Palouse Pastured Poultry chickens live outside, pecking for insects and foraging for alfalfa and weeds – most of the time.
Unless it rains: Then the fair-weather birds like to tuck into one of the 10 covered but floorless “chicken tractors” in the farm field along Pine Creek near Rosalia. Or, if Allen and Emmy Widman’s 3 1/2-year-old son, Reed, gets his hands on them.
“He had three of them inside the house one day before I realized what he was doing,” his mom says with a laugh.
The Widmans are raising USDA-certified organic chicken and turkeys on their farm. They also gather and sell eggs from free-range, grass-fed chickens and ducks.
Although they just started selling broiler chickens and eggs in the Spokane and Seattle areas this year, they both hail from farming families. The Widmans live on the farm where Allen’s grandmother was raised. His family homesteaded in the area and Allen grew up on a wheat and barley farm.
They grow conventional wheat and barley, as well as raising chickens and ducks.
Emmy Widman grew up on a squab farm in the Columbia River Basin and has been working a poultry processing line since she was 11 years old. Squab are young pigeons raised for their meat, mostly for restaurants.
Until last winter, Emmy worked the previous decade for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, writing articles about animal health and care for a newsletter.
Both she and her husband hold degrees in agricultural economics from WSU, where they met. In addition to the chicken wrangler, Reed, they have two daughters, 6-year-old Angelina and 10-month-old Sonia.
When Emmy was laid off from her job, they started looking for ways to replace that income. They had raised pullets the year before and sold the birds to families starting their own backyard chicken coops.
The Widmans also raised game birds – mostly pheasants and chukars – for a shooting range they operated on their land.
“We thought, well, we’re pretty good at raising these birds, maybe we can take it one step further,” Allen Widman says.
After researching the local market, they decided to do the extra work it would take to raise certified USDA organic broilers.
The organic certification means they can’t feed their own conventionally grown grains to the birds. Instead they’re paying a premium for local organic grains, rather than relying on imported organic feed from China used by other organic chicken operations. They mill the non-GMO grain themselves.
The care they take with raising the birds and the size of the operation means their meat is more expensive than the chicken sold at grocery stores. Palouse Pastured Poultry sells for $4.95 per pound.
For those who are looking for local, organic meat raised on a farm, instead of conventionally raised birds packed into sheds with thousands of others, it’s worth the cost.
Chef David Blaine is buying 10 fresh chickens each week from Palouse Pastured Poultry for Latah Bistro. He says he’s had a longstanding commitment to serving local, sustainable foods but has had trouble finding a consistent source for poultry.
The future of food is in cultivating local producers like the Widmans, rather than relying on the corporate food system that supplies most Americans, Blaine says. He adds that he believes that is what will help make the price and quality of local food more stable over the long term.
“I don’t think there’s a big future in cheap food,” Blaine says.
It was the political position that drew him to the poultry. “It was only after that, that we discovered that their chicken is amazing,” he says.
A 4-pound Palouse Pastured Poultry chicken produces a smaller 5-ounce breast, rather than the large 12-ounce boneless, skinless breasts that have become ubiquitous at grocery stores, according to Blaine.
For the bistro, the price of the organic birds is tempered because they use the bones for chicken broth and livers for a chicken liver pate.
Blaine says he received the first order of birds the same day 20 pounds of locally foraged morel mushrooms came into the kitchen. He roasted the chicken breast and served it with fresh pasta, caramelized leeks and morels.
The restaurant usually brines the chicken for extra flavor. “We didn’t have a chance to brine it and it was still so moist and perfect,” Blaine says.
Emmy Widman says she’s found that customers are often confused about all of the marketing terms that are used to sell poultry.
“Many people use interchangeably the terms ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ or ‘pastured’ as if they are the same thing,” she says.
“Lots of people see no distinction, when in fact, there is quite a difference – some producers bill their birds as or imply they are organic, when they are really only pastured.”
Palouse Pastured Poultry birds are both certified organic by the USDA and pastured. The Widmans have worked closely with inspectors from the Washington State Department of Agriculture to meet all of the federal requirements to label their chicken as organic.
They bring the Cornish Cross broilers to the farm when they’re a day old and keep the birds inside the barn for about a month. Then they’re transferred to the pasture where they can forage, but still find shelter under the movable “chicken tractors.”
The birds take about eight or nine weeks until they’re ready for butchering.
