This article originally appeared in Buffalo Spree Magazine’s August 2017 issue.
On Porterville Road in East Aurora, a gravel driveway winds past a cozy red 1800s farmhouse, beyond a wood-clapboard barn and resting tractor, to lush fields that quietly undulate toward a pine tree line in the distance. This farm is Erba Verde, Italian for “green grass”—the key ingredient to raising some funky chickens called Freedom Rangers. It’s a fitting name for a bird with a pasture-roaming lifestyle and uncharacteristically spunky attitude.
The birds’ plumage is a beautiful mottled mix of cream- and mocha-colored feathers. Rather than squat and stout, these birds stand upright on bigger muscular legs and thighs in a way that’s slightly prehistoric, more baby velociraptor (minus the long tail) than storybook barnyard bird. With a chest that has a single horizontal lobe rather than two side-by-side breasts like standard chickens, the Freedom Rangers’ anatomy yields more savory dark meat than white meat. And, without the added front-heavy weight, the birds are agile and active—like busy-bodied shoppers hurriedly inspecting wares at an open-air market.
Their houses are a little out of the ordinary, too. The chickens live in fifteen-by-twenty-four-foot shelters that Erba Verde co-owner Bryan Strzelec has designed himself. Curved aluminum ribs, plenty tall enough for a person to stand under, arch down to a sturdy wooden base, all of which is covered by white tarps to let in light yet shade the birds from harsh sun. The sides roll up to expose chicken wire that lets fresh breezes in but keeps predators out. The aura inside feels like an airy, posh white party tent where all the guests are a little awkward and wearing the same outfit.
Every day, Strzelec hitches the chicken barracks to the back of his tractor and slowly drags them one shelter’s length forward to a new patch of grass; the birds know the routine and generally move in tandem with their house (a farm helper stands inside to shoo delinquents along). The birds busily peck at their new salad bar for clover, sugary young blades of grass, and lots of protein-rich bugs. From late June to Labor Day, when the crickets are jumping, the chickens surge forward as the shelter moves, eagerly snapping beaks at the flurry of insects that have been disturbed from the unmowed grass. There is also plenty of water and a little organic, non-GMO feed from dispensers that hover just above ground level, attached from the ceiling of the shelter on long chains so they move right along with the canopy each day.
This year, Erba Verde plans to raise nearly 8,000 meat chickens, both Freedom Rangers and the traditional Cornish Cross, all of which will be prepped for sale at farm friend Plato Dale’s poultry processing facility at the Clinton-Bailey food terminal in Buffalo.
Raising chickens in custom mobile cabanas out in the middle of a field isn’t easy, says Strzelec, but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s far cheaper and less labor intensive to pack several thousand chickens into a stifling, overcrowded barn where birds are often medicated, debeaked, fed to fatten rather than nourish, under constant stress, and kept away from the light of day. But that’s just not OK on a lot of levels for Erba Verde.
“For us, it’s not about raising the cheapest chicken; it’s about raising the best meat for your money,” explains Strzelec. “The health of the animal—and this is true for all our meat—directly affects the health of the people it feeds, and both are better when we raise animals out on fresh grass the way they’re supposed to be.”
Both breeds of pastured organic chicken are destined for a dedicated following of customers who shop the farm’s self-serve barn store and for a growing number of Western New York chefs who covet the more pronounced flavor of a pasture-raised bird. Cornish Crosses grace the menus at The Grange Community Kitchen in Hamburg and Craving in North Buffalo, while The Dapper Goose and the brand-new Sato Brewpub, both in Buffalo, favor the Freedom Rangers.
For Sato Brewpub, the Freedom Rangers became a solution to an interesting problem. The restaurant’s traditional Yakitori cuisine centers around the concept of “jidori,” which translates to “chicken of the earth” and refers to a breed of robustly flavored chickens found in Japan. When executive chef Satomi Smith couldn’t find anything close to these heirloom chickens in Buffalo, Strzelec brought him a Freedom Ranger to try. Its distinct flavor and favorable farming made it a perfect local stand-in, and the chef immediately preordered a significant quantity of birds to feature in rich bone broths and complex full-flavored chicken dishes. (Sato Brewpub is such a fan, there’s even a video ode to Erba Verde Freedom Rangers and “Buffalo Jidori” on the brewpub’s website at satobrewpub.com).
At Erba Verde, the chickens are not alone in their grass-wandering deliciousness. They share forty acres of green with thirty-nine cows (raised for dairy, beef, and mother-suckled veal), a flock of Thanksgiving turkeys, a small community of laying hens, and a growing passel of pigs who will be allowed to forage on hickory nuts to finish for pork. For these livestock, the grass is truly greener on their side.
Photo by KC Kratt