Purely by Chance
Close encounters of the bird kind
Story written by Judy Allen | Photography by Lara Agnew
On ten acres off Bustle Creek Road in Alta, Wyoming, Andy and Sue pasture-raise chickens and turkeys, as well as gather eggs from laying hens. They hatched the idea for the farm business in 2014, settling on meat production as their focus. “There were [already] many great vegetable farmers in the valley,” Sue notes. Then, in 2015, the state legislature passed theWyoming Food Freedom Act, allowing small farmers like Sue and Andy to process more of their own poultry, up to a thousand birds per year. The new act allowed them to grow their fledgling farm.
The Heffrons’ farm model emphasizes mobility, sustainability, and diversity. “We try to honor the chicken-ness of the chicken and the turkey-ness of the turkey,” Andy says. To facilitate their learning curve, Andy and Sue embraced the work of Virginia-based regenerative farming guru Joel Salatin. In 2015, at a Boise farmers’ conference where Joel spoke,Andy and Sue were granted a personal visit with their mentor, arming them with knowledge and direction for their new enterprise. They identified three goals for their farm mission: First, produce healthy, nutrient-dense meat for their family and friends. Next, restore diversity to their soil and pasture. Finally, teach and encourage others to pursue healthier food options.Now, after six years of producing and selling their own meats, the Heffrons have refined the timing and process of their small-scale operation. Meat bird production starts in April, when day-old chicks land in the garage brooders. Groups of a hundred and thirty birds rotate in every three weeks, while maturing ones move out to pasture. Eschewing the cramped quarters of industrial poultry farms, the Heffrons allow their happy birds to spend most of their lives outside in nearly a dozen portable shelters covered with tarp and wire. These wheeled devices are pulled daily from one pasture location to the next.
Protected from the elements, the farm birds always have fresh grass and bugs underfoot. Their waste material also enriches the hayfields, yielding chest-high grasses. Each day, the Heffrons supplement grasses with non- GMO (genetically modified organism) feed and trailer a water tank to the fields to replenish the bell waterers in each cage. Laying hens spend fall, winter, and spring in two greenhouse coops. Come summer, layers join meat birds in pasture shelters and Andy and Sue raise their own bumper crops of tomatoes and basil in the enriched soil of the vacated greenhouses.
A management-intensive model like the Heffrons’ brings unique challenges. When day-old chicks arrive from the regional hatchery at the post office at 5:30 a.m., Andy and Sue have garage brooders warming up and feed staged. Sue’s task on each and every delivery day is teaching the chicks to drink. One at a time, she removes each chick from its box, dips its beak in water, and watches for the chick to swallow. No swallow? Dip and repeat. The turkeys are especially slow to learn, she says. For cost-effective non-GMO feed, Andy drives to Boise to pick up bulk 2,000-pound totes, doing the roundtrip four times a year for a total of roughly 40,000 pounds of feed.
Last September brought the farm’s most daunting circumstances so far. Waking to carnage in the pasture and tracks the size of dinner plates, Andy and Sue discovered a night-marauding grizzly bear had ripped open shelters and killed their flock. Fortunately, all of their customers’ orders had already been filled, and the birds remaining in the pasture at the time were for their own consumption. Andy now resolves to finish processing earlier in the sea- son, before bears enter hyperphagia (when they hunt and eat nonstop). “We need to make decisions more in harmony with nature,” he says.Both Andy and Sue have second jobs to supplement farm income. Andy owns and operates Teton Appliance Re- pair, while Sue is the TetonValley Food Pantry administrator.
Married thirty-five years, the Heffrons embrace their communal business. “We work really well together,” Andy says. Looking to the future, how- ever, their views differ a bit. Andy says he is a farmer at heart, while Sue leans toward simplification. With five out-of- town grandkids, they both want flexibility. To allow for more time away from the farm, they plan to look into expanding work share options.
Inevitably, processing season arrives. “The birds have only one bad day in their whole lives,” Sue says. True to the farm’s small scale,Andy and Sue humanely slaughter each bird. With a prayer, birds are quickly dispatched, transferred to the washing-machine-sized scalder, and plucked to remove feathers, then individually eviscerated, packaged, and frozen.
“We have control over every aspect of quality, from start to finish,” Andy says. “With our name on it, an amazing amount of pride goes into what we’re producing. We consider ourselves ‘customer certified.’”
In fact, demand for the farm’s products is so high that anyone interested in reserving poultry should contact Purely by Chance well in advance, like this coming winter for summer 2021. This summer’s CommunitySupported Agriculture (CSA) program members have first dibs, so be prepared fora wait.
Looking back, Andy and Sue see that they are clearly realizing the goals they set out to achieve at the inception of their endeavor.And remember Chance? Following a diet that includes some of his grandparents’ farm-raised food, he’s now a healthy nine-year-old.
Grandparents Andy and Sue Heffron took note, did some research of their own, and came to the conclusion that, as Andy says, “What we do to our food in conventional farming is making us sick.” Their grandson’s experience became the inspiration for their farm, aptly named Purely by Chance.