Saving Poultry’s Gene Pool

Have you ever stopped to wonder: How did the chicken you eat become the chicken you eat? 

Here’s what I mean. Go back 150 years or so, and there were dozens of breeds of chicken grown for meat (and others for egg production). They varied from farm to farm, and region to region, according to the farmer’s preference and the tastes of the local market. But go back about 100 years, to the 1920s, and the poultry industry begins to consolidate. Poultry production turns from a horizontal array of many farms owned independently, to a vertical structure of everything you need to grow and sell a chicken—feed milling, raising, slaughtering, and packing—being owned by single corporations.

Unique breeds of chickens roam around the barn on the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch.

Unique breeds of chickens and turkeys roam around the barn on the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas.

It’s not just the business structure that becomes industrialized through the decades: The raw material, chicken, does too. That wide variety of genetics, represented by all those breeds raised by different farmers, gets progressively narrowed down and improved upon. Generation by generation, birds were redesigned to fit the evolving model of poultry production: stocky, fast-growing, indolent, and efficient at converting feed to flesh. Today, most of the chickens we eat belong to only a few proprietary breeds produced by only a few companies. Compared to what it was, the gene pool of chicken is shallow.

Farmer Frank Reese stands in front of his chickens on his farm in Kansas.

Frank Reese raises breeds that don’t always meet the model for mass poultry production. Today, most of the chickens we eat belong to only a few proprietary breeds produced by only a few companies.

Here and there, though, stubborn holdouts are attempting to preserve that almost-lost variety. The 6-minute video below comes from a trip I took to meet one such holdout: Frank Reese, proprietor of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in tiny Lindsborg, Kansas. Reese raises only birds that were rejected by the poultry industry decades ago as unfit to contribute to industrial production. The birds are feisty and amusing, and their names are poetic: Wyandotte, Minorca, Ancona, Spanish. But Reese doesn’t labor by himself in the middle of nowhere just so he can look back into chicken’s past. He breeds and raises and slaughters and sells these birds, over and over again, because he believes that their unique characteristics deserve stewardship and protection—and that someday, large-scale chicken production will want those genetics again.

Early in the morning, Reese opens up the barn to allow the chickens to walk around the ranch.

Early in the morning, Reese opens up the barn to allow the birds to strut around the ranch.

This is the first installment in a video project about agriculture that I’ve been working on for a year with the support of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. I’ll be rolling out segments on this blog as the year goes on.

 

 

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.