According to his business card, Paul Hain is, at once, an Orchardist, Land Steward and a Chicken Man. The 3rd-generation farmer at Hain Ranch Organics in Hollister, an hour’s drive south of Silicon Valley, produces walnuts, chickens and eggs on his 30-acre ranch for local Farmers’ Markets, including ours.
The farm produces about 4,000 Cornish cross broilers every season from May to October, each of them raised on a diet of “Sunshine, Fresh Air, Bugs and Grass”, as it says on the label. It’s a diet supplemented by organic feed (with corn, soy and kale ingredients, among others) which yields, according to the black chalkboard at his farmstand, “The Best Chicken On The Planet”.
“It’s a bold statement, but hey, it’s marketing”, Paul said. “You get the casual passer-by at the market who’s just browsing the stalls, this may just be what it takes to pique his or her interest as to whether this really is the best chicken in the world.”
His grandfather bought the land in the early years of the 20th century when the family grew a variety of stone fruits and nuts for market, along with some pigs and dairy cows. As was the trend in the ’60s and ’70s, the Hain family gradually reduced the diversity of their crops over time. Walnuts were Paul’s main crop until 2002 when Joe Morris senior, unable to source good quality pasture-raised chickens locally, ran the idea or rearing chickens past his son Joe, at first, and then, when he didn’t show any interest, to Paul.
“Man cannot live on beef alone,” he quipped, referring to the Morris family’s history with cattle ranching and the production of grass-fed beef.
“Back then we had only been doing walnuts, with little livestock experience. I decided to try things out with 100 chickens, which worked out pretty well, and then we raised another 100 that year, and the next year, we tripled the quantity to 600 chickens and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
The first chickens, according to Paul, blew everyone away (including him) with their taste. After producing up to 5,000 chickens a year at one point, production has scaled back to a sustainable 4,000 birds. He also offers pastured Turkeys and a ready supply of eggs from his 300 laying hens – a mix of Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock and Araucana – for the Farmers’ Markets. Starting in the spring, he gets a shipment of 150 chicks from a hatchery in Santa Cruz which are then kept in the brooder for two weeks, replete with heat lamp and fan, until they’re ready for the mobile pens, where they stay until they’re harvested.
Because of a lack of perimeter fencing on the property, Paul built each of his 16 mobile chicken pens, a 10-foot by 10-foot floorless structure of wood, metal sheets and fencing wire to contain and protect the birds from predators (he loses about one percent of his flock to skunks and foxes). It also streamlines his workflow.
“We segregate the birds by age. Each shipment of chicks gets their own pen in the brooder, and once they’re ready for the outdoors we move them to the mobile pens, which is where they’ll stay until we harvest them at eight weeks,” he said.
Each pen is equipped with water, shelter and wheels, allowing a daily rotation of new pastures for grazing. On my visit, Paul and his son, Adam, spent most of the morning moving the pens, changing the water and attending to minor maintenance tasks before finally topping up the feed. Once moved to their new spot, with the lids of their pens temporarily removed, the more adventurous broilers hopped out to explore the field and socialize with others before being lured back to their pens with food. This ‘happy hour’-type socializing provides exactly the type of exercise that Paul wants his birds to have.
“I had an intern who was too efficient,” said Paul. “He moved the pens, topped up the feed, changed the water and then moved on to the next pen, but this meant that the chickens didn’t have the chance to hop out and graze the soil. They weren’t getting enough exercise.”
Everything he learnt about raising chickens – breeds, temperaments, managing them, feeding them, caring for them – began with Joel Salatin‘s videos on the Internet, augmented with lots of trial, error and experimenting. He whittles the diet of his broilers when they’re five weeks old, for instance, to pace their growth at a sustainable rate until it’s time for harvest at eight weeks.
“The Cornish cross loves food. A lot. If you keep feeding them the same amounts throughout their eight week lifespan, their organs won’t be able to keep up with the growth of their physical bodies, and they’ll have a heart attack before you know it,” Paul explained.
