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FoodPaths - May, 2012
There are chickens...
and there are Mary's Chickens!

Mary’s Chickens, Sanger, CA.

There are chickens… and then there are CHICKENS! Specifically, Mary Pitman’s Chickens.

Mary PitmanMary’s Chickens came into my life over a year ago when I purchased and roasted one of her birds, unaware that it had a name.  The next day, a bar-b-qued chicken sandwich at Crossroads Chicken, one of the Napa Valley’s favorite food trucks, served up a distinct food memory.

There was something familiar about the flavor.  Each dish tasted like, well …chicken!

It was time for FoodPaths to visit The Pitman Family, who raise and process organic and natural chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and Cornish Hens, just outside of Fresno, CA. With open access to every part of the operation, we decided to focus only on chickens. Over the course of a long day we visited two on-site chicken ranches, the Air Chilled processing plant, enjoyed a BBQ with a group of visiting food professionals, and spent time with the family. There IS a Mary! My first reaction:

* * *

Suiting up into Hazmat-like suitsSuiting up into Hazmat-like suits (we would change these each time we entered a different farm or facility), we began with a visit to a flock of Mary’s Free Range Chickens – white Ross birds -- roaming freely in an open-door, “ranch building,” layered with a foot of fresh rice hulls delivered directly from the Sacramento Delta’s rice paddies, “buffet food lines,” and running fresh water. Eucalyptus branches are spaced throughout.  “We give them room to wander around,” Mary commented.  “You will never see a cage here.”

Son David Pitman, who manages the company (Rick continues to handle the turkeys and they both share responsibility for the ducks), took the lead to explain that the building is monitored by an extensive network of technology-based control systems that keep the average temperature inside the building at a comfortable 88 degrees when the birds are babies and 75 degrees as the birds grow.

Outside shades raise and lower automatically when the seasonal temperatures reach a level too cool or heat the house accordingly.  In the San Joaquin Valley where summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees and above, this is critical for the health of the birds.  Control systems linked directly to cell phones send warning signals when there are variations in temperature and water levels.

As Mary and I drove from farm to fields, I learned that this is a story about survival, how the decisions made by outsiders a decade ago nearly drove the family under, and how the closing of one door enabled the company to resolutely transition to who they are today.

In a little over a decade, Mary and Rick Pitman, along with two of their sons, David and Ben, have grown a vertically integrated, family-owned business, encompassing a feed mill, poultry farms, a technically sophisticated processing plant, and its own fleet of delivery trucks.  The business provides valuable, skilled jobs to a community-based workforce, promoting from within. Rick is responsible for turkey production; Mary, marketing and customer service.  David is focused on chicken production, and also helps with the ducks, geese and turkeys.  Ben is the company’s cyber and internet marketing and sales expert, developing the three websites, graphics, product brochures, and USDA label approvals and audits. A third son, Mark, with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Sustainable Energy, and not in the family business, runs two co-generation plants in Fresno for MMR Power Solutions.

The Pitman Family began selling chickens to Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, Andronico’s, and Texas-based Central Markets, in 2005. The family had sold seasonal turkeys to many of these retailers since 1998; the chicken business took off in 2009.

“We like to do business with people that understand our product,” said Mary. “There are cost issues.  Let’s get that up-front. Our partners understand quality and product integrity, and in turn, their customers buy our products because they understand quality and product integrity.

* * *

The roots of The Pitman family date from 1888 when earlier generations first settled as farmers in California’s Central Valley, heart of the state’s agricultural industry. During the post-World War II era of the late 1940’s, Rick’s grandfather started a feed store, Western Grain & Milling, still owned and operated by the family. At that time Ralston Purina was paying farmers to raise pigs, chickens (with eggs), and turkeys, not only to create a market for their feed, but also generate food for an expanding population. Rick’s father began to raise turkeys in 1954 for the Thanksgiving market, with the birds sold to an outsider processor.

Mary met Rick Pitman while they were both attending Cal Poly University. Rick was an agricultural business management student; Mary (not from a farm family) was studying child development, later receiving an Elementary Teaching Credential from Fresno State. Rick graduated in 1972, joining the family’s flourishing turkey business. A year later, the couple married, with Mary acquiring both a husband and her future.

In 1998, Rick took a huge risk and invested in 5,000 free-range turkeys to raise them the way his father did, with plenty of room to roam outside, with a vegetarian diet, and without food preservatives or additives of any kind.  He named them after Mary.

Mary wound up with a job, answering the Turkey Hot Line on many Thanksgivings. “It was valuable experience,” she said.  “I listened and learned from the ground up what our customers wanted, and what their concerns were. I built personal relationships one at a time… and I also learned a lot about our competitors.”

