Boondockers Farm: Preserving Heritage Breeds for Future Generations
by Mike Bullington, EDN
The flower pattern on Rachel Kornstein’s rubber boots is faded from long hours in the sun and smeared with mud from a parade of duck feet that follow her as she moves about her chores. Framed by dark hair and a ponytail, her face holds the weight and passion of a generation looking at a future full of uncertainties. Together with her partner, Evan Gregoire, they are the owners and full-time crew of Boondockers Farm.
Mornings at Boondockers start later than is traditional with farmers—up and out by 9 or 10 a.m.—but they continue up into the late evening with a never-ending list of tasks: feeding ducks, chickens and dogs; milking three cows and attending to their heirloom vegetables, while remaining ever on the watch for predators. After dark, Evan shifts from his role as a traditional pasture farmer into—more fitting for a man just out of his twenties— a marketing manager, utilizing a campaign of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote the heritage animals and heirloom vegetables they are raising on their forty acres in the Spencer Creek district of rural Lane County.
Boondockers’ primary breed is the Ancona duck. Originating in Great Britain in the early 19th century, it is a flightless duck with characteristic black splotches randomly marking their bodies and webbed feet. Along with five other species of duck, 12 breeds of chicken, and five species of turkey, the Ancona are listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). The ALBC list of endangered and threatened poultry and livestock breeds contains over 100 unique breeds that are being bred into extinction. With the modern farm’s emphasis placed on production and profitability, commercial, fast-growing breeds are preferred over the diversity of slower-growing heritage breeds.
Like their heirloom vegetable counterparts, heritage breeds have been developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Built into the diversity of these breeds is a insurance policy against disease and natural disasters. Jeannette Beranger, from the ALBC, likens relying on a single breed to a bad investment in the stock market. “If you put all your stock into one company and they tank—you are in a lot of trouble,” Beranger explains. “Keeping these breeds around is setting the future of agriculture up with some security.”
Over the last 50 to 75 years poultry farming has undergone a huge transformation. Birds have been brought indoors in order to control their environment and utilize mechanical means of feeding and harvesting. “The change from hand tools to industrial agriculture, from food being for feeding people to food being for profit. Chemicals—,” Rachel breaks off with a look of stern disagreement. “Food is becoming like warfare.”
Boondockers Farm officially started with two endangered ducks (named Housh and Suni) in the front yard of a rented house in Eugene in 2004. Evan and Rachel had known each other for about three years when Evan left a career in sports marketing and management in Los Angeles. With a small severance package and no clear direction other than to have “a balance of trees to concrete,” they moved from the busy work-a-day world of Southern California to Eugene. What they never imagined when they made the two-day drive up I-5 was that they would not only dedicate their days to rural heritage farming, but to preserving an entire breed of animal, the Ancona duck. Boondockers is currently the primary source of Ancona ducks in the United States with 60 breeding pairs. “We didn’t even know we wanted to be farmers back then,” Rachel laughs, sitting cross-legged on the ground with a flock of baby ducks and yearlings pecking the ground about her. “We wanted a lifestyle that is connected.”
Two endangered ducks turned into three (Housh and Suni had a baby named Tiny) and then into seven and then into 37—at which point the habit of naming them became impractical. A new piece of property was leased with more room. Chickens, vegetables and cows were added. And to guard them all the couple began breeding Pyrenees Mountain Dogs. “We shifted to calling ourselves a farm,” Rachel says, half distracted by a baby pecking at her shoe. A constant chorus of high-pitched chirps emanates from the flock of immature birds who have not developed the characteristic quack just yet. Roaming back and forth with a seemingly single mind they peck at her toes, the ground and anything that does not move away quick enough. The ducks are young to be out on their own—just three days old, their down still crusted from hatching. Rachel has decided to let them out from under the heat lamps and into the warm sun early because the time foraging is good for them. “It’s just the healthiest thing for them,” she explains. “They eat so many things and learn natural behaviors.”
Commercial breeds are dependent on controlled environments. The Broad-breasted White turkey, which accounts for 90 percent of all turkeys being raised, cannot reproduce naturally. It continues to exist only because of artificial insemination. A joint study between the ALBC and Virginia Tech demonstrated that commercial poultry breeds have a weakened immune system in comparison to heritage breeds and are therefore more prone to illness. The implications of this are clear: one massive disease outbreak or natural disaster that disrupts their controlled environment and this food source could disappear.
