Why Grateful Pastures Farm is unique among Georgia chicken farms

Young birds feed in the pasture enclosures at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, which is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Young birds feed in the pasture enclosures at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, which is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

USDA-certified organic pastured poultry producer will soon open processing facility

MANSFIELD — Georgia is known for peaches, peanuts and pecans, but when it comes to agriculture in this state, P also stands for poultry. Georgia is among the nation’s leading poultry producers, and broilers and eggs are this state’s two largest agricultural commodities. Among all of Georgia’s poultry farms, only one is a USDA-certified organic pasture-raised poultry farm: Grateful Pastures.

Located in Mansfield, about 50 miles east of Atlanta in Newton County, the farm was established in 2015 by Shaun Terry and his wife, Sabrina. Like the chickens they raise for meat, eggs and even bone broth, Grateful Pastures was organically grown.

After earning a college degree in economics, Terry was only a few years into a financial services career when he realized that a desk job wasn’t for him.

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“I like to be outside,” he said. “And the food that me and my wife were eating as we got into the working world was just not what I was used to.”

Terry doesn’t exactly come from farming lineage. Rather, he considers his parents more like “homesteaders.” The family kept chickens, raised an occasional pig, hunted and fished, and tended a massive vegetable garden.

As Terry was having second thoughts about a banking career, he happened upon a TED talk by Michael Pollan, the author of several books about food and agriculture. That led Terry to study books by Joel Salatin, a farmer who practices sustainable agriculture at Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “He’s kind of the pioneer of pastured poultry,” Terry said of Salatin.

A year later, Terry quit his job and started raising chickens.

New chicks are in the brooder, a modified and insulated shipping container that currently houses over 500 of the young birds, at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
New chicks are in the brooder, a modified and insulated shipping container that currently houses over 500 of the young birds, at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Life for a Grateful Pastures broiler chicken or laying hen begins at Bob’s Biddies, a hatchery in Ray City, Georgia. After Terry carts them back to Mansfield, the day-old chicks spend their first few weeks in an insulated shipping container retrofitted as a brooder. At that young age, chickens cannot thermoregulate, so an infrared heater keeps the space a toasty 90 degrees, and a fan system kicks in automatically if the temperature rises higher than that.

Shaun Terry, owner of Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, stands in front of a modified and insulated shipping container used as the brooder, the area where the baby chicks live until they're ready to go to the pasture enclosures. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Shaun Terry, owner of Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, stands in front of a modified and insulated shipping container used as the brooder, the area where the baby chicks live until they're ready to go to the pasture enclosures. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

When Terry swung open the stainless-steel double doors, the air was filled with the nonstop cheeping of 2-day-old broiler chicks, 575 of them. The tiny balls of yellow fluff scattered from underfoot as he and farmhand Eli Friedman-Heiman cleaned the water line, aerated the bedding of wood shavings and filled the feeders.

Grateful Pastures chickens are fed an organic mix of corn, soy, wheat, alfalfa, oats and minerals from Reedy Fork, a certified organic feed mill in North Carolina. “It’s as pure as feed can be,” Terry said. “A lot of consumers don’t realize that there’s a huge difference between non-GMO feed and organic. Non-GMO just means that the plant wasn’t genetically modified, but there’s still pesticides and herbicides in the production of those grains.”

Once the chickens are old enough to leave the confines of the shipping container, they spend the rest of their lives in pasture. Seven hoop house-type structures dot the 11 acres reserved for poultry production on the 25-acre farm. Known as mobile pasture shelters, these 260-square-foot coops are home to 130 broilers at a time. During my late February visit, the white flaps were down on all but one side to protect 4-week-old Cornish White Rocks — the most popular breed of meat chicken — from the wind. In warm months, all the sides are rolled up to allow for fresh air.

As the pasture enclosures are moved, a sweeper is essential for keeping the young birds moving forward in the enclosure to avoid harm to the birds. Farmhand Eli Friedman-Heiman takes on that duty here. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
As the pasture enclosures are moved, a sweeper is essential for keeping the young birds moving forward in the enclosure to avoid harm to the birds. Farmhand Eli Friedman-Heiman takes on that duty here. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Every day, the structures are moved one pen length, away from the manure built up in the last 24 hours and onto a new swath of land with fresh grass, bugs and probiotic-rich soil. “That’s the reason that we don’t have to use antibiotics,” Terry said. “Most poultry diseases are contracted by them being exposed to old feces. By us moving them off that every day, they stay healthy.”

In Grateful Pastures’ early days, Terry performed feats of strength and leverage by pulling the pens forward manually — by himself. Now, the 33-year-old hitches them to a truck — one so old and beat up that it lacks the driver-side door and the engine starts with the flip of a light switch, yet another of Terry’s DIY technical fixes. One problem: Chickens need to move forward as the coop moves lest they get run over. Terry’s solution: Sweep them.

