The Methods and Mindset of an Oregon Chicken Farmer

It started with a frozen chicken. I was visiting the Grants Pass Growers Market for the first time (a terrific collection of produce, foraged mushrooms, freshly made corn tortillas, and a cornucopia of meats, fishes, cheeses, you name it) and I had arrived at the Forage & Plow with my brother who was ready to buy his near-weekly chicken. Fast forward a few hours and, at my brother’s recommendation, I’m visiting the chicken + pig + vegetable farm and taking a deep dive into its methods, activities, and the philosophies underlying everything about this Oregon chicken farmer.

Farmer Brock, with his partner Cheyenne, arrived to Forage & Plow by way of WOOFing and farming internships across the United States. Immediately before leading F&P, he secured a farm management position not so far from his current plot of land.

Brock fills up the pickup with food for the pigs.

Brock fills up the pickup with food for the pigs.

Forage & Plow, situated near Jacksonville, OR in the Little Applegate, occupies a collectively ten-acre parcel on a beautiful, hilly property shared with Rise Up! Artisan Bread and the Full Bloom intentional community. Brock uses two acres for vegetable production and the remainder for pasture and woodlands land for his chickens, pigs, and (until recently) sheep. Like many farmers adding value to their land and community in not-just-financial ways, he has a below-market leasing arrangement with the landowners in exchange for maintaining the irrigation of the property, keeping the property’s Exclusive Farm Use status, and contributing considerably to the overall food-ethic of the community. Almost everything on the property is local, though they buy milk and some other items elsewhere. Brock describes Full Bloom as “really a community of artisans.”

 

But back to the farm. As Brock says, F & P is not certified organic, but uses organic and beyond organic practices. We joined Brock for his daily chicken-rotation using movable pens to keep the chickens moving and fertilizing fields that would later be used for vegetable production. Every two weeks, he rotates dozens of pigs around the property as well. When composting, they endeavor to use as many animal based composts as possible and have vegetables for on-farm fertilizer. When asked, Brock says he uses “no particular practices” but certainly finds threads of permaculture, experiments with no-till, and the rotations mentioned earlier.

 

Brock, Cheyenne, and a WOOFer from Australia run the operation. Brock says labor is certainly a constraint, hence their need to remove sheep from their livestock rotation. They stay organized by rotating their fields into blocks and rows.

Brock prepares to move a chicken house. This is part of his daily rotation.

Brock prepares to move a chicken house. This is part of his daily rotation. 

We asked Brock to offer some advice to up-and-coming farmers. “It’s not prudent to pay your rent with principals”, he says. He advises tempering enthusiasm for the multitude of regenerative, biodynamic, beyond organic, etc. practices and instead figuring out a model that works and building off of that. Brock categorizes his beliefs into three buckets: A. What am I absolutely not willing to do? B. What am I currently willing to do? and C. What do I aspire to do?   He advises “taking it slow” and explains that he’s currently working towards 5-10 year goals and has tried to avoid diving into idealism too quickly. So, what are his goals?

 

Forage & Plow  Goals

  • Minimize Tillage
  • Have better systems of animal rotation
  • Bring on more livestock
  • Fewer off-farm amendments
  • Increased fertility of the soil
  • Support a healthy undergrowth
The life of a chicken in one of the mobile houses.

The life of a chicken in one of the mobile houses.

Brock is oriented towards a triple bottom line approach. He’s been influenced by people like Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, Jean-Martin Fortier, and even more so by lived experience on the farm. Expanding from a standard financial bottom line, Brock looks at:

 

Triple Bottom Line

  1. Environmental – What is happening to the environment as a result of growing plants and raising animals?
  2. Social – What do we sell people? How much do we sell our products for? Can the people who could benefit from this food afford it?
  3. Personal – What is sustainable from a lifestyle standpoint? What meets my ethical expectation for how I’m spending my time?
    1. (And of course, financial!)

 

In many ways, F & P and the surrounding Applegate community is an ideal situation for a farmer  like Brock. He has cultivated not only a high-quality agricultural practice but a financially viable existence, using bartering (he’s traded pigs and chickens for tractor-access from a neighboring farm) and other non-financial means to create a sustainable life and move towards that triple bottom line.

A Forage & Plow (dusty) pig

A Forage & Plow (dusty) pig

Brock does worry though, about oft-cited statistics including  the average age of a farmer being over 58 years old, and that the next 5-10 years will see almost all farm ownership changing hands. He’s excited by the influx of young people getting involved via WOOFing and internships He hopes the baby boomers currently running farms won’t sell their land to larger companies but will rather pass on their practices to the next generation.

 

Given the surge of regulated cannabis cultivation activity in surrounding counties in Oregon, we talk about the implications of cannabis on Brock’s (and other farmers’) activities. He has concerns about rising land prices and how that will affect farmers whose margins cannot rival those of their cannabis-growing neighbors, but he’s not overly pessimistic. He participated in several forums to bring together fruit, veggie, livestock farmers, vintners, cannabis growers and all others who had a stake in the local land. He felt those conversations were productive in helping all sides communicate with one another, and he’s enthusiastic about potential for collaborations between all of these groups. For example, cannabis growers often have multiple acre plots but are only actively growing on a small parcel of that. He muses that these growers could offer their excess land at below-market rates, much like the arrangement that F&P has. Still just an idea (as far as we know) but interesting nonetheless.

The life of a chicken in one of the mobile houses.

The life of a chicken in one of the mobile houses.

Fast forward to later that evening when we’re back at home tearing into the chicken purchased earlier at the market. Do Brock’s chickens cost more than the pre-cooked rotisserie or the disassembled, boneless/skinless/(flavorless) chicken breast you’ll find at any old overly air-conditioned grocery store. Yes, but when you’re buying, preparing, and serving a Forage & Plow chicken you’re supporting, endorsing, and in many ways evangelizing practices that’ll result in a better off planet, a more enriched, thoughtful farmer, and a chicken that tastes as substantial and nuanced as the care with which it was raised. In short, a chicken that actually tastes like chicken.

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