If there is a poster-child for factory farming, it is the Cornish Cross chicken. The Cornish Cross is the classic supermarket chicken. It eats until it can’t walk. It outgrows its skeletal system in a matter of eight weeks due to breeding. Because of this rapid growth it is prone to broken legs, lameness and sudden heart failure. Rachel, moving now to throw her brood some feed, tells of a friend who lost over 40 Cornish Cross chickens in one day because they were too heavy to move to the other side of their pen to get out of the direct sun and get a drink of water. “Within six to eight weeks their internal organs will hemorrhage, their legs will break, and they die. They can’t grow any larger. They can’t move to get food. They sit in their own poo in little pens. And then we eat them.”
Evan walks with a casual gait as he goes about his chores on the farm with a hint of Southern California surfer-dude left in his voice. His youngish face sports an almost impish grin peering out from under a tan floppy shade hat and a three-day beard. This evening’s chores for Evan includes moving portable fencing that is used to corral their Delaware Broilers in with the dogs at night. The Delawares are a second endangered breed being preserved at Boondockers. The white and black speckled chickens are a slow-growing heritage breed—taking an average of 16 weeks to reach market weight and are known for their mellow disposition, well developed eggs and quality meat.
Evan is rotating the electric fencing protecting their coop further up the hill in order to give the land a rest. All about him the white Delawares run to and fro as if directed by some inane chicken logic. One adolescent male catches sight of Evan bending down to pick up an empty feed bag and runs towards him—its head and neck stretched forward, wings back and strong legs pumping quickly in a comical manner—in case feed is coming. Satisfied that it has not missed out it moves on to examine the side of a plastic bucket with intense curiosity.
The local food movement is not taken seriously by some customers—“Convenience, that is the key word,” Rachel explains with wide eyes, pointing out the ultimate excuse with a hand in the air. But she is realistic about people’s abilities, conceding that not everyone is going to grow their own food. What she insists on is that they have a better appreciation for where their food is coming from. “It’s gotta be a grassroots movement,” Rachel declares while pulling a length of garden hose nearby. ”Just demand the product and get it.”
“There are kids growing up who do not know what butter is. Where did it come from?” Ultimately, she explains, it is up to the customer to know what they are buying. “Look into every aspect of what you are eating, not just the labels — ‘pasture raised, grass fed, organic.’ They could be in a filthy cage. The grass fed label… they can be in confinement.”
What is comes down to is knowing your farmer. “The way people know their family doctor — I don’t see there being any difference,” she says, ”In fact, I think you would want to know your farmer in the same way.”
Evan takes a break from pushing the portable fence posts into the ground. “It’s also about making food choices based on what your proximity is to certain things,” he declares as a matter of fact. “Get chickens, start seed saving.”
“Is it really cheaper when you are not getting the nutrients you need when you’re growing up and then you’ve got issues when you’re older?” Rachel asks, as if pointing out an obvious fact.
“I know. We ate a lot of fast-food,” Evan confesses. “My mom was a single parent. She cooked when she could,” he continues, relating with some sheepishness the secret of their own evolution. “Wendy’s is $2 tonight and we’re broke. It’s easy. When we moved up here and we started this, that is how we were feeding ourselves. “That’s the irony of it,” he says, shaking his head.
Change is familiar to these California transplants who have gone from a lifestyle of fast-food convenience to, despite the long hours and the weight of responsibility, a life of farming. “It takes financial support and a whole lot of moral support from family, community members, friends,” Rachel points out.
Rachel is walking up the gravel road from the barn to where their breeding Ancona pairs are housed with two 100-pound, 5-foot 6-inch tall Pyrenees Mountain Dogs. The Pyrenees have been bred for generations to protect livestock.
“Our dogs are well tested out here,” Rachel says as she surveys the landscape. The wooded forest brings raccoons, foxes, and weasels. Above in the air are hawks that could snatch up a baby duckling in an instant. Recently a duck was lost to what is believed to be a skunk that was after the eggs still in its womb. “It happened in broad daylight,” Rachel recalls. The dogs alerted to the presence but not before the duck was dead.
Rachel’s eyes mist over and her voice shakes, letting slip the great passion she feels about her calling, about the gravity of their responsibility to these breeds and to the future of food. “It’s a huge responsibility.”