“Some girls get diamonds,” Rick said.  “My wife got turkeys named after her.”

* * *

All this changed in 2002 when the company processing the Pitman’s turkeys informed the family that they wanted to raise their own turkeys, thus controlling the market themselves. The family had the birds; but lacked a processing plant, the markets and distribution system. The Pitman Family business was on the verge of going under. While it was raising some chickens, the business was largely seasonal and focused on turkeys.

With the innocence and clear vision emanating from a child that sometimes mystifies parents, son David, 22 years old, and just out of college, had the solution. “Just go get a processing plant.”

And that’s precisely what they did.

After months of scouring the region for a suitable plant, father and son located equipment to build a sophisticated, modern processing operation from a Canadian company downsizing its operations.  They simply disassembled what they didn’t need and shipped the rest to California. A local building suddenly became available and the family went to work, upgrading the facility and installing the technology that allowed for the implementation of an “Air Chilled” method of processing. The Pitman Family entered into a new era.

There was also another major shift in play.  Mary had long suffered from severe food allergies, with her body experiencing adverse reactions to foods containing sugars, preservatives and food additives.  She was determined to “build a better bird.”

“The decision not to do business with us opened the door to produce the purest form of poultry,” said Mary.  “We started to breed a different kind of bird, eliminating the antibiotics, preservatives and hormones. We built ranches to give our poultry room to roam around.  We wanted not only to change our business, but the way our poultry was produced.”

“When we made the decision to go it alone, we accepted that there were different types of customers and different types of markets.  We have transitioned our product lines into one segment of the market; others have remained in their own market segments.  There’s a place for all of us.

“It was actually a fortuitous turn for us,” Mary continued. “We had been supplying turkeys to larger companies that specified how the birds were to be raised, what they were to be fed, and when they would be sent to market. We could now raise and process chickens, ducks, geese, and other varieties of poultry, and do it our way.”

* * *

Chickens may look the same without their feathers, but there is a world of difference once you get beyond the “costuming.”  We continued on to a second ranch housing Mary’s Pasture Raised Bronze Chickens where small trailers provide protection for the chickens who are free to roam around the pasture, perch on ladders, and take food and water when they prefer.

David explained that the difference between the white feathered, Ross Free-Range Chicken and the Bronze Pasture Raised can be traced to both breed and the manner in which they are raised. The Bronze bird is descended from the famous French Rhode Island chicken, (and with a similar taste profile), each bird ranges in size from 2 ½ to 5 ½ pounds and are somewhat leaner, with 17% less breast meat. (Male and female breeders were initially flown in from France every three months.) Strong enough to live outside and withstand the Fresno summer heat, the Rhode Island-type chickens are now bred in the company’s hatchery. Once the birds are mature enough to live outside, they are transferred to trailers where they are moved to a different pasture every three days to allow the bird fresh grass from which to feed.  With a slower growth cycle, taking up to 10-12 weeks to mature, its taste reflects both its lineage and its environment. The price, at roughly $3.99 per pound retail, also reflects a special bird. David told us that this chicken is the fastest-growing of the company’s products and that consumer demand is high.

“A lot of little things add up to get the full flavor of the bird,” Mary tells us. “We feed them a vegetarian diet with organic feed from our mill. Our birds are antibiotic free. We use no preservatives. We raise either Free Range or Pasture Raised birds, without added hormones.  And, we give them space.”

“We have been asked why not all of our birds are organic,” Mary continued. “We raise as many as we can, but not everyone wants or is willing to pay for their poultry to be organic. We do have farms that are certified organic. We are now waiting for the pasture birds to be certified organic. That should be in a few weeks. USDA regulations are rigorous; the kind of vegetable feed we use is also scarce and expensive. We’re moving in the right direction and we will keep moving.”

It was time to visit the Pitman’s “Air Chilled” processing plant, a system akin to the overhead mechanized clothing retrieval system used by many laundries. Each bird is hung individually and continually blasted with cold air after processing, inhibiting the likelihood of bacteria, as opposed to the conventional method of soaking batches of birds in cold water, inviting the possibility of cross-contamination. 90% of the chicken processed each day is shipped out that night in the company’s own trucks.  Mary’s name is on every product shipped; the family photo graces every package.

As for the future, Mary reflected about the challenges.

“Natural disasters have affected our corn stock and fuel.  This will continue to affect the way we do business and our costs,” she said. “Technology changes are constant.  The need to keep up is daunting.  We are re-investing continually. That’s the way we have always been…”

She paused, then continued.

“Society is changing the way we eat.  We are in an enlightened food period now and the demand for products like ours is high. Others are already following our lead. This means more competition, but if it means better food for our global community and better health for its population, it’s a good thing.”