In season: Cornish hens

Shaun Terry and his wife Sabrina are the owners of Grateful Pastures, where they raise pastured poultry in Mansfield, south of I-20 in Newton County. Their venture is just over a year old and began when Terry decided he’d done the research and was ready to make the change from bank trust officer to farmer.

“Growing up, I read field guides instead of novels. I’ve always been amazed by nature and animals, and the older I grew, the more I realized I wanted to get into the green movement and help save the planet,” Shaun Terry said. “I just sort of happened on the sustainable agriculture thing. I was watching a TED Talk with Michael Pollan and he mentioned Joel Salatin. I started reading Salatin’s books, including one on pastured poultry.”

Terry did more research and decided pastured poultry would be the best entry point to get into sustainable agriculture. He left his job in banking in January 2015, and by March was raising his first chickens on leased land in Mansfield. He raised 1,600 chickens that year. Now he’s bought 25 acres nearby and plans to raise 4,200 birds in his second year of production.

He said he started with chickens because “everybody eats chicken, everybody loves chicken and I love chicken.” Salatin’s books led him raise Cornish Cross, a variety that grows a large breast with very tender meat. That’s appealing for his customers, whether they’re restaurant chefs or someone shopping at a local farmers market.

“Our leased land was across from Burge Organic Farm and Josh Plymale, who was farm manager there at the time, introduced us to the Morningside Farmers Market. We love being there because those shoppers are very loyal and very interested in where their food comes from,” Terry said. “I love talking about my farm, and Morningside shoppers have a lot of questions.”

Grateful Pastures is also now selling at the Saturday morning Freedom Farmers Market and the Sunday Westside Farmers Market. And to local chefs like those at the Optimist and at Watershed, who are also interested in supporting sustainable agriculture.

There’s nothing easy about raising pastured poultry. “You can’t buy in. You have to build your equipment. To raise 4,200 birds, I’ve had to build the brooders that would accommodate that. The chickens live outside in moveable floorless shelters that I move every single day so they always have new grass to eat.”

Regulations from the Georgia Department of Agriculture require that all his chicken be sold frozen. There are no processors in Georgia who take birds raised from small operations like Grateful Pastures, so he has to drive his live chickens to North Carolina and then bring the processed chickens back home.

Terry estimates he spends 12 to 16 hours every weekday working with his birds and then works the farmers markets on the weekends. Knowing he’s making a difference for the environment makes it worthwhile.

“The first thing we think about is the welfare of the birds,” Terry said. “They live outside and because they’re moved every day, they’re not living on their own fecal matter as they would be in a chicken plant. We don’t have to give them antibiotics and all the things the industry does because they’re not living in a pathogen-ridden world. They’re outside in the fresh air getting exercise. They lay down their manure and get moved. Then I plant cover crops on that manure to help build up the soil. In the industrial model, the manure is only cleaned out of the chicken houses after the chickens are harvested and is piled up where it leaches out and runs into the waterways.”

And yes, raising poultry is also an activity guided by the seasons. Terry begins raising his chickens at the end of February. The chicks live in a heated brooder until they are two or three weeks old and hardy enough to withstand early spring temperatures. Those first chicks will grow up to marketable size by late April. He keeps raising batches of about 600 chickens at a time until fall when he will harvest the last chickens by early November.

Grateful Pastures offers Cornish hens, whole larger chickens and chicken in parts such as breasts, legs and thighs. “The term Cornish hen has come to mean just a younger chicken. The only difference between a full-size chicken and a Cornish hen these days is that a Cornish hen is a chicken processed when it’s four to five weeks old and about two pounds, and a full size chicken grows about eight weeks to four or five pounds.”

Chickens could overwinter in a building of some sort, but since raising pastured poultry puts an emphasis on the way the chickens help improve soil, it makes sense to give the process a break during the winter when it’s too cold to keep the chickens outdoors constantly.

So the farmer takes a break to build more equipment and get ready for the new year, the land continues to flourish and customers look forward to the beginning of a new season of meat raised in a sustainable and earth-friendly way.

Jennifer Booker’s Roasted Rosemary and Lemon Cornish Hens

Booker’s recipe is an adaptation of one she usually uses for larger chickens. When she supplied the recipe, she wrote, “Cornish game hens are the perfect substitute for recipes using traditional chickens. Because of their smaller size but larger breasts, you get more white meat per bird at a much shorter cooking time.”

Her roasted chicken recipe is also available in her cookbook, “Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent” ($26.95, Pelican Publishing).

2 (1 1/2-pound) Cornish hens

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon, quartered

4 large garlic cloves

10 stems fresh flat-leaf parsley

10 stems fresh rosemary, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon melted butter, divided

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

2 celery stalks, cut in half

1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered

Lemon halves and melted butter, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

If your hen came with giblets, remove and reserve for another recipe. Rinse the chicken inside and out and remove any excess fat and leftover pin feathers. Pat the outside dry. Liberally sprinkle the inside of the hens with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavities of both hens with lemon quarters, garlic, parsley and 5 stems of rosemary. Truss the hens by tying the ends of the drumsticks together with butcher’s twine and tucking the wings under the body. Brush the outside of the hens with half the olive oil and half the melted butter. Sprinkle outside of hens liberally with salt and pepper, rubbing in the seasoning into the skin.

In a large roasting pan, arrange the carrots, celery, onion and remaining 5 sprigs of rosemary. Toss with salt and pepper and drizzle with remaining olive oil and melted butter. Roast the hens for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Cover the individual hens with a square of folded aluminum foil and return to oven. Bake an additional hour, until the juices run clear when you pierce the joint between the leg and thigh and the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove from the oven and move hens and vegetables to a platter. Garnish hens with juice from lemon halves and some additional melted butter. Cover hens with foil and allow to rest 15 minutes before serving. Serves: 4

Per serving: 664 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), 49 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 46 grams fat (13 grams saturated), 289 milligrams cholesterol, 195 milligrams sodium.

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