Just Us Chicks: Heritage Chickens Are a Whole Different Animal and This Rancher Takes Exceptionally Good Care of Her Girls

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chickens at rootdown farm
Delaware chickens in the pasture at Root Down Farm in Pescadero. Photo: Bruce Cole

Step into the beautiful old barn, and before you see them you can hear them—the soft and soothing peeping of baby chicks. They’re milling around under a heat lamp, and they’re so fluffy and yellow, it takes your breath away.

“People light up around animals,” smiles Dede Boies, owner of Root Down Farm in Pescadero. Pointing from one pen to the next, she shows the difference a few weeks can make. Compared to the pom-poms, here’s a crew of rowdy teenagers, flapping and scratching. “Every day is different, and it’s a profound experience, watching them grow,” Boies confides. “We get so much from animals. I wish more people felt this connection, and understood where their chicken dinners come from.”

Last year, the average American ate 93 pounds of chicken, more than either beef or pork. Cornish Cross, the conventional breed, has been genetically modified to grow as quickly as possible, packing on up to six pounds in six weeks, and to be slaughtered that young. Next time you see a broiler in the grocery store, notice how oversized the breast is, and try to imagine how it stood under the weight. “Science has done an amazing job, but I find it creepy,” says Boies. “It’s barely an animal anymore; it’s a meat machine.”

In contrast, Boies raises heritage breeds, as humanely as possible. Her chickens grow slower, reaching the same weight in nine to 18 weeks. They look like a creature that could exist in nature, with muscle distributed over their bodies. And they get to roam in pastures flecked with clover, where they can scratch in the grass for wriggling worms.

Boies raises two types of chickens: The Delaware is the true heritage breed, but if you’ve never cooked a real chicken before, you might be surprised. It looks a lot longer and leggier, so don’t expect to crank up the oven or slap it on the grill. It fares best with low-and-slow cooking, surrounded by the wet heat of a Dutch oven or slow cooker, to totally tenderize the meat and lightly crisp up the skin. With more dark meat, closer to the bones, the flavor is a revelation. “It’s like you’ve only eaten hamburger your whole life, and you’re suddenly biting into a pot roast,” Boies tries to capture. “This is what chicken should taste like.”

But for customers who crave the familiar, she does offer a compromise. The Freedom Ranger is a hybrid, plump and juicy, and a great place to start if you want to cook quickly over high heat.

dede bois with heritage turkeys
Dede Boies with her heritage turkeys at Root Down Farm. Photo: Bruce Cole

Originally from suburban New Jersey, the closest Boies got to poultry was the deli turkey meat in her brown-bag sandwich. Restless by nature, she couldn’t face a desk job and did a brief stint as a ski bum in Utah, before stumbling out of a club in the Castro and having that classic moment: “Holy shit—San Francisco is awesome.” At a peaceful protest for the Iraq War, she started chatting with a woman about volunteering on farms. Traveling from Hawaii to New Zealand and back to the California coast, she’s done everything from harvesting tropical fruit to tagging wild deer.

“I fell in love with the physical labor of farming, then the politics,” says Boies. “But humanely raising animals felt like the most important work, from the genetics of how they grow, to letting them behave like the animals they are.”

Boies stops to scratch a pig behind the ears, and he snorkels with sheer delight. In addition to chickens, Root Down Farm is home to turkeys, ducks and pigs, who aren’t there just for weeks but for the better part of a year. Unlike some ranchers, Boies names her animals. Through the back window of their little red house, she and her wife, Melissa, sip on tea, while their daughter, Eddy, watches “Pig TV”: Betty is the big mama, El Novio is the spotted boar and Louise is the escape artist, who kept breaking out of the pen (“Jeez, Louise!”). After they have lived with the family for so long, harvest days arrive with a heavy heart. Boies takes a moment, and reads a poem from Mary Oliver, another slender woman with a strong connection to the natural world (“You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves”).

That same care pours into the land itself. Unlike a feedlot, with animals sinking in excrement, Boies practices regenerative ranching, rotating pastures every year in order to restore the soil. She leases 62 acres from an open space trust, but only works 15. During the worst of the drought, the soil was in rough shape, but she took advantage of the natural behaviors of the animals, like rooting and scratching. The mobile coops are mounted on wheels, and the fencing is light, which is why you may spot a rogue chicken or two. Even given our dry climate, Boies refuses to irrigate—although as an occasional treat, the pigs get a mud bath. All of this means a lot more effort, but five years later the rewards are under your boots. Not only do they rarely have to call the vet, but the pasture is carpeted with grass.

She also shares this land with a hardworking crew of queer and female farmers. Fly Girl Farm subleases a few acres for strawberries, Steadfast Herbs borrows a small half acre for their radical remedies and Left Coast Grassfed rotates some cattle through. Boies jokes she’s the Ellen DeGeneres of chickens, a deflection that puts her Texas relatives at ease, but she’s quietly and intentionally cultivating a safe space. While 30% of farmers are women, only 14% are principal operators, and particularly in ranching women have gone unrecognized for a long time.

“The image is still a man on a horse,” Boies confirms. “Women have always done the hard work of ranching, but they’re rarely seen or heard.”

Every morning, Boies straps Eddy to her back, because she loves making the rounds to check on her animal friends. They’re joined by two fluffy white dogs, the guardians of the chickens. Named after their grandmothers, Mame is the diplomat while Bunny is all up in your business, all the time. Last year, the farmers rebuilt the barn. Dating back to the 1870s, it was getting scary to stand inside, on the verge of falling down. They saved the original paneling, and you can still see the saw teeth biting the wood, but they swept out the dirt floor and brought in fresh air and skylights. Over Pride Weekend, Boies dug sausages out of the freezer, fired up the grill, flipped the barn door to serve as a bar, and brought in a live band.

“It’s safe now,” Boies contemplates the space. “Safe enough for baby chicks and queer dance parties.”

The chickens come home to roost in Pescadero, but you can find them at farmers’ markets around the Bay Area, including the Ferry Building, Mission Community Market, Clement Street and Stonestown, and online through Good Eggs. Or, if you’re lucky, catch one on the menu at Nico or Palette.

rootdownfarm.org

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