nor too fatty. If raised competently and with care, they will have no more health issues than any other breed of chicken. For a small operation such as ours, with limited land and a market that demands fresh birds delivered weekly, they are the best option available.
Other options would include dual-purpose or heritage meat breeds, and hybridized breeds like Freedom Rangers. The downside, for us, to these breeds rests in a simple fact: they take longer to raise than the Cornish. This means we must keep more birds on our property at any given time. With limited pasture space, this is difficult, and additional time to reach finishing weight means more feed, (which already accounts for the bulk of our costs) more manure on fields, and more daily labor expended on chicken care. All this balances out to make the Cornish more or less our only practical option for serious commercial meat production, especially as we seek to limit how expensive our birds are for our customers. The Cornish help us be financially sustainable in the short-term so that we can pursue elements of breed preservation, seed saving, and ecological stewardship in other aspects of our farming.
With proper management and care, the Cornish are healthy, alert animals, but they are not laying hens; they will not act like them. They are not innately inclined to poor health any more than any other chicken. The more we speak of them as ugly, unfortunate creatures, the more we delegitimize them as living animals on par with other critters on the farm, and excuse ourselves when they develop health problems or seem uncomfortable. Ultimately, a farm’s animals reflect most of all the quality and care of the farmer.
We speak often of the importance of heritage breeds -of what is old and passed down. It is harder to come to love and recognize the importance of a breed that in its most common form represents all the abuses of industrial agriculture. Harder, but no less essential, for in doing so we strip the industrial system of its tools, and of the arguments for their maintenance and abuse- we provide a living, viable alternative. If such an alternative is to become commonplace, however, it must in the short-term exist on the same field as that of the industrial model, or exist solely in a niche, easily isolated and unthreatening. The question for us as farmers is one of assessing which breed of meat chicken will do this best- which breed will grow quickly, reliably, and healthily, and will allow us to produce meat whose real cost is represented, but whose price and availability is not so limited as to restrict access to the conspicuous moral consumption of the wealthy.
So sing the praises of the Cornish Cross. Honor them, raise them well, and give them their rightful place as part of farming for a sustainable future and a well-fed community.