• Editor's Note Winter 2011

    Editor's Note Winter 2011

    I’ve never fired a gun. The closest I ever came to one as a child was at my aunt’s house. She’s a cattle rancher in Arizona and often kept a pistol by her phone. I’d walk past it gingerly, as if getting too close meant it would suddenly go off like a stick of remote-controlled dynamite. Having grown up in a big city, I’d always associated guns with hot-headed maliciousness and revenge.

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  • Set the Table with Venison

    Set the Table with Venison

    LedgEnd Deer Farm doesn’t have a sign, but the special fencing and the deer give it away. Plus, after more than 15 years of venison farming, owner Hank DiMuzio doesn’t need to advertise. “I can’t raise enough animals to keep up with demand as it is,” he says. “It’s a good problem to have.” And at a time when dairy farmers and other farmers are struggling to stay afloat, this problem has become increasingly rare.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Good Walls Make  Good Gardens

    Good Walls Make Good Gardens

    The phrase “New England stone walls” conjures images of dilapidated boundary walls winding through our forests, half buried by leaves and by the sharp turns of our region’s economy. But stone, and stone walls in particular, are enjoying a renaissance, of sorts, as gardeners are discovering that the simplest stone work can lend structure, meaning, and a living complement to the seasonal and perennial plantings of an outdoor space. I first discovered my passion for stone work while helping a friend build a stone bread oven near Hardwick.

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  • Counting Their Chickens

    Counting Their Chickens

    Yes, there is a knoll—and it’s misty.

    At least it was on the day this past October when I visited Misty Knoll Farms, Vermont’s largest chicken producer. Standing on the small rise at the eastern edge of the farm in New Haven, facing a swath of Addison County dairy land below and the spine of the Green Mountains beyond, I spotted a light fog in the valley that looked misty enough.

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  • A Food and Farming Legacy

    A Food and Farming Legacy

    The spine of Vermont is made up of green, craggy mountainsides whose tops disappear into the clouds, and whose valleys wake up to a cloak of low mist that dissipates with the morning sun. Most accounts of the musical von Trapp family’s arrival in Vermont mention how they were instantly attracted to these views, which reminded them of their Austrian home. A lesser-known tale, however, is that they also fell in love with the land itself: generations of von Trapps, including the youngest generation today, have been working to feed and nourish themselves and their neighbors ever since the family put down roots here.

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  • Why I Hunt

    Why I Hunt

    It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize I was pretty much raised as a localvore long before anyone had ever heard of the word. And it wasn’t due to any sort of middle-class shift in culinary consciousness. This was the early 1960s, and we were a large working-class family with a very rural home on three open acres in Westminster. We planted large vegetable gardens, had a big potato patch, and raised chickens, ducks, and on occasion, grass-fed beef. We also hunted, and venison was a year-round staple. More on that a little later, but all of this was really just a reflection of how my parents’ families had dealt with the Great Depression.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—The Versatile Quince

    Farmers' Kitchen—The Versatile Quince

    When asked “Why quince?” Zeke Goodband, the orchard manager at Scott Farm in Dummerston, will answer, “Because they are a wonderful fruit.” So wonderful that he sips on quince nectar during the farm’s annual Heirloom Apple Day, when he leads three apple tastings and speaks at length about the many heritage apple varieties growing at Scott Farm.

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  • Last Morsel Baking Bread in the Firebox

    Last Morsel Baking Bread in the Firebox

    My 85-year-old friend, Gladys Thomas, used a wood cook stove all her life. After her children left the farm in Jericho and her husband died, she did her best to keep the place going by herself. As she grew older, members of her church tried to help.

    “Now you just let that wood pile be, Gladys,” a church member told her on the phone one day, “and we’ll have a bunch of men come and split it for you.”

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Counting Their Chickens

Misty Knoll Farms in Addison County has emerged as a poultry-producing powerhouse

Rob Litch of Misty Knoll Farms
Rob Litch of Misty Knoll Farms

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

December 01 , 2010

Yes, there is a knoll—
and it’s misty.

At least it was on the day this past October when I visitedMisty Knoll Farms, Vermont’s largest chicken producer. Standing on the small rise at the eastern edge of the farm in New Haven, facing a swath of Addison County dairy land below and the spine of the Green Mountains beyond, I spotted a light fog in the valley that looked misty enough.

“There are wealthier farmers who have more than one knoll, but we have only one,” quipped my tour guide.

He was Rob Litch, farmer and part owner of Misty Knoll, and I was to become familiar with his droll sense of humor during my visit. But although there’s only one knoll on the farm, Litch and his business partner (and uncle), John Palmer, can boast of having something far more valuable, something the majority of American poultry farmers do not have: total control over how their birds are raised, processed, and marketed.

At their 412-acre farm, located on the sites of two former dairy operations, there are barns that house tens of thousands of chickens and turkeys—Rob and John decide exactly what those birds are fed and how they’re housed. There’s an on-site slaughter facility staffed by a USDA inspector and a series of rooms where 18 employees (a mix of local residents and Jamaicans with H2A guest worker permits) transform whole birds into parts—Rob and John oversee these parts of the operation, too. They also decide how much to charge for their poultry and where to sell it.

Contrast this with most poultry farmers in America, who must follow the dictates of the large agribusinesses they work with—Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride. These corporations often own the birds even as the farmers raise them and take on the debt of building the infrastructure to house them. The birds must be grown to the corporation’s specifications; they are then trucked miles away to slaughter facilities the farmer never sees.

“We don’t have someone telling us exactly how we’re gonna do things,” Rob said as he stood in a light rain beside Misty Knoll’s compost pile, where 90 percent of the farm’s barn and processing waste is put. “No one tells us exactly how much they’re going to pay us, or tells us when our product is good enough to go to market. We make those decisions ourselves.”

