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Curtis Womach raises a different kind of chicken at his 13-acre ranch in Boulevard.
They live mostly outside instead of having limited access to the outdoors and grow slower, develop longer bodies and have less white meat. “It makes them a lot healthier of a chicken,” he said. He also doesn’t use hormones or antibiotics. His chickens can run around, resulting in a meat with more texture and “a lot more chicken flavor.”
He slaughters them himself. They cost more, too — about $4 a pound versus $1.49 a pound in the store.
And he sells them a different kind of way, outside of the traditional supply chain. On Sundays you can find Womach selling chickens at the Hillcrest Farmers Market. He also supplies a local co-op and the North Park farm-to-table restaurants The Linkery and El Take It Easy.
Trained as a brewer, Womach then stayed at home to raise his two sons. When the youngest went to kindergarten, he began looking for a way to get back into business and took a ranching course in 2008. That’s where he hit upon chickens and the demand for them to be raised a certain way.
Beyond poultry, he also raises goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, rabbits and turkeys. He spends an average of three nights a week on his ranch, commuting from his Talmadge home.
In between sales at the farmers market, the reserved 44-year-old and I discussed why he does what he does, his favorite way to eat chicken and how to deal with predators.
What do you think about the rise in food consciousness? Has that helped fuel what you do?
It’s what I’m doing. I’m part of the same evolution of our food. I think it started though because of people’s health, not that they were originally concerned that chickens were in a warehouse. I think people just started getting sick more than they should be. Just a poor a diet, unhealthy lifestyles and a lot of that is food. It’s a small percentage of money being spent on food instead of other consumer goods they don’t really need.
What does your family eat then?
We rarely go out to dinner. We try to get organic food, processed as little as possible. I think like most families, do the best you can and if you can’t afford everything organic, just try to do as much as you can afford. I think everyone has to start somewhere.
What’s your favorite way to eat chicken?
Lately I’ve been doing fried chicken. I have the lard from the pigs and I tried my chicken fried that someone else made and I thought it was really good.
People throw out a lot of buzz words about food, like local, sustainable, organic, slow food, seasonal, farm to table. Where do you fit?
I like all those ideas but there becomes a point where we’re in this industrial food system, and it’s hard to compete against large corporations. So, you know I try to have some flexibility on the economics of what I can do. I can’t be strictly organic. There’s an ideal way to do things, and our country has a long way to make changes to get there. I’d like to try to be more organic. I’m trying to diversify so if chickens aren’t doing well, maybe I can sell more rabbits, or sell a couple of pigs. Chickens are what pay the bills at this point.
What keeps you doing things the way you do? Is it the philosophy behind it? The economics of it?
It’s the philosophy and it also becomes a point where I keep getting deeper into it and it’s like “OK, I need to make it work.” “You know I’m not ready to give up at this point.” But it’s been a struggle and a lot harder than I would’ve thought it would’ve been from the beginning. Being so small it’s a very low profit margin. There’s a reason people raise 50,000 chickens at a time. And the labor involved in trying to expand to more markets and more chickens isn’t really possible on the scale I’m doing.
I would be happy if I just made a little bit of extra (money). I think it’s that I’m trying to stay small so I only have 100 chickens a week and then I have to cover all my expenses with that 100 chickens a week.
Maybe you could sum up your philosophy for me.
Can I think on that one? It’s because I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve never quite been able to figure it out cause I’m trying to deal with “here’s my idea” but “here’s reality — here’s what I have to do to be able to do anything at all.”
My original philosophy is to try to not be like these large corporations that just get bigger and eat up other companies. You know I guess I would like to figure out a method where every small town could have a person raising chickens and that town buys just those chickens. Obviously San Diego would need quite a few people doing it. But I’m against these huge, huge companies that then have political influence and they make rules that are hard for small farmers.
A couple people came up earlier and you’d mentioned that when people ask about the price, it’s kind of how you know they’re not really looking to buy them.
Americans are used to meat being real cheap. If their main concern is the price it means that they don’t understand I’m doing pastured and I slaughter them on Fridays just for market and that they’re slow growing. I can’t compete with a supermarket chicken price. The price of my chickens can’t really go much higher and still be able to sell the number I do.
Do you want to get into the grocery stores?
No, I don’t want to. If I tried to get bigger, I would need more labor and then my costs would go up. Right now I personally eviscerate every chicken so I know the quality of it. I put it in the bag myself. It’s almost like I’m custom-raising chickens for people and if I got bigger I would be losing that.
Part of having chickens outside — which I don’t know if consumers consider when they want animals raised outside — that there are wild animals too that’ll eat them and it cuts into the profits of people growing plants and animals. Right now, we actually have seen a bobcat who comes in and gets at least a couple every day and sometimes kills them for sport.
I want to start a class on slaughtering, people could come out to my ranch, buy a live pig, I would teach them how to slaughter it. The second course on how to butcher it. Then a third course of curing meat, making sausage, pancetta, prosciutto, bacon. I’ve been trying to figure out a way that involves the consumer more. And I do think there are people who want to do that kind of thing.
What’s important about that?
Just that they appreciate the animal. I see these nice turkeys and even these chickens I bring to market and they never saw what a great life they had. My son came out to the ranch once, under the oak trees, he said “Wow, these chickens have the best spot. They’re lucky!” (He laughs.)
And then the bobcat came.
Please contact Dagny Salas directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5669 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/dagnysalas.