Bucking the Trend

“For a heritage breed to be saved, they have to be eaten,” says Craig Haney, Livestock Director at Stone Barns Center.

What he's talking about is creating demand—the consumer demand necessary to rescue an old animal breed from obscurity and perhaps extinction. And that's one of the reasons he's brought the Buckeye chicken to the farm at Stone Barns: to introduce this hundred-year-old bird to
our patrons.

Since the mid-20th century, many traditional breeds of American chicken have been replaced by a few fast-growing hybrids, according to the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). The organization currently lists more than three dozen heritage chicken breeds in danger of extinction. A heritage breed is one that was recognized as distinct before mid-century, that is naturally mating and has a long outdoor lifespan, and whose growth rate is moderate to slow—the opposite of factory raised chickens.

Chickens arrived in the Americas via Polynesian canoe most likely in the 14th century. For generations, both Native Americans and settlers bred them to bring out certain traits and qualities. The Buckeye is unique among American breeds in that it is the only one to have been created entirely by a woman. Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio (thus the “Buckeye” name), exhibited a pair of her creations at a poultry show in Cleveland in 1902. Today, the bird is on the Livestock Conservancy's “threatened” list—the second-highest level of concern.

This summer, Craig and crew hatched out 40 Buckeye chicks, which were delivered as eggs from a North Carolina grower. The Buckeye, whose plumage is a dark rusty-red color, is a dual-purpose bird, used for both eggs and meat. At the end of the year, Craig will evaluate the different traits of the Buckeye and decide on an appropriate course of action. Known for thriving under free-range conditions, these smaller-breasted birds will take approximately 16 weeks to reach a harvestable stage, more than twice as long as the Cornish Cross, the industry standard.

But the wait is more than worth it, says Craig. “We've been hurriedly putting all our eggs, or in this case chicken genetics, in one basket. We want to participate in preserving a breed not only for its genetic diversity but also its cultural heritage. This is a chicken that not only tastes like what our grandmothers remember; this is one of the actual chickens.”