Misty Knoll must be making some good decisions, as it is far and away Vermont’s largest producer of chickens: 225,000 are raised there annually. According to the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, the next largest farm raising broiler chickens sold between 2,000 and 16,000 birds; all the other farms raising broilers in Vermont were raising less than 2,000. As for turkeys, Misty Knoll raises 30,000 annually, a number rivaled only by Stonewood Farm in Orwell and Adams Turkey Farm in Westford.

Adding to its clout, Misty Knoll’s products are sold at nearly all the food co-ops in the state, numerous health food stores, some supermarkets, and in restaurants as varied as corner diners to classy white-tablecloth establishments. The poultry is also served in the dining halls at UVM, Champlain College, and Middlebury College. Three-quarters of Misty Knoll products are sold within Vermont.

“Rob is a really good businessman,” says Allen Matthews, a program coordinator at UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture who has served with Rob on the board of the Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit that connects farmers and restaurants. “He works and thinks long term. He also knows he is supplying a really quality product that there’s not much competition for right now.”

That lack of competition, though, means that if it weren’t for Misty Knoll, there might not be much fresh Vermont chicken to offer shoppers in this state. While many small farms sell their chickens through CSAs and at farmers’ markets, or sell whole frozen birds in stores, Misty Knoll is able to provide a large volume of fresh chicken throughout the year. It also sells much of its chicken in parts—breasts, thighs, and legs—which smaller farms tend not to do.

Beck Norman, the meat and fish buyer at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, praised Misty Knoll’s products and service, given that there is such high demand for fresh chicken at the store. She told me she wishes she could buy chicken from additional farmers but wonders if they could provide as much as the store needs.

At Hunger Mountain in mid-November, a fresh, whole Misty Knoll chicken was fetching $3.69 a pound. Organic whole chickens from smaller farms tend to be between $4 and $5 a pound. (At Shaw’s supermarket in Montpelier, there was no Misty Knoll chicken, but the fresh, whole chicken from Tyson Foods was $1.29 a pound)

Why is Misty Knoll poultry less expensive than that of smaller-scale farms? With size comes efficiencies, for sure, but there’s also the fact that Misty Knoll poultry is not organic (although the corn-and-soy feed given to the birds is antibiotic free). And Misty Knoll chickens are not free-range (although the turkeys are).

Instead, the chickens—Ross-Cobb crosses—are kept in barns at all times. Rob declined to let me into a barn with chickens in it, citing biosecurity concerns, but he did show me an empty one that was awaiting a fresh shipment of chicks. The empty second-floor space, roughly the size of a very large living room, was clean, odor free, and covered in fresh bedding of pine shavings. But it was hard to imagine a couple of thousand chickens in it. I asked Rob if he thought the birds might enjoy more room.

“I haven’t asked them,” he said with a laugh. Then turning serious, he said, “In terms of space they have more than an adequate amount, in my opinion.” He added that if the birds weren’t treated humanely they wouldn’t taste as good as they do. Later he pointed out that the farm’s stocking density—the amount of square feet provided for each bird—is around 1.75 feet. While that’s low compared to what pasture-raised chickens enjoy, the average stocking density for factory-farmed chickens is .75 feet per bird. In essence, Misty Knoll is providing more than twice the room that industrial facilities do.

Rob, who was an economics major at UVM and once harbored dreams of being a stockbroker, said this is the growing model (and price structure) that keeps his farm competitive. He is also dubious about the term “free-range,” saying it simply means that birds have access to the outdoors. “If there’s no chance they’re going to go outside because it’s snowy and cold, then it’s misleading to the consumer, and that doesn’t add to our integrity.”

That said, Misty Knoll’s turkeys are free-range because they’re slaughtered by Thanksgiving, before the weather turns. A flock of 5,500 turkeys—of the Hybrid breed—were strutting around on the ground floor of a 200-ft. by 100-ft. barn on the rainy day I visited. The turkeys had access to a large pasture out back that is bedded with hay when the grass gets worn down.

By offering a middle ground between factory-farmed chicken and pasture-raised chicken, Misty Knoll may be a potential model for future Vermont poultry production. According to a forthcoming report on Vermont meat production, to be included in the “Farm to Plate” report that the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund will be submitting to the state legislature, 1.4 million additional chickens would have to be raised in Vermont if the state were to provide for its own chicken needs at current levels of consumption.

If all those chickens were pasture raised, that would mean a lot of open space; perhaps one day there will be enough farms to provide it. Or perhaps six more Misty Knolls will need to open, raising chickens in barns or perhaps offering a more pasture-based product if Vermonters were able and willing to pay for it. Rob said that if there was more demand for free-range chicken, “I could accommodate it at certain times of the year,” but he said this would require a complete change of his farm, requiring him to build more one-story barns and to obtain more land.

The 41-year-old farmer, who has run Misty Knoll with his uncle since it opened in 1991, is now immersed in his latest project: building a new three-floor chicken barn that will partially house chickens destined for Whole Foods supermarkets. Rob approached Whole Foods when he heard it was going to launch a Burlington store (it has yet to open). The chain has already been selling some Misty Knoll turkeys in New England.

As construction workers drilled and hammered inside the new building—already dubbed “the Whole Foods barn”—Rob stood in the light rain and described his work as exciting. “Don’t get me wrong: when you’re processing, it’s repetitive work, and it’s very boring. But I’m not stuck going to marketing meetings every day. I’m not stuck driving a truck every day. I’m not in a processing facility every day.”

He turned to admire the new barn. “Do you think it would look better with some cupolas on it?”

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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