Each week, the Widmans gather up about 300 chickens and drive them to Walla Walla, where the birds are slaughtered and prepared for sale. Emmy and Allen both work the line at the plant, inspecting each bird after it’s killed, scalded, plucked and packaged.
They deliver the fresh chicken to those who have ordered them the next day, or freeze the chicken to sell later.
Allen Widman says after the first birds they raised were butchered, they were anxious to taste the meat. However, everyone was so exhausted from the work and taking care of kids that they accidentally left the chicken in the oven too long. It was overcooked by at least a half hour.
“It was still some of the best chicken we’ve ever had,” he says.
They’ll be raising turkey for those who would like to buy one for Thanksgiving, but customers must order ahead.
The Widmans say chicken sales are slower than they expected, but they hope things will pick up as people discover the care they take with their animals and the farm.
The chicken has proved to be more popular in Seattle at the Broadway Market, so they’re making a weekly trek across the state to sell there.
The farm-fresh chicken and duck eggs have proven to be bigger sellers in this area.
The eggs are not organic. The laying chickens are kept in an open grassy pen and fed a ration of grains grown on the farm. The birds also forage for bugs and grass.
They lay eggs all over the grass and inside nesting boxes – some 30 dozen each day – which keeps the family busy collecting eggs every day.
The Widmans sell the eggs for $4 to $6 per dozen depending on size. The duck eggs are sold for $4 per half dozen.
Emmy Widman says when she first started using eggs from their birds she was surprised at how different they were from store-bought eggs.
“The yolk was so much darker yellow to orange, and the egg white was nowhere near as runny,” she says.
Bakers especially like the duck eggs, she says, because they whip up so nicely. She says the secret is using a bit of lemon juice.
Emmy Widman is allergic to both eggs and wheat, but here’s a recipe she makes for her kids that they love.
Toad in the Hole
From Emmy Widman, Palouse Pastured Poultry. “This used to be one of my favorite snacks, too, before I found out about my allergies. A quick nutritious snack,” she says.
1 slice bread
Oil, for spraying the pan
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Butter a piece of bread, then cut a large hole in the center of it. Place the bread on a hot griddle or pan on the stove, spray oil where the hole is on the pan, crack an egg into the hole, sprinkle some salt and pepper on the egg and let it cook for a few minutes. Be sure to toast the circle of bread you removed from the hole.
After a minute or two, depending on how runny the kids want the egg, flip it (the egg stays perfectly in the hole) and cook until the bread is toasted on the other side.
Yield: 1 serving
High-Roast Butterflied Chicken with Potatoes
From Cook’s Illustrated. This recipe calls for brining the chicken before roasting, but cooks can skip that step if desired.
For the chicken and brine:
1/2 cup table salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 (3- to 4- pound) whole chicken, giblets removed and discarded
1 recipe Mustard-Garlic Butter with Thyme (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Ground black pepper
For the potatoes:
2 1/2 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (4 to 5 medium), peeled and sliced 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
For the chicken and brine: Dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 quarts cold water in a large container. Submerge the chicken in the brine, cover and refrigerate 1 hour.
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Line a broiler pan bottom with foil. Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse well and pat dry with paper towels.
Remove the backbone from the chicken, turn breast side up, open chicken on work surface and flatten. Pound chicken until flattened into a fairly even thickness and tuck the wings behind the back.
Use fingers to gently loosen the center potion of the skin covering each side of the breast. Place the butter mixture under the skin, directly in the meat in the center of each side. Gently press on the skin to distribute the butter over the meat. Rub the skin with the oil and season with pepper. Place the chicken on the broiler pan top and push each leg up to rest between the thigh and breast.
For the potatoes: Toss the potatoes with the oil, salt and pepper. Spread the potatoes in an even layer in the prepared broiler pan bottom. Place the broiler pan top with the chicken on top.
Roast the chicken until just beginning to brown, about 20 minutes. Rotate the pan and continue to roast the skin is crisped and deep brown and the thickest part of the breast registers 160 to 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 20 to 25 minutes longer.
Transfer the chicken to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes.
While the chicken rests, remove the broiler pan top and, using paper towels, soak up any excess grease from the potatoes. Transfer the potatoes to a serving platter. Carve the chicken, transfer to the platter with the potatoes and serve.
Yield: 2 to 3 servings.
Mustard-Garlic Butter with Thyme
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 medium clove garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press, about 1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Pinch ground black pepper
Mash all ingredients together in a small bowl.