Preserving the grande, ancient lineage de poulet
In 1999, Paul Bradshaw, after an unsatisfying foray into cattle ranching in the karst hills north of Tallahassee, read a haunting passage from ecologist Aldo Leopold’s Sand Mountain Almanac.
The ecologist had been forced to shoot a wolf and, with a smitten heart, watched the “fierce green fire” dying in its eyes. The passage caused Bradshaw to reflect with sadness upon diminishing biodiversity, and it stayed with him.
At the time, Bradshaw and his wife, Sally, presided over a “one-acre Eden” that was home to a few pedestrian farm animals. A greenhouse garden dominated the backyard. The couple’s energies were devoted mostly to their consuming jobs, his as a lobbyist and hers in high-stakes politics.
How that mini-Eden in Havana, Florida, grew into present-day Greenfire Farms is serendipitous. The big epiphany came when Bradshaw made the acquaintance of a Coronation Sussex chicken.
The Coronation is a venerable breed, pale gray of feather and succulent of flesh, and specially developed, back in the day, to honor England’s King Edward VIII. Introduced to just one Sussex beauty, Bradshaw became fouled in chickens. His tiny hobby farm evolved into a 45-acre Ararat for dry-docking a spectacular collection of rare and beautiful birds.
Ah, chickens! When they are mentioned, what American’s first thought doesn’t go to the primeval Chicken Riddle, a joke so universal that few would fail to recognize even an allusion to it: A chicken sees a duck about to cross the road. “Don’t do it,” says the chicken. “You’ll never hear the end of it!”
“Chickens! Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em!” Anyone who has ever walked barefoot through a backyard full of free-ranging Henriettas or chowed down on hot wings knows the truth of that proposition. But stereotyping Gallus gallus as nothing more than a silly, barnyard critter to be found either pointlessly crossing thoroughfares or adorning rotisserie spits is doing the ancient order of the chicken a great disservice.
Contrary to a kindergarten fable profiling Chicken Little as a hysterical wimp fleeing the collapse of the sky, the chicken’s original domestication may not have been inspired by its succulence but its fierce, inborn combativeness. Ancient historian Herodotus reports that the chicken may have saved Western civilization.
In the fifth century B.C., the Greek general Themistocles, leading his army to confront a vast Persian host at Marathon, encountered along his way two roosters squared off and fighting. Themistocles, a blunt commoner, told his soldiers to watch the avian battle:
“Behold these who do not fight for their household gods, or for the monuments of their ancestors, or for glory, liberty, or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.”
Given that feathery inspiration, the Greek hoplites then ruled the day in Marathon with that same gut-level intensity.
The ancient mystique regarding the noble characteristics inherent in Gallus gallus has come home to roost in the breast of Paul Bradshaw.
According to modern ornithologists, if today’s domestic chicken were to log on to Ancestry.com/henny-penny, it could trace its lineage back to the dinosaurs. Eight to 10,000 years ago, the line, having long survived the extinction of its progenitors, manifested as Southeast Asia’s red jungle fowl.
DNA studies have tracked the ancient domestication and diaspora of the chicken through India to the Mediterranean. There, in seven-hilled Rome, the chicken pecked out a unique status in public life. In important questions of state, the chicken’s part in divining the will of the gods — either with its blood, or choosing one pile of grain over another —imbued it with an almost sacred aura.
Two millennia later, Greenfire stewards 53 breeds and, individually, 1,200 “rare hens and roosters” collected from every clime: chickens like the Tomaru, dating to the Tang Dynasty in China, with its luxuriant, ninja-black plumage; the Brown Red Game Cock, Alabama’s fighting bird from Irish stock; the Pavlovskaya from Russia, saved from extinction and cold hardy with a punk-rock explosion of feathers on its head; the Ayam Ketawa or “Laughing Chicken”; and the Ayam Cemani, both from Indonesia. The latter is a chicken black, literally to the bone, organs and flesh. Bradshaw says it’s his most requested bird ever.
Apropos Florida, Greenfire Farms is a gated community, more akin to stables of pedigreed racehorses than any commercial hatchery. Bradshaw avows that Greenfire selects and raises its own breeding flock rather than buying and incubating anonymous eggs-in-the-poke from industrialized eggatoriums.
Bradshaw so seriously takes his mission to preserve chickenhood’s variations and provide exotic chicken growers with healthy, top-dollar chicks that Greenfire’s hatching areas resemble a NASA sterile-room facility. Buyers are supplied by mail; if they were to visit the facilities, they might introduce contaminants.
A day after hatching, the on-order chicks are put in a special Postal Service box (winter heat pad, optional). Greenfire advises buyers to order no fewer than three chicks. Shipped together, each chick has at least two other shock-absorbing fluff-balls in the box during something like a stagecoach ride through the Badlands to wherever their journey takes them. Back home, the 1,200 adult chickens at Greenfire can be found, mostly dallying, in the sunshine and fresh air of Panhandle Florida.
Greenfire ships out some 50,000 chicks a year. Cream Legbars, which were brought to the U.S. from England and lay blue eggs, are currently popular. Male chicks go for $19 and the females for $29.
All black Ayam Cemani chicks, when in stock, fetch $199.
Wherever, there are no chickens without eggs: Which color does Monsieur or Madame prefer. Classic white? Blue? Green? Or perhaps a sophisticated, chocolate-brown, preferred, according to Ian Fleming, by none other than Bond, James Bond.
To folks fancying colored eggs, Greenfire will dispatch its Rainbow Egg-Layer Mix — at least three different breeds of chicks to produce eggs the envy of the Easter Bunny.
Bradshaw’s goal of preserving diversity within the ranks of a much-taken-for-granted animal friend is foremost a labor of love.
Actor Bill Murray once said, “I dream of a better world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.” Could Paul Bradshaw’s fondness for the birds someday make it so?