Most of the harvesting happens on Fridays before the weekend markets with a production line of four people, including Paul. That said, he runs a lean ship as a way to reduce his costs, taking on the majority of farmwork, which includes repurposing materials for the various structures that contain his flock of broilers and hens. The hens reside across old trailers fitted with wooden beams for roosting and wooden cubbyholes for laying, some of which live in an old Red Cross van previously used for radio equipment.
But with rising prices of grain and fuel, even a (mostly) one-farmer operation on land that he owns is feeling the squeeze. This year’s chickens are being sold at $6 a pound, up from $5.50 a pound in 2010.
“I’ve had people at the market misread my sign (which says $6/lb) and go, ‘Oh! I’ll take two!’ And then I have to break the bad news to them,” Paul shared.
“Most of my customers understand the cost pressures I have to deal with, but there are those who don’t, and ask about my prices. In response, I ask them what car they drive. Mercedes, Volvo, BMW….are the usual answers. And I go, ‘Well, do you think it’s a quality car?’ And they say yes, and I go, ‘It’s the same with my chickens. They’re the best chickens on the planet!'”
Since the chicken business took off, the farm has hired another company to maintain the orchard of over 1,000 walnut trees, including harvesting, drying, cracking and packaging – everything that Paul used to do on his own. Now, with some livestock experience under his belt, the Hain Ranch has pigs and native sheep on its long-term horizon, but first, there are chickens to care for.
“I received a grant from the USDA, which I’m going to use to install irrigation for the pasture. That way, we can have real pasture year-round, not just in the colder seasons,” said the Chicken Man.
Roast Chicken & Vegetables
I love nothing better than a good roast chicken. Apart from cooking it in a typically Singaporean or American fashion, roasting it makes for the easiest and most economical way to get at least two to three meals from one bird. Since following Thomas Keller’s advice to truss the bird, and tasting the difference it makes to the breast, trussing has become a habit for every chicken we roast. After all, when you’re eating the best chicken on the planet, you don’t want to screw it up just before it gets to your plate! Another step I like to do before roasting the bird is giving it ample time to sit at room temperature to dry out the skin as much as possible before it goes into the oven. This ensures the crispest of chicken skin in the final product, a real treat!
- 1 whole chicken, cleaned and dried, about 3-4 lbs (1½-2 kgs)
- 5 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- A 5-inch sprig of rosemary
- 3 sprigs of thyme
- Half a lemon
- 1 lb/ 450 grams zucchini or summer squash, roughly chopped
- ¾ lb/ 330 grams carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 lb/ 450 grams potatoes, scrubbed, chopped and rinsed of its starch
- 3 medium onions, roughly chopped
- A 10-inch sprig of rosemary, leaves picked
- 5-6 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 475F/ 250C.
- Begin with the chicken. Stir together the 5 tsp of salt and 2 tsp of black pepper then rub the mix all over the chicken, paying attention to the folds and areas behind the wings and thighs. Set aside while you prepare the vegetables.
- Place the zucchini/squash, carrots, potatoes and onions in a roasting tray. In a medium bowl, combine the herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper then pour over the vegetables, tossing to coat evenly.
- Truss the chicken with kitchen twine, about 2 feet long. With the bird breast-side down and its legs pointing towards you, tuck in the wings under the bird. Center the twine underneath the neck, bring it around the wings and tie a knot in the back. Bring the twine beneath the thighs and around the tips of the leg, crossing the legs for a tight truss and knotting twice.
- Stuff the cavity with the 5-inch sprig of rosemary, 3 sprigs of thyme and half a lemon, then sprinkle any remaining salt and pepper over the outside of the bird. Let it rest for 15 minutes, trussed, before putting into the oven. This gives the skin time to dry out, ensuring crispiness.
- Roast at 475F for 1 hour for a 3lb chicken, closer to 1h 15 for bigger bird, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking time for even doneness and coloration.
- Remove the bird from the tray and let it rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.