Follow The Recipe
Anyone who follows this blog probably has an inkling of my die-hard devotion to Joel Salatin’s farming methods, as demonstrated on Polyface Farms. I have almost all of his books, well thumbed, and read repeatedly. I’ve been to two workshops when he has been up in my corner of Canada. I didn’t realize it in the beginning, but I’ve come to understand that farming is a lot like cooking.
When you are trying some new kind of technique or a food you’ve never cooked before, you probably should follow instructions or a recipe pretty closely. Once you understand how the ingredients work together, or why the order of things is the way it is in the recipe, then you can start tweaking or adapting for your own tastes, ingredients, etc. Farming can be like that. I knew nothing about broilers when I began raising them. We had been keeping a laying flock for a couple of years, but the guy who used to cut our hay way back then warned us that broilers were a different thing. I did some reading, bought Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits, and we launched. Fortunately, we took Salatin’s advice and kept to low numbers – 25 that first year, and 40 the next. We had a ton of learning to get through in those early years.
We made the mistake back then of not following the recipe very closely. We skipped over the parts in the book about building the pasture pens – like almost everyone out there raising broilers, I initially believed the pens would be too heavy and cumbersome, they looked like they wouldn’t hold a lot of birds, and we didn’t think we had the skills to build one anyway. Instead, we put together a pasture pen out of pallets and a lot of chicken wire. It was 8 x 10 ft, smaller than a Salatin pen, and 4 ft high, thanks to the pallet dimensions. We had to keep a stool near the pen so we could climb in and out to do the feed and water. It weighed a lot more than the roughly 200 lbs that a Salatin pen weighs. It took four people to move it, so needless to say, it didn’t move daily like the method calls for. Obviously, we didn’t think the method was too wonderful, given the poopiness of the bird’s living conditions. We nearly packed it in, but there was no denying the difference in the grass where the pen had been – the fertility the birds were adding to the soil of that old hay field was almost magical.
With a lot of thumb bruising and sailor language, we eventually built a Salatin pen, following the very basic guidelines in Pastured Poultry Profits and the hand drawn schematic provided on a blog called A Daring Adventure. We did pretty well, and it was amazing how spacious it looked compared to our 8 x 1o white elephant. We realized almost immediately that we had improved on our previous pen, but still had a distance to go, as we had skipped a few important details in the design.
It took us another four years to finish getting the pens right. We got Hay Guy to build the dolly right after the first season when we tried to make do with an awful little moving dolly. We put a loop handle on the closed end of the pen that winter too. And built a new pen the next summer, so we had two. The third summer, I finally got around to putting loop handles on the open ends of both pens, and the result was a pretty efficient pasturing system this past (fourth) summer.
There is a standing joke in my family about a dish called “Oregano Chicken”. The joke is because the first time I made the recipe (and this is a true story), I didn’t have chicken on hand, so I used fish. I also didn’t have the white wine it called for, so I used red. Wine is wine, I figured. The fish looked a little purple, but I figured the taste would still be good. I also didn’t have oregano. I substituted sage. You won’t be surprised to learn that the meal was not a success, and it was years before I went back to that cookbook and gave it another go – with chicken. I cannot blame the chef who created the recipe for the terrible meal – I was the one who made all the substitutions. To this day, if I have gone off the page with a recipe, I will warn the family “this is Oregano Chicken” and they know what not to expect. At the same time, I’m a far more experienced cook nowadays, and I have a much better idea of how ingredients interact in different dishes, allowing me to occasionally create new, tasty versions of a basic recipe. I see a lot of evidence in other blogs of people who have given broilers a try, and who then blame the farmer who developed the model they were “following”, when in fact, they followed the model about as well as I followed that recipe. Frankly, it’s not the fault of the farmer who developed an efficient production model if the people who copy him don’t use the same ingredients.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there are other cooks out there, with different recipes for the same cake. There are easily a dozen versions of pasture pens for broilers out there on the web. Some of them look better than others to me. Fundamentally I’m saying : find a cook whose style appeals to you, and follow their recipe as close to the letter as you can. Adaptations can come when you have more experience. Trust me, I’ve been there.