Daily photos by John Godbey|
Farmer Charles Ritch constantly moves his pasture-raised livestock to new locations to give his land a break and to keep the animals’ areas clean.
Goose Pond Farm fills small niche market for pasture-raised chicken
By Danielle Komis Palmer
Charles Ritch couldn’t figure it out.
He remembered how good his grandmother’s chicken tasted, yet when his mother tried to duplicate it, something about hers just wasn’t as good.
But after the Hartselle man ordered a group of chicks on a whim, raised them naturally and ate one of them, he had an “aha!” moment.
He ran to the phone to call his mom.
“I said, ‘Guess what? It ain’t the way you cook!’ ” he said.
The pasture-raised chicken tasted delicious — just like his grandmother’s did from her farm. He realized it was the way the chickens were brought up that caused such a difference.
That was 15 years ago, soon after Ritch and his family moved from Decatur to Hartselle off Goose Pond Road. After he had to give away more than 50 of his naturally grown chickens to his friends because he had no room to store the meat, they too became hooked. Requests for chicken kept coming in, so much so that Ritch eventually expanded to include lamb, turkey, beef and pork and made farming his full-time job.
Charles Ritch has to move these chicken shelters every day, including their guardian watchdog. Goose Pond Farm’s growth surprised Ritch, who had thought he was trying out a hobby when he first ordered 100 chicks. “It was never intended to do this,” he said, gesturing around the 100-acre farm.
Today, Ritch’s Goose Pond Farm not only provides Ritch with the tasty chicken he loves, but also fills a small market niche in North Alabama for naturally raised meat that contains no antibiotics or growth hormones.
Ritch is quick to point out that while the way he runs his farm is different from commercial farms, he is not opposed to the mainstream farming industry.
“I’m not spending my time going around and saying Tyson and those guys are the bad guys,” he said. “You as a consumer want choices ... We service a market that is interested in this sort of thing.”
“It’s an increasing share of the market,” though it’s definitely still a niche market, said Jerry Thompson, an animal science and forage Extension agent. “Because it’s not a widely done practice, when someone’s doing it you hear about it.”
Natural food fans
Jenny Vick, a Pilates instructor in Madison, is one of Ritch’s regular customers. She came to him six years ago when she was pregnant and trying to eat especially healthy. Over time, she slowly began ordering more chickens, but also lamb, beef and pork.
“I just tried to make the changes as I could,” she said. “I didn’t jump in with both feet and say, ‘Give me one of everything.’ ”
Now, she and her family are hooked on pastured meat and farm eggs. Once, Vick ran out of his eggs and had to buy organic eggs from the grocery store. When her 6-year-old and 11-year-old saw them, they asked what was wrong with them because their color was so much lighter than farm eggs’ orange yolks, she said.
‘Little family enterprise’
Goose Pond Farm’s growth surprised the man who had thought he was trying out a hobby when he first ordered 100 chicks.
“I said, ‘Hot dog! This would be fun — a little family enterprise,’ ” he said.
“It was never intended to do this,” he said, gesturing around the 100-acre farm.
Ritch, who used to work at Morgan Metals in Decatur, became a full-time farmer, and slowly expanded his venture to include lamb, pigs, turkeys and cattle along with chickens, though chicken continues to maintain the largest chunk of his business.
He has some part-time help, but mainly relies on his family.
“I have the ideal job,” he said. “No one tells me what to do.”
Life on a farm
But that doesn’t mean farming is easy. Ritch has learned to count on things going wrong — which isn’t too bad as long as you are flexible, he said.
“You learn to be like a piece of grass. You’ve got to bend with the wind,” he said.
And bending with the wind also means being in tune with the earth, something he learned from his grandfather, who also was a farmer.
“He was an organic farmer and didn’t even know it,” Ritch said.
His grandfather even refused to plow with his tractor and used a mule instead.
“He said the problem with a tractor is it’s so high up I can’t smell the dirt,” Ritch remembered. “They knew how the soil was supposed to smell and they worked the land from a natural standpoint. That kind of farming is really getting lost.”
How does Goose Pond Farm work?
Farmer Charles Ritch constantly moves his livestock to new locations to give his land a break and to keep the animals’ areas clean. An intricate system of electric fences partitions off the animals’ areas.
Having a farm with sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens and turkeys works well because the animals eat different things, and don’t have to compete with each other for food, he said. The part of the animals not used for meat is composted back onto the farm to enrich the soil.
“A very small part of the energy is actually taken off the land,” Ritch said. “That keeps you from having to bring in high-powered chemicals.”
Ritch processes his chickens on the farm about once a month. Beef, lamb and pork are processed at a local plant.
For information on other natural farms in the area, visit www. localharvest.org. For more information about Goose Pond Farm, call 751-0987.
Is Goose Pond Farm organic?
To be certified organic is a legal term that requires a lot of paperwork and approval by the federal government, so many small family farmers like Charles Ritch do not apply for the certification and instead refer to their meat as pasture-raised with no antibiotics or growth hormones.
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