Shaun Terry (behind the wheel of the truck), owner of Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, pulls one of the mobile grazing enclosures forward and to a new grazing area. The chickens are inside during the move, but a helper (inside the enclosure) sweeps the birds forward for safety as Terry pulls the enclosure forward (which is usually no more than 20 or 30 feet). Terry used to pull these enclosures around by hand. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Shaun Terry (behind the wheel of the truck), owner of Grateful Pastures in Mansfield, pulls one of the mobile grazing enclosures forward and to a new grazing area. The chickens are inside during the move, but a helper (inside the enclosure) sweeps the birds forward for safety as Terry pulls the enclosure forward (which is usually no more than 20 or 30 feet). Terry used to pull these enclosures around by hand. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Farmhand Eli grabbed a broom, got inside the pen and swatted the flaps of the back wall. Sure enough, the chickens walked forward.

The manner that Terry moves his chickens to fresh pasture is a silly sight, yet it’s a sweeping success for the chickens, consumers — and the land itself. He stood in a patch of bright green grass nearly shin-high as he looked around surveying the results of regenerative agriculture. “This pasture has gone from a super-compacted, over-utilized horse pasture in the years that we’ve been here to — you should see it in the spring. I mean, it’s just very healthy now.”

Egg-gathering time in the henhouse at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Egg-gathering time in the henhouse at Grateful Pastures in Mansfield. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“Healthy” is also an apt description for egg operations at Grateful Pastures. Some 250 Novogen Brown hens, a breed selected for their high productivity, large eggs and calm demeanor, produce bucketfuls of eggs in every shade of beige. Like the broilers at Grateful Pastures, they roam the grounds, munching on grass, bugs and soil, and are regularly moved to new pasture, all the while guarded by an electric fence and a Great Pyrenees watchdog named Tennessee Jed.

Shaun Terry, owner of Grateful Pastures, takes a breather with Tennessee Jed, his 2-year-old, large livestock guardian Great Pyrenees, who keeps predators away at the farm. Grateful Pastures in Mansfield is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Shaun Terry, owner of Grateful Pastures, takes a breather with Tennessee Jed, his 2-year-old, large livestock guardian Great Pyrenees, who keeps predators away at the farm. Grateful Pastures in Mansfield is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

From a jury-rigged brooder to mobile coops to the jalopy pickup truck that moves chickens to new pasture each day, Terry has either built everything on the farm or adapted it to fit his model of farming. The latest is how his broilers are processed.

Once his meat birds are 6 weeks old and ready for slaughter, he loads them up after dark (which minimizes the stress on the birds), says goodbye to wife Sabrina and their 3-year-old son Jackson and infant daughter Lilah, and drives through the night to a USDA-inspected processor in Kentucky, the nearest processing facility that’s open to small and independent producers like Terry. The return trip sees him hauling packages of frozen whole chickens, breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings, livers, hearts, necks and feet on dry ice. That road trip routine is about to end.

A few of the products from Grateful Pastures are shown processed, packaged and ready to sell. Grateful Pastures in Mansfield is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia, but farmer Shaun Terry has to go to Kentucky for poultry processing. That will soon change. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
A few of the products from Grateful Pastures are shown processed, packaged and ready to sell. Grateful Pastures in Mansfield is the only certified organic pasture-raised poultry grower in Georgia, but farmer Shaun Terry has to go to Kentucky for poultry processing. That will soon change. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

In partnership with the owner of a deer-processing facility, Terry is building a local, independent processing facility in Loganville. Set to open in April, Atlanta Poultry Processing will be the first and only USDA-inspected poultry-processing facility in Georgia that’s open to independent farms and even backyard chicken farms.

Terry projects to raise nearly 7,000 broilers this year, a 50% increase from 2020. Processing the meat locally will allow him to continue to scale up production to meet a growing demand. “You can produce so much more with the same infrastructure if you can process every three weeks rather than on a six-week schedule like I am right now,” he said. “It’s just going to really help this type of farming grow to have a processor locally.”

Grateful Pastures owners Sabrina Terry and Shaun Terry take a breather with their 3-year-old son, Jackson, and infant daughter, Lilah. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Grateful Pastures owners Sabrina Terry and Shaun Terry take a breather with their 3-year-old son, Jackson, and infant daughter, Lilah. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

And with no need to trek north every six weeks, maybe he’ll finally get around to fixing the broken automatic door he rigged up for the hen house and devising a better system for composting the soiled bedding in the broiler. That is, when Dad isn’t pushing little Jackson in the swing.

For more information about Grateful Pastures Farm, visit gratefulpastures.com or their booth at the Freedom, Grant Park, Morningside and Peachtree Road farmers markets.