The words “free range” conjure up many different images in people’s minds, the most idyllic of which includes luscious fields as far as the eye can see without any fencing to dilute the monotony of green. Unfortunately, the phrase isn’t regulated, so it more often gets slapped on chicken raised by the tens of thousands in a hangar-sized shed.
But truly free range does exist — and it’s the lifestyle enjoyed by chickens on Larry Schultz Organic Farm in Owatonna, MN. Larry is one of Bon Appétit’s 1,000-plus Farm to Fork partners, supplying organic chicken to St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.
Larry’s flocks have the run of the land, which makes for happy chickens, hilarious stories, and high-speed getaways. His über-“free” take on organic free-range farming works, because when he gets his chickens, he leaves them in the barn until they know where home is, before they go out during the day. Then his chickens will always “come home to roost,” just like the saying. Before he did this, Larry said, the chickens would wander around the yard following his kids and then would get lost around his house in groups of 50 or so that they then had to catch and put back in the barn at night.
In addition to enjoying whatever grasses they can get their beaks on, Larry’s couple thousand chickens are fed organic chicken feed grown on Larry’s own 300 acres of certified organic farmland. Having been brought up on his parents’ organic farm, Larry’s farming history is without the “making the switch from conventional” story so many farmers today have. The evidence of Larry’s born-and-raised-organic lifestyle can be seen not just on the farm, but in his kitchen, where we enjoyed Equal Exchange Fair Trade Coffee as his daughters ate a breakfast of Cascadian Farms Organic Cereal with Organic Valley milk and Equal Exchange Fair Trade bananas.
According to Larry, it’s not the chickens that have a problem adapting to his free range ways, it’s the people passing by. In one story that had me gasping for air I was laughing so hard, Larry explained how he had to stop opening the door to let the chickens out by the road, not because they got on the street and interfered with traffic, but because people would freak out. He said frequently he had people asking him in a panic, “Do you know your chickens are out?!?” After getting tired of explaining time after time that yes, he knew and it was OK, Larry adopted a new strategy and just played along, which didn’t work either, as good-natured people would offer to call friends and get a group of people together to help round up all of his “escaped” chickens.
When it came time to tear myself away, we had to run around the barn and out of sight, because as Larry put it, “You have to run away from my chickens, they’re just too friendly” — the chickens would have followed us and I wouldn’t have been able to get my car out of the driveway. I could have listened to Larry’s stories for hours; he is a remarkable person and farmer. We are proud to serve his chicken!