P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm is Noah’s Ark to Heritage Poultry Farmers
The estate is substantial -- a recently constructed plantation-style home atop Moss Mountain that looks like it’s been there a century or better; organic vegetable gardens carefully maintained; a rose garden as beautiful as one would expect in a romance novel and views of the Arkansas River that take your breath away. But the working farm is also home to a new effort to preserve poultry from our past.
P. Allen Smith has teamed up with the Heritage Poultry Conservancy to promote the return of heritage birds. These aren’t some dreamed up breed from a science lab; they’re actual breeds raised by our grandparents’ generation that have been overlooked for the convenience of commercial birds bred specifically for certain consumer-friendly products.
I met Danny Williamson with Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch back in October at Moss Mountain Farms. The Conservancy had brought out some of the birds housed on the land to show guests at a Farm to Table event. The chickens were large birds, very full-bodied and with some of the prettiest plumage I’ve seen. Some came up to my knee, tall strutting birds with an almost ancient raptor-like gleam in their eye.
Williamson’s been doing this a while. “I was raised on a farm where we grew our own chickens for both egg and meat consumption...it was a way of life for me. After high school I fell away from agriculture as I thought I was tired of the farm life, 15 years ago I met Frank Reese (from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch) and started working with him on his farm and fell back in love with the farm and the birds. I know do it because I feel an obligation to carry on these genetics of poultry so they can be handed down to the next generation.”
But why work hard to bring back these old breeds and take the sort of care the Heritage Poultry Conservancy targets? “The terms ‘organic‘ and ‘free range‘ do not hold water anymore. Organic simply means that the bird was raised on organic feed and organic ground, it does not say anything about how the animal was treated or the fact that a commercial ‘organic’ chicken is unable to move around because of its obesity. Free range simply means the bird has access to the outdoors, it doesn't mean that it can or will go outdoors. Heritage Poultry is free ranged on pasture. These birds can run and chase bugs. They love to catch the wind and fly.”
Williamson says the birds do not receive hormones or antibiotics, and that they receive a special feed mix formulated just for them.
The birds can vary widely in size and shape. For instance, while the chickens we encountered at Moss Mountain Farm were far larger than the average commercial grade Cornish rock cross, birds such as the New Hampshire could be two thirds the size of the commercial bird. Heritage birds also tend to mature at a slower pace than birds meant for commercial consumption. Williamson says it’s a noticeable difference. “These birds will have a much richer, deeper fuller flavor. This comes from their ability to exercise and create muscle mass, and from being able to eat greens.”
But what does P. Allen Smith and Moss Mountain Farm have to do with the Conservancy? “We share a common bond, the love of these Heritage Poultry and the importance of preserving these genetics,” says Williamson. “As with any farm, being able to get genetics on other farms helps secure their future. If there were a disease outbreak or a weather catastrophe were to occur in an area, the more spread out the genetics are onto reliable farms the better chance you have to avoid in of these issues.”
So essentially the breeding stock kept at Moss Mountain Farm are the potential Adams and Eves of each breed kept there, should something go tragically wrong in the poultry world. Separated from stocks on other farms, these birds will be the go-to for genetic lines should something akin to a poultry epidemic happen.