CHICKEN LITTLE! CHICKEN LITTLE!
PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR
Every morning when he wakes up, Cole Desmond washes eggs from his 200 laying chickens, moves his broiler hens to a fresh patch of grass and replenishes the birds’ water. During the school year, that means waking up at 4am so he can leave the house by 7am. Farming has been in Desmond’s family for generations. He has been raising chickens on his family’s 10-acre farm in Ipswich since he was 10, and selling his birds’ eggs since his sophomore year of high school. He peddled some door-to-door when he was even younger.
The 17-year-old proprietor of Chicken Little Farm graduated earlier this month from Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical High School (Essex Aggie), in Hathorne. Wearing a baggy t-shirt, shorts and work boots on a May day that started out feeling summery but has turned decidedly chilly, Desmond wipes his hands on a towel before shaking hands with a visitor. As he sidesteps a few errant chickens pecking at the ground, he explains that he will soon expand his flock by 400 birds to scale up for the summer, prime laying season. The birds, Golden Comets, live in a 4- by 4-foot space inside the 36- by 16-foot barn, with easy access to the outdoors through a small back door. Desmond says his father, Paul, “grew up factory farming, so he’s used to concrete slabs,” referring to the flooring beneath the chickens’ feet. But Cole, who used to belong to 4-H and is now involved with FFA (Future Farmers of America) studies newer farming methods. He is working toward pasture-raising his flock. For now, the chickens are able to come and go as they please.
A few feet away from the barn are two rough-looking greenhouses that Desmond is building. He had hoped to focus on meat production in high school, but that discipline is not offered at Essex Aggie. So he concentrated instead on greenhouse production. He is putting the greenhouses together, incorporating what he learned in school, to house the chickens, as well as turkeys and pigs that will be arriving soon. In class he learned “how to actually put the plastic on the greenhouse,” he says, “which was awesome because the YouTube videos don’t show exactly how hard it is.” One structure, 50 by 14 feet, will house all the laying chickens. Desmond notes that while the focus in school was primarily towards flower design, “I have learned how to maximize production and possibly have the birds below and raise plants in hanging baskets.”
The 80 to 100 turkeys delivered this month will be ready for slaughter Thanksgiving. They will live in the smaller, 16- by 36-foot greenhouse. Desmond will also lease space in the structure to house a friend’s pigs. (The turkeys and pigs will be separated by a divider.) Always conscious of maximizing resources and finding ways to restore land that has fallen into disuse, Cole hopes to use the pigs to clear an overgrown two acres on the farm.
Turkeys are not the only meat birds on Chicken Little Farm. Desmond also raises broiler chickens. At any given time, he has around 200, but plans to scale up to 1,200. He confides that he “likes raising meat birds more than layers” because they’re more challenging. He currently has Cornish Crosses and Red Rangers living in outdoor, tarp-covered pens that he moves to fresh plots of grass every day. He explains that in poultry farming circles this is known as moving them to “a new salad bar.” Cornish Crosses, plump and white on a May afternoon, eat more and grow more quickly. Red Rangers, brown and leaner, are a slower growing breed. They “are supposed to have more flavor,” he explains. “They eat a good portion of their food off the grass.” The others, by contrast, “just sit on the grass,” he says. The birds are not organic, but Desmond supplements their natural diet with local feed.
Ideally, Desmond would like to process all the birds himself, but local laws make it easier for him to turn to a slaughterhouse. He sells the meat from a small porch-turned-shop off the back of the family home and hopes to start selling more at the Essex Farmers Market this season, and to expand to some shops.
Chicken Little Eggs have wider distribution. In addition to the farm shop, consumers can find them at The Coastal Green Grocer, in Ipswich, Ipswich Prime Cuts and Ipswich Shellfish. The latter, where Desmond worked parttime during the school year and will switch to full-time for the summer, sells about three dozen a week. “He’s a great kid,” says Sarah Pulsifer of Ipswich Shellfish. “Even when he’s washing dishes he’s thinking about the next thing he’s going to do for his business.”
