Published July 1st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
LINDSBORG, Kansas – For 20 years, Frank Reese has been working to build a modern-day Noah’s Ark for poultry. His goal is to save 10 rare breeds of chickens and turkeys by growing the flock to 100,000 by 2025.
The first $200,000 has been raised and a concrete pad has been poured to get the ark – a piece of land adjacent to Reese’s farm that will become the Good Shepherd Conservation Center – built.
Plans for the three-building conservation center include a welcome barn for agritourists to learn about the history of the poultry industry. The project also includes a grand exhibition barn with a hatchery and classrooms for farmers and ag students. Eventually, plans call for a reception hall and guest house with a full-scale restaurant kitchen for chefs to create recipes.
Reese, 72, is the last remaining breeder of the old-fashioned birds Americans used to eat before the invention of the Butterball Turkey in the 1950s and the Chicken Nugget in the early 1960s.
“Sixty-eight percent of all chicken meat raised worldwide goes to fast food,” he says over coffee at Blacksmith Coffeeshop & Roastery, located a three-hour drive west of Kansas City.
Instead of poultry with colorful feathers and bucolic names like the Bourbon Red or the Plymouth Rock – breeds that trace a lineage back to the 1800s – today’s supermarket meat cases are stocked with a single fast-growing Cornish Cross, a hybrid of the Cornish and White Plymouth Rock chicken.
Factory farmed chicken grows faster – producing an extra-meaty breast but also an animal that can barely support its own weight and no longer procreates on its own.
As a result, the average broiler hen, which takes 56 days to grow, has ballooned in size. In 1957, the average bird weighed two pounds. By 2005, the same bird tipped the scales at nine pounds.
“I can’t really think about the modern chicken without thinking about Frank,” says Josh Rathbun, executive chef of Siena Tuscan Steakhouse in the Ambassador Hotel in Wichita. “He really radicalized me. The life of birds that do not have good genetics is one of suffering.”
Chickens labeled cage-free, organic and pasture-raised are not necessarily spared. If consumers are really concerned about the humane treatment of livestock animals, Reese argues, the preservation of good genetics is key.
The image seared in Rathbun’s mind evokes the exploitation of an obesity gene.
“Imagine a 400-pound, 11-year-old kid,” Rathburn says. “If you open the front door and say ‘go out and play,’ will the child go outside? Even if it could run free, it can’t support its own weight.”
Poultry standards are laid out in the “America Standard of Perfection.” The book, initially published by the American Poultry Association in 1874, describes the breeds by appearance, color and temperament.
“It matters the shape and color of the feather, the shape of the back, the depth of the breast. If a breeder is not choosing the best characteristics, a healthy flock turns to junk within a few years,” Reese warns.
Reese fell in love with poultry as a boy and learned to pick the genetic traits to maintain the vanishing breeds once commonly known as heritage breeds, but more precisely referred to as Standardbred birds.
Reese’s mentor, the late Norman Kardosh, extracted a promise to save the genetics of the birds, and with them stories of the men and women who made a living selling the breeds before large corporations took over. Reese also has collected an estimated 23,000 documents that need an archival home.
Reese has taken his campaign to the media. He’s been in The New York Times, ABC Nightly News, “The Martha Stewart Show” and National Geographic. He also starred in a documentary called “Eating Animals” funded and narrated by actress Natalie Portman and screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
“At Frank’s farm lies an alternative to KFC,” says Patrick Martins, the founder of the New York-based Heritage Foods USA, an online meat purveyor showcasing livestock breeds threatened with extinction.
Heritage Foods USA was founded in 2001 to sell what was then called heritage breeds and made Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch a centerpiece. In 2019, The New York Times proclaimed Heritage Foods “the company at the forefront of the nonindustrial meat movement.”
Martins, who serves as the treasurer and chief strategist for the conservancy, has helped Reese gain an audience that includes top-ranked chefs who prize the birds for their unique flavor and meaty texture.
“You can’t cook my birds like modern industry chickens. They’ll turn into leather, which is why I send chefs chicken weeks in advance (to practice on),” Reese says. “No one has come close to Alice Waters. (The Berkley, California-based chef who is considered the mother of the farm-to-table movement) kept the integrity of the bird. She didn’t cover it up or change it radically.”
Standardbred poultry receive more exercise roaming the pastures, so they are less plump.
Rathbun had to experiment to find low and slow preparations that take into consideration the naturally smaller breasts and tougher drumsticks. His favorite preparation requires cutting up the chicken, allowing the meat to sous vide in a buttermilk-and-spice vacuum pack then dropping the pieces into the fryer for a crispy finish.
Although the pricier Standardbred chickens have not yet made their way back onto his menu due to the pandemic, Rathbun hopes to one day help make the poultry as popular as fresh diver-caught scallops or a Wagyu ribeye.
(Heritage sells three one- to two-pound whole New Hampshire or Barred Plymouth Rock chickens for $67 plus shipping.)
In Egg Harbor, New Jersey, Jay Greenberg is helping Reese spread his Kansas genetics to the epicenter of the kosher chicken world. The kosher-trained butcher discovered Reese’s work while he was working at a Nebraska slaughterhouse. Curious to learn more, he took a trip to Lindsborg, a Swedish hamlet with a population of just over 3,000.
“Frank stood out for me because he wasn’t interested in vegan like many of the people I was reading about. He was going back to really high-level meat production,” says Greenberg, who has since been inspired to create Lev Farm, a poultry-farm-in-the-making named for the word heart in Hebrew.
“With chicken production, there are also a lot of eggs that need to sell. There’s not a good market for eggs in the middle of Kansas, but here you can make money, like $6, $7, $8 a dozen,” he says.
Greenberg has also signed on as the executive director and secretary of the Good Shepherd Conservancy.
“I’ve really bought into – and really invested in – carrying on his legacy to the next generation,” he says.
So far, the conservancy has received funding from EJF Philanthropies, which makes grants to nonprofit organizations working in the areas of health, education, food systems, Jewish life, animal welfare, economic development, the environment, the arts, the media and human services. An online campaign continues to raise money for the project with donations ranging from $5 to $1,000 a month.
Both Greenberg and Martins imagine the conservation center as a “Stone Barns of the Midwest.” The 80-acre Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture located in Pocantico Hills, New York, opened in 2004 as a farm and education center with a partner restaurant that promotes sustainable agriculture and supports heritage breeds.
Two hours into conversation at the coffee shop, Reese checks the time and pops up from a comfortable lounge chair. It’s a 100-degree day and the turkeys will be thirsty.
Reese seems more upbeat than he has been in past interviews, when he said: “My biggest fear is my death. If I die right now, it’s pretty much over. I’m the one who keeps pushing this forward.”
With groundbreaking underway and the prospect of Lev Farm on the horizon, there’s now a fighting chance to save the birds from extinction, as well as an opportunity to preserve the stories of breeders like Reese – some who initially strutted their stuff 150 years ago.
“Great jazz musicians, or the baseball players of the past, or the great movie stars get their due,” Reese says. “We have those kinds of people in the world of poultry, too.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. A story she previously wrote about Frank Reese entitled “Ruling the Roost” was chosen to appear in “Best Food Writing 2008,” an anthology edited by Holly Hughes. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.