Nestled in the Western New York community of Alfred, Windy Ridge Natural Farms is a pasture-based poultry farm that raises its laying hens in accordance with AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) standards. In contrast to laying hens in factory farm operations, the chickens at Windy Ridge are not confined to cramped cages. The birds - mostly Rhode Island Reds and Gold Laced Wyandottes - spend their days on the grass, foraging for insects and clipping green shoots. They seek shelter under airy hoop houses (think wire-frame Quonset huts), with access to perches and other amenities designed to let chickens feel like chickens, not cogs grinding together in a very big machine.
The interest of owners Tim and Kathy Koegel in food raised naturally is derived in no small part from their own experience as a family. They bought the property that would become Windy Ridge Natural Farms in 2000. It represented a return-to-roots homecoming for Tim, who grew up on a family farm in Alfred before venturing out into the wider world. Not long after the land was purchased, however, and even as the Koegels were trying to determine what their farm would grow and how they would grow it, one of their daughters developed a rash that doctors couldn’t decipher.
When conventional or alternative medicine couldn’t solve the mystery, Kathy set off on a six-month course of independent research which led her to conclude that the source was a food allergy to sulfites - the same sulfites found in a wide variety of highly processed foods. Removing the sulfite-laden foods from her daughter’s diet made the rash go away. It also made the whole family far more conscious about what they were putting into their bodies, and how a system focused on cheap, fast production above all else was not good for anyone - least of all the animals bound up in the system. The experience steered the Koegels not only toward organic, but toward farming in a way that placed the animals in a more natural setting.
Last year, Windy Ridge received a $5,000 Animal Welfare Approved Good Husbandry Grant that allowed the farm to expand its flock and upgrade the facilities. Specifically, it enabled Tim to refine his design for special mobile hen housing for laying hens - complete with a feeder, watering system, lights and a de-icing device, some of which are powered by solar panels and marine batteries.
Tim says he has been developing hen houses over the course of several years that are highly functional and designed with the birds’ accommodation and comfort first and foremost. “The main house offers an abundance of perch space, placing the birds higher for their psychological comfort as well as their physical comfort. It’s warmer up higher in the winter, breezy and cooler in the summer. It also offers plenty of in-house nesting space.” Tim said the grant gave him “an opportunity to utilize more innovations and create an environment for the birds that surpasses even my best previous efforts.”
By attaching the wire-frame hoop houses to the main houses, Tim says he can offer a comfortable, protected space while alleviating much of the mud and droppings that would otherwise end up in the main house, and provide extra lighted shelter space when the winter days get shorter. “It is great for the farmer because it offers expanded living space for the birds at a greatly reduced cost over the main house.” He shares the model with other producers, “so that they can adopt our ideas and innovations, either in whole or in part, to improve the humane aspects of pastured layer operations nationwide.” Both consumer and producer education have become important parts of the farm’s mission.
In expanding their operation, the Koegels are also reaching out to urban customers. Over the summer Windy Ridge teamed up with AWA on a pilot project creating a supply chain of AWA farm products into New York City. The first phase of this project launched in mid-June at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market.
The pilot proved to be a big success. Dickson's regulars started asking if Windy Ridge eggs were available. "Many times the eggs would sell out quickly," noted AWA Farmer and Market Outreach Coordinator Brigid Sweeney. In December, it was announced that Windy Ridge and Dickson's had entered into an agreement whereby Dickson's would carry Windy Ridge eggs on an ongoing basis.
The laying hens of Windy Ridge Natural Farms are blissfully unaware of their popularity in the Big Apple. For them, it is enough that they have a fan in Alfred. Tim speaks openly and often of treating animals on the farm with “reverence and respect,” framing it on the farm’s website in terms of a transcendent responsibility: “I believe that we must be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us including the environment, the animals and our bodies. I believe in the organic system and humane practices because it is the best for the consumer, the animal, the environment, the farmer and our collective future.”