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Dewberry Hills Farm Chicken

Photo courtesy of Thomas Winslow

One of the great things about buying from local farms is being able to shake the hand of the person growing your food. I always look forward to seeing Jane & Terry Levan. They own and operate one of my favorite farms that we do business with -  Dewberry Hills Farm. Over the years, I have been able to bring in hearts and livers, frozen frames and even chicken feet and our owners and shoppers have been eager to use it all. Those chicken feet are a great source of collagen by the way, and are great for making rich, flavorful stock. Dogs love them for snacks, too!

The great care and treatment of the chickens from Dewberry Hills come through in every aspect. These birds are carried around the farm under the protection of moveable tents that help keep them safe from weather and predators. They are fed locally raised grains. In pasture, they are able to eat bugs and small rocks which aids their digestion.

Terry and Jane have decided to grow with Wheatsville and are expanding their operations while we grow our co-op economy with our second store. I have also heard plans of an organic line down the road. Check out their website to learn more about their story and check out some of the restaurants and spas that serve their really good chicken.

I asked Jane a few questions and she gave some thoughtful insight into farming in Central Texas. Here are her own words:

Farming whether you raise potatoes or tomatoes or chickens is a bit like gambling. You do your best to weight the odds in your favor but there are always multiple factors that are beyond your control. I like to think that after raising pastured poultry since 2003 I’ve seen most of what nature can throw at us, but every year there seems to be something we haven’t quite anticipated.

We developed the moveable tent model because we want to share our land with the other creatures that live here and for the most part, the tents do a good job protecting the birds from predators.

The great horned owls were here long before we started raising chickens as were the nesting red tail hawks and raccoons. They need a place to live too which is one of the reasons we’ve left some acreage forested in the back of our farm.

The worse invasive pests we’ve had to work through were the feral pigs started swarming to our property after the first big drought in 2009. While the hogs didn’t try and eat the chickens, they destroyed the tents trying to get at the grain and chewed through water hoses. Terry spent an entire summer sleeping in the back of the pickup truck on an air mattress with a shotgun hunting pigs. That problem was solved when we erected a very expensive pig fence.

Weather is another factor entirely out of our control. The tents are equipped to keep the birds warm in the winter (we wrap the bottoms in pallet wrap and bed the birds on shavings when it freezes) and have misters that keep them cool in the summer. However, when the days get short and the temperature stays cold, the chickens grow more slowly. They use all their energy staying warm instead of growing.

As our land is hilly and the soil is sugar sand, we don’t have a problem with flooding when it rains but we do have to stake the tents down when storms roll in. And for some reason (or at least it seems that way), storms tend to roll in after midnight and before dawn. It can be a bit unnerving driving around the fields in an open ATV when lightening is crashing all around you and the rain is pelting down hard.

One of our biggest problems (and trust me, I’m not complaining about this one) is that we have never been able to keep up with the demand for our chickens. We currently have several restaurants on a waitlist because we’ve always been limited by our existing facilities—our brooder and our processing building.

The chicks arrive at Dewberry Hills farm the day after they’re hatched and because the babies are extremely susceptible to hypothermia, we have to make sure that the building is kept at a very specific temperature. Our original brooder was a remodeled pole barn and we could never keep it warm enough in the winter or cool enough in the summer. The chicks did all right in it but it was never optimal for them and we really do want our birds to be happy.

We’re also limited by the amount of refrigeration space in our processing building and our processing equipment. When David Perkins of Beetnik Foods offered to partner with us so that we could raise birds for his company, it was a chance to improve and expand that we couldn’t turn down.

We never want to become a mega-chicken farm because that would require changing the way we raise the birds and compromise our strict standards of quality control. However we do want to increase our production capacity, offer more jobs at a fair wage, and keep Central Texas eating really good chicken.

Working with Wheatsville has been a wonderfully positive experience for us since we began selling to the Co-op back in 2008. Unlike big chain grocery stores, Wheatsville has always been responsive to the difficulties of consistently producing food locally. We can’t always deliver the number of chickens Wheatsville wants because we don’t raise our birds in confinement houses. All our chickens are not the same size. We don’t have the ability to offer different cuts—we only sell whole birds. These factors preclude our selling to traditional grocery stores.

Wheatsville customers are also different. When the meat department suggested we start offering feet, liver and hearts, we were just a little dubious that they would sell. However, Wheatsville’s creative members buy it all which helps us utilize the whole bird.

Read More:
Interview with Jane Levan via Sustainable Food Center.