Nearly a decade ago, Julie and Vince Maro started raising 25 chickens to educate their young sons and create healthy, organic food for the family. Now, their Coon Creek Family Farm near Eau Claire, WI, raises 800 to 1,000 chickens and 300 turkeys per year, and their operation has earned praise from Andrew Zimmern, who called their turkeys “the best I have ever had,” and The Cornucopia Institute*, which ranked Coon Creek’s eggs as the nation’s best.
Impressive, considering the Maros practically started on a whim and sell their wares at the local farmers market only when they’re not attending their son’s cross country meets. The couple heartily invites customers out to their farm to chat, see the birds in the field, and buy their turkeys and chickens and eggs — accomplishing a small-town feel with chef-quality products.
Over the years, the Maros have learned what works on their little farm, relying on the highest quality upbringing for the best-tasting birds.
Their philosophy is to “know you have taken the best possible care of them, treated them with respect all the way up to the point of death,” Vince said.
The early stage of a bird’s life is the most critical. Having the chicks develop in the right brooder creates a blueprint for their eventual lives, and the Maros’ brooder, inspired by a 1940s model, is two square frames, stacked cockeyed, with lamps inside. If the chicks are too hot, they leave. If they’re too cold, they come inside directly under the lamps.
“We keep a careful eye on everything, especially when they’re tiny, because what happens in this room will impact the rest of their lives,” Julie said. “We are really vigilant about keeping them clean and healthy and dry.”
The growing birds are slowly introduced to the outdoors while still returning to the brooder at night. Then, they leave the brooder for either the henhouse yard or, for the turkeys, the fields.
“What we do is called rotational grazing, where we keep everything moving all the time,” Julie said. “The horses will graze ahead of the poultry so the grass is at a different length for the turkeys to eat. “I think when people think of free-range birds, this is exactly the picture they had in mind. They think of beautiful birds out in a green field eating bugs and grass and talking.”
In the field, the turkeys (the Maros’ main bird is the Broad Breasted White) have cages to protect them from predators and also have old wooden trailers set up as roosts. They fly atop the cages and trailers to roost during the day, and as they age they stay outside overnight as predators become less of a worry. Each day the cages get moved to give them fresh grass.
“They fill these things at night, they’re roosting,” Vince said. “That’s the other thing about conventional farming, they never roost. They probably have one square foot to live on. The whole rotational-grazing thing adds to their eventual flavor. The mixture of the horses and the grass eating really makes them unique.”
“You have to let the animal express its animalness, like a turkey expresses its turkeyness,” Julie said. “This is what turkeys do: They love to roost, they love to eat grass. And they can’t do those things if they’re locked up.”
The Maros also raise about 25 heritage Bourbon Red turkeys, which contain more dark meat and taste more like a wild turkey. Where the white is bred for its broad breast, the Bourbon Reds have more of a “V”-shaped breast, so there’s more dark meat proportionally. It’s a gourmet bird, and Julie said chefs specifically request the breed.
“The slow food movement loves this kind of turkey,” Vince said. “They’re a slow grower. They take eight months to grow out. It is truly a labor of love because you can’t (make money) … we charge $6.99 a pound, but think about it. Eight months of feed.”
Julie said that before turkey production became industrialized mid-century, there was no such thing as a “heritage” bird — people just raised all kinds themselves. But the decline in agrarian lifestyle nearly wiped out all the old breeds, because turkeys like Bourbon Red and Narragansett are not good industrially due to behavioral issues and slow weight gain. They don’t plump up quickly like your average Butterball. Even the Maros’ Broad Breasted Whites take only about 15 weeks to reach mature weight.
The Maros’s method, though perhaps admirable, is not necessarily scalable. The farms are miles from the population centers. The poultry is expensive to buy and produce. And sustainable production methods don’t handle large-scale production quite as easily as a one-million-hen egg operation.
Julie said it’s going to take a commitment from both producers and customers to ramp up production, solve our “Food, Inc.”-style problems, and raise food sustainably and organically. She suggested a network of smaller farmers who take birds out on pasture with mobile henhouses, which would accommodate several hundred hens.
Plus, there’s seasonality. During the winter, egg production wanes. In the spring, it perks up. Yet eggs are in demand year-round, and outside farmers market season customers must drive to farms like the Maros’ to get the same high-quality product.
“It’s a hard struggle for us too, because our input costs are so high,” Julie said. “What we ask for our chickens and turkeys is obviously a premium price, but when you look at the bottom line, it’s not like we’re making that much money on them.”
The Maros think it’s worth it, even though it means hours out in the pasture fiddling with their birds. Moving the cages and roost trailers. Providing shade on hot days. Feed and water. Moving the electric fence that keeps out predators. Every day.
It’s a ton of work, but the Maros stick to their principles.
“My great-grandma had chickens and she raised them free range before anyone even thought about that, because everyone did it that way,” Julie said. “They were in a small town and I remember my grandma taking me into Berlin, Wisconsin, 3,000 people, and there was one business that all the farmers would bring all their eggs to, and they would collect them and package them, which is maybe somewhat of a solution to how you do that, you co-op them all together.
“I grew up thinking all the chickens were raised like Grandma Lucy’s, and then as I got older I realized that wasn’t the case. And we had our kids, it was like, well, either we have to be vegetarian or we have to raise our own. It is a whole struggle when you think about the whole industrial model. That’s what brought us to this point.”
* The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute issues an organic egg report, ranking those from the nation’s organic producers on a 1 to 5 “egg” scale based on multiple factors from beak-trimming to commitment to organics to outdoor spacing. Coon Creek’s eggs tied with two other providers as best in the nation (also getting “five eggs” but fewer overall points was Larry Schultz’s Owatonna farm, a popular local supplier).