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These Chickens Are At Home On The Range

October 7, 1991

MELVIN, Ill. (AP) _ Most chickens never see the light of day, but Brian Corley’s birds are at home on the range.

His organically raised flock heads out to pasture in the morning, snacking on insects, grass and weeds and roaming in the sunshine.

Their main diet is corn and soybeans grown without pesticides, and they are given no antibiotics to prevent or combat sickness. The exercise produces a chicken with less fat, Corley says.

″There is public concern over the dangers of agricultural chemicals, so the demand for organic products is growing,″ says Corley, who lives on a 22- acre farm with his wife, Katharine, and two young children.

″We just want to give people a choice of having chemical-free food.″

The Corleys are among a small but growing number of farmers opting for less conventional ways of raising chickens.

About 95 percent of the nation’s broilers are raised in large confinement buildings with about 20,000 birds per house, says Ken Koelkebeck, a poultry expert at the University of Illinois.

They never go outside. Their feed often is grown with the help of chemicals that kill weeds and insects. If the chickens get sick, they are given medicine.

″They grow efficiently in these systems and there is absolutely no reason for any health concern,″ said Koelkebeck.

But Corley says health concerns are what drove him to make changes.

″We found out about nicotine and DDT and the list will keep on growing,″ he says. ″I think it’s too late for us, but having children made us determined to reduce our exposure to all these chemicals and additives.″

Corley belongs to the 3,000-member Organic Crop Improvement Association, and the group says he is one of about 18 U.S. farmers it has certified to produce chicken organically.

The Corleys, who grew up around Chicago, loved the country and bought their central Illinois farm about four years ago.

They decided the chicken business would give them enough income to allow Mrs. Corley, an artist and former teacher, to stay home with their young children. Corley is a school psychologist in addition to working several hours a day with his flock.

He developed his organic system by studying literature and talking to a few other organic farmers.

The baby chicks come in the mail from Indiana, 100 to a box. In seven weeks, they’re ready for market.

The couple sought out farmers who grow corn and soybeans organically, and devised their own natural feed ration for the birds. The low density in the chicken house - 1,500 birds - and the fresh air and exercise help keep the flock healthy, says Corley.

When they reach about four pounds, the chickens are crated and driven to a processing plant in northern Illinois. It is cleaned before and after Corley’s birds arrive and no conventional chickens come in contact with them.

The couple now markets about 10,000 chickens a year through distributors who sell to restaurants, health food shops and grocery stores around Illinois. They are sold under the Second Nature Farm label.

The labor-intensive system and the higher input costs means a higher price for their product - around $1.69 a pound for whole chickens, compared with about 79 cents for conventional whole chickens.

End Adv Monday PMs, Oct. 7

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