There are two aspects which are crucial to any civilization, according to Jane Levan: sex and food. If a civilization messes up either of these simple but critical functions then the civilization will decline, and the reasons are pretty self-explanatory. But for Levan, the messing up of food is occurring even in the face of unprecedented prosperity. On a large scale, we’re just not doing it right.
Feeding people is about community. It is about nourishing a whole person by sitting down to a meal together and eating wholesome food together. This gathering together is truly what creates civilization, and our dominant culture tends to drive us away from this primal need. Jane is doing her part to bring back this critical social function along with her husband Terry, by providing nutritious, high quality chicken at farmer’s markets and to restaurants in and around Austin.
I arrive on Dewberry Hills Farm early on a crisp February morning, and Terry and Jane have already been up and working with their weekend employee Chaz for a few hours. Terry is repairing the brakes on his tractor, and while he works, he and Jane chat with me about life on a chicken farm in Lexington, TX.
Dewberry Hills wasn’t always a chicken operation. Terry and Jane initially moved to the land to give a home to their horses, which they’d been boarding when they lived in Austin. It seemed better in the long run for both the horses and the Levan’s pocket book to move to greener pastures. The land seemed like a good opportunity to farm, so they began raising chickens for their own personal use. Production quickly outpaced consumption, and with more food on their hands than they could possibly eat, they began giving the chickens to friends and neighbors.
A neighbor approached Terry to tell him that the chicken they had given her was the best chicken she’d ever eaten, and she suspected they’d find plenty of customers who felt the same way. So they began raising chickens full-time and selling them at farmer’s markets.
Since moving to the farm, the Levans had become familiar with the Polyface Farms method of pasture rotation. Joel Salatin’s theories of farming really resonated with the Levans because of its humane, sustainable, and scalable nature. Using much of the advice laid out in Pastured Poultry Profits, Terry and Jane designed their farm with mobile chicken houses that could be rotated onto different plots of land each morning.
Raising chickens sustainably and humanely is certainly good for the conscience; it’s also completely practical for the farm’s bottom line. Green grass abounds without any effort on the part of the Levans, even in the cold of February. Take a look at the ranches to either side of their property planted with grass engineered by scientists at Texas A&M, and the difference is remarkable. By following the rules of nature and the logic of husbandry, the animals work in tandem with the earth over time to transform the sandy loam of the Lexington landscape into nutrient-rich soil. The horses graze happily on the fresh grass aerated and fertilized by the chickens, and the cycle repeats indefinitely.
Sustainability factors into just about everything that happens on Dewberry Hills Farm. Baby chicks are housed by age group in various repurposed buildings. The coolest one is an old WWII army shed – now lined with soft bedding and perfect for sheltering the youngest chickens. In the field, mobile chicken houses feature frames made of reused PVC pipes and roofs made of stretched canvases that once were billboards. Terry’s design is perfectly adapted to the changing Texas weather. In winter the houses are completely enclosed, but during the warmer months the bottom tarps are removed to allow air to flow through the houses. If there’s a way to reuse an item for a new purpose on the farm, the Levans have done it. It makes good sense to them both as stewards of the farm and as entrepreneurs interested in saving money.
Dewberry Hills processes all the chickens on site, too, so the chickens never experience the extreme stress of transport to processing plants. In the commercial agricultural model, chickens are transported in closely confined containers without food or water for up to 48 hours, and often otherwise healthy chickens will die under this duress. By eliminating this unnecessary stress, the chickens are as healthy as they can be right up to the point of slaughter. All waste disposal of bird parts is handled by the farm’s vulture flock, a couple of which are welfare vultures that can’t fly. Not only is it legal to dispose of fowl processing waste by using vultures, it’s environmentally preferable and you guessed it – economically practical. There’s another advantage to processing the chickens on site. Jane has complete quality control over the birds. If she sees irregularities in the organs of a chicken as she is processing it, that chicken is not going to be sold at a market or to a restaurant.
Quality is of utmost importance to Jane. She and Terry are nourishing the families who buy their chickens and whom they usually know by name. The Levans want to work towards a civilization where people know their food providers, who care about one another, and who build an honest and caring world. For them, that starts with open and honest food. If they wouldn’t eat it, you can rest assured they will not sell it to you.