Desmond also has a couple of customers who buy his eggs wholesale. Kim Gregory, of Kim Gregory Pure Pastry in Beverly, buys 30 to 60 dozen eggs from him each week. “I’ve been with Cole since day one,” she says. The industrious young farmer read an article about Gregory’s bakery last year and contacted her about buying his eggs. Though she also raises chickens, her town limits the number she can keep, so she has to supplement her egg supply. “There’s a criteria,” says Gregory, whose daughter attended high school with Desmond. “It’s not only about the eggs but how the chickens are raised. It’s such a symbiotic relationship. I can’t do it without him.”
During his senior year of high school, while attending class and running his business, Desmond also spent time three days per week milking cows and washing eggs at Artichoke Dairy, a raw milk farm in Newbury. He chose this as his work-study option because, he explains, he was considering dairy farming as a career. Owner Bruce Colby says of his first workstudy student, “He’s quite interested in agriculture. He wants to learn.” Though Desmond has decided against dairy farming, he gained more than exposure to a new farm from this experience.
Walking across a gravel drive from his greenhouses to a fenced field, he says, “I’m starting a beef cow herd; by herd, I mean one cow.” He opens the gate, ushering a visitor inside, and introduces Walter, a Piedmontese beef cow with big, beautiful brown eyes that he bought from Colby for $100 – “a great price,” Desmond confides. “He could have gotten $600 at auction.” Born on Thanksgiving 2014, Walter will grow to 1,000 pounds in about 12 more months and will be ready for slaughter. Asked whether, or how, he avoids bonding with animals he raises for food, Desmond says he has no trouble preventing himself from becoming attached to the chickens, but it’s been harder with Walter and with two pigs, born on Christmas. His father has helped, though. “My dad’s name for him is Steak Tip,” Desmond says, patting somebody’s future meal on the neck.
From Chicken Little Farm Desmond takes his visitor on a short road trip, through Ipswich Center to his father’s childhood home, where Desmond’s two pigs, “an impulse purchase,” now live. Paul Desmond’s cousin, Neil Desmond, who Cole refers to as an uncle, lives in the house on the property and allows the pigs to stay rent-free. Desmond found the animals on Craigslist one night and, after the quick purchase, drove to Hopkinton to pick them up. They spent most of the harsh winter in the barn at Chicken Little Farm, before Cole was able to transfer them to their outdoor pen. Half Berkshire-half Yorkshire combos, they dine on the excess whey from nearby Appleton Farms. In several months, Desmond and his father will dine on them. Both male, the farmer notes that they are named for two of his ex-girlfriends. Here, Desmond laughs. Another trick to help avoid bonding with a future meal.
At the time of the mid-May visit, Desmond had just planted onions in a 1/8-acre plot, situated between the road and the pigs’ stall that his uncle has also allowed him to use. By press time he will have added jalapeño peppers, Roma tomatoes and herbs. He will sell 90% of the yield to Patty’s Guacamole in Gloucester. The relationship with the five-year-old company began a year ago. Joe Langhan, from Patty’s, who buys the produce, says that after he first spoke to Desmond, “There was no doubt in my mind that when he said he was going to deliver something that that was the way it was going to be. He’s 100 percent dependable.”
Desmond is also renting five acres in two locations—three at the Heliotrope Hill Tree Farm and two on Fellows Road in Ipswich, where he hopes eventually to keep his meat birds. This year he received a $5,000 USDA Youth loan, the maximum allowable. The loans are available to members of 4-H, FFA and similar organizations. He says the loan covers roughly half the annual costs of his chicken business and is allowing him to be profitable this year.
In the fall, Desmond will enter North Shore Community College, where he plans to study marketing. But his future is in farming. “I want to have a hand in everything—beef cows, vegetables, chickens,” he says. And once he is farming full-time, he says he will give any Essex Aggie kids who are interested the chance to work for him, so they can get as much experience as they want. With more farmers like Cole Desmond in America, the future could look ok.
Chicken Little Farm chickenlittlefarm.webs.com
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel and always makes sure to have a healthy supply of high quality chocolate on hand. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.