With all the concerns about food these days -- namely, fats, trans fat, probiotics and omega 3s – it's no surprise that we're becoming more concerned with the sources of our food, how it was raised, and in the case of meat and poultry, how it was fed. If you're tempted to reach for the free-range chicken at the supermarket, but you're not sure what it means, read what certified organic farmer Mike Hansen at Good Earth Farms has to say.
Strict guidelines govern the certification of farms as organic, and "certified organic" farms must follow them all to earn the stamp. Constant monitoring and data collection makes sure that nothing goes unnoticed. The major requirement in raising an organic chicken is that it not be fed any growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic animals eat natural grasses instead.
You'll be hard pressed to find a chicken coop at a free-range farm. The chickens are not penned up in a cage or kept inside. Instead, they are allowed to roam through fields and pastures and to graze on the grass. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that the animals have outdoor access to be considered free range. They also can seek shelter in a barn when they choose. These procedures are practiced all year long.
If you are what you eat, then you're also what your food ate. Therein lies the main difference between free-range, organic poultry and regular poultry: The former is given no antibiotics and lives on a healthy supply of grasses and grains -- which means you won't ingest any harmful chemicals yourself when eating this type of poultry.
Hansen feeds his free-range organic chickens a mix of clover, grass and minerals to keep them healthy and happy. "We ensure that they are eating only from the pasture," explains Hansen. "And we don't add anything to the pasture other than natural products like compost, green manures and minerals." The results are leaner birds that get lots of exercise, fresh air and water; this also means they're more flavorful. "They scratch, eat clover and grass, chase grasshoppers and receive our own feed mix," explains Hansen. "Just like nature intended."
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