Mother Nature meets haute cuisine
Joyce Farms’ heritage breeds are bringing taste back into poultry.
The concept of a breed-specific meat program is well-established in the beef world (Angus being the most prolific example), and the Berkshire breed of pork is gaining similar traction in that sector. Chickens, though, are represented by the broiler and not much else.
Yet, not all chickens are created equal. Today’s broiler is the product of decades of research and selective breeding to create the perfect meat chicken — one that grows quickly, uses feed efficiently and can be processed and sold cheaply. However, there are many other breeds of chickens out there, and while they may not compare in terms of production efficiencies, they can offer a superior eating experience for consumers who want a chicken that’s out of the ordinary.
As a small poultry processor, Joyce Farms has always sought out ways to differentiate itself from the largest processors since its start in 1962. When the company was processing commodity chickens, it offered custom packaging or specialty cuts to meet its customers’ needs. For the last 20 years or so, the company has instead focused on offering something above the standard commodity chicken products, first with its own Ashley Farms brand and now with a line of heritage poultry and beef products.
“The American public, for the most part, has demanded cheaper and cheaper food,” says Ron Joyce, president and CEO of the Clemmons, N.C. company. He compliments the poultry industry for offering the consumer a good, cheap product, but he acknowledges that somewhere along the line, the modern production process took the taste out of the bird.
“What we were looking for, since we are a small company, is how we could be different. We can’t compete and do not want to compete with the giants in the business,” he adds.
Joyce became interested in poultry heritage breeds after working with a chef in Kentucky. That experience introduced him to the Label Rouge, a program in France that produces higher-quality chickens with heritage genetics. There are several species of birds that are under the Label Rouge label, and they tend to grow slower than their common commercial relatives and don’t process feed as efficiently. Even the body type is different, so much of the modern processing equipment designed for broilers won’t work with them.
The eating experience of the Label Rouge chicken, on the other hand, is superior — Joyce discovered that first hand on his first trip to France.
“I was absolutely astonished at the variety and diversity of products that anybody can buy fresh on any given day,” he recalls of his first visit to a French butcher shop. Not only were there multiple breeds of fresh chicken available — all air-chilled — but there was also duck, pheasant, quail and pintade (the French guinea fowl).
Joyce met with one of the companies that owned the genetics of the Label Rouge birds. In the end, he decided to import a species of naked-necked red-feathered chicken, which he called poulet rouge. (The French term for it is poulet jaune or “yellow chicken,” referring to the bird’s skin color.) Those poulet rouge birds are raised by contract farmers, and Joyce Farms does all of the harvesting the processing. This arrangement makes Joyce Farms one of the smallest vertically integrated poultry companies in the country.
As a naked-neck chicken with longer legs and wings, the poulet rouge looks quite a bit different from the typical white, fat chickens that most people recognize. It also takes about 80 days to grow. Starting with that rather strange-looking animal, Joyce Farms has grown its heritage poultry program to include heritage turkey, pheasant, pintade and poussin (a young chicken that is harvested at six weeks). The products have proven to be popular among the country’s innovative chef community.
“The biggest pleasure that I think I get is when a chef tries our products, and we get a ‘wow’ factor from the chef,” he says. “They get it and they understand that this is a remarkably different eating experience from what they’re used to.”
About two years ago, the company, which had been known as Joyce Foods, rebranded itself as Joyce Farms to reflect that the company grows and processes its poultry. It adapted the tagline, “Mother Nature meets haute cuisine” as a nod to its core beliefs as well as its French connections.
That desire to create an improved eating experience has driven the company’s expansion into other poultry types. Joyce Farms had been looking for a heritage turkey to offer during the Thanksgiving holiday, but one breed after another proved to be unsatisfactory until the employees tested the Spanish Black turkey.
“When we processed the first birds and tried them for the first time, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is what we’ve been looking for,’” Joyce recalls, adding that the turkeys are air-chilled, like the other Joyce Farms poultry.
A similar story led to the addition of the pintade. Joyce Farms experimented with domestic guineas to no great success, but Joyce says that the French have perfected the pintade as an eating bird. During the holidays, Joyce Farms offers a poulet rouge chapon, which is French for capon. The typical capon grown in the U.S. is from a commercial Cornish breed. They generally are grown to 11 weeks to reach a weight of 7-10 pounds. The Joyce Farms chapon takes more than twice as much time to grow to a similar weight, but that extra time results in a much more flavorful bird. As a result, the chapon has become a hit with high-end chefs looking for a special holiday meal.
Joyce Farms also raises the birds in an Old World style. All of the birds with the exception of the pheasant spend at least some time outdoors, and their chicken houses contain much fewer birds than a commercial chicken farm. The birds are all raised without antibiotics. While the ideas of “antibiotic-free” and “humanely raised” make for great buzzwords on a package, they do not necessarily create a better tasting product. Heritage breeds, old world farming methods, and air-chilling in processing are integral steps to create what Joyce says is a superior eating experience for the consumer.
“If we go back and do things the old way, not only do we have a better eating experience, but we have better animal welfare, and a less negative impact on the environment,” he says.
Along with its variety of poultry offerings, Joyce Farms also offers red meat products, including grass-fed beef that grades at Choice or Prime — a rarity among 100 percent grass-fed cattle. Dr. Allen Williams, the chief ranching officer for the company, is a fourth-generation cattle rancher whose research into cattle genetics led him to conclude that the vast majority of cattle genetics in the country will not produce good-eating beef on grass. He believed cattle with characteristics most identifiable with the old British breeds — the Devon, Angus, Aberdeen — would perform better.
Williams used ultrasounds to determine muscle quality and looked at physical characteristics for ideal animals for his program. He was able to successfully breed backwards to develop heritage-type cattle that can produce flavorful meat on a grass diet. The beef has been well accepted by Joyce Farms’ customers, not only for the taste but for ease of preparation.
“Our steers have a live weight between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds, which is a real advantage to the chef, because we have smaller tenderloins, smaller ribeyes and smaller strips,” he explains, adding that chefs don’t have to slice their portions so thin in order to make a 6- or 8-ounce steak.
With the additions of Joyce’s sons, Stuart and Ryan, to the business, Joyce Farms is now in its third generation and continues to gain customers. Joyce says that the mass-produced food system in this country continues to do a fine job of feeding the population, but it does create a niche for a small company with something unique to offer.
“What we’re about is being innovative, entrepreneurial, and focused on delivering the best flavored proteins that are produced in America,” he says.