Poultry system targeted by firm

Slow-grow birds are focus of plan

A new food company with ties to Northwest Arkansas said it wants to set itself apart by changing the chicken farming system and raising a better bird.

Matthew Wadiak, who helped found the meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron, said he plans to improve the poultry system by producing heirloom, pasture-raised, slow-grow birds in the Ozarks. The system will also aim to mitigate climate change through its farm practices, he said.

The company, Cooks Venture, is marketing itself as a food firm rooted in "regenerative agriculture and transparency."

"I think Americans got addicted to cheap chicken, and that's not necessarily healthy" for consumers or the growers involved, Wadiak said about industry practices. Wadiak is the founder and chief executive officer of Cooks Venture.

During his time at Blue Apron, Wadiak said, he learned from hundreds of farmers, ranchers and scientists about the nation's food systems.

"There is no longer the option to continue the status quo of industrial agriculture and combat climate change," Wadiak said.

Cooks Venture entered the chicken business by purchasing Crystal Lake Farms, a defunct company once focused on free-range chickens that was developed by Blake Evans, the grandson of the late poultry magnate Lloyd Peterson. Wadiak said he'd known Evans for the past five years or so and that they shared an interest that's arguably difficult to find in the poultry industry -- to raise a product that makes them proud.

Cooks Venture chicken will sell for about $5 per pound, more than double the grocery store price of chicken.

Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said large companies are having talks about "slow grow" chickens out of pressure from animal-advocacy groups that challenge the quick-growth process.

"In that sense, there is potential market demand," he said. But after surveying thousands of people to see what they thought about chickens on the market, Lusk found that "most have next to no idea what slow-grow chicken means."

"People don't have a strong preference because they have so little knowledge of what it means," or they don't know how broilers are grown and processed, Lusk said.

Opponents to slow-grow chicken argue that the model is unsustainable because birds that live longer require more feed and water and produce more waste.

However, researchers from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, say there may be something to the slow-grow movement. They say the chicken industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the consequences of birds that grow rapidly, The Wall Street Journal reported recently. Some of the consequences of quick-growth systems, which take 47 days to raise 6.3-pound birds, include squishy fillets known as "spaghetti meat" because they pull apart easily, as well as tough, leathery ones known as "woody breast," The Journal reported.

After free-range chicken producer Crystal Lake closed in the summer of 2018, Wadiak agreed to acquire it a few months ago for an undisclosed "eight-figure investment," a spokesman with Cooks Venture said in an email Monday.

Approximately 70 structures on more than 800 acres of Northwest Arkansas farmland were purchased, including 57 poultry houses. The company also acquired a special chicken breed developed in part by Peterson, who founded Peterson Farms in the 1950s. Two processing plants in Oklahoma were also acquired, according to the deal, with one capable of air-chilling and processing 700,000 chickens per week. Evans, Wadiak and a host of scientists and chicken industry veterans make up Cooks Venture's executive team.

One aspect that sets Cooks Venture apart from a Tyson, Simmons or George's chicken is that it does not participate in a poultry system that pits growers against each other for payment, often called the tournament system. Instead, Wadiak said, "we'll be paying double to growers" compared with the average base pay and will reward them for making modifications to their operations.

The situation is similar to that of fair-trade coffee growers. "Some people are only going to buy the cheapest bags of coffee; others are going to happily spend $5 for fair trade coffee sources, because they believe they are voting with their pocketbook," said Martin Thoma, the principal of marketing agency Thoma Thoma in Little Rock.

Dozens of growers in the region have already committed to raising birds for Cooks Venture, which claims its broiler chickens grow 30 percent to 40 percent slower than modern breeds. Once the business is established, Wadiak said, Cooks Venturewants to report on its carbon sequestration efforts, among other efforts that benefit the environment.

"We really wanted the people with us behind a movement," Wadiak said. "There isn't a single grocery site in the country where literally everything you buy is held to the same standard. ... We're really focused on doing one thing, the right way, at scale."

Plans to expand beyond poultry to improve food systems related to cattle, pigs, grains, vegetables and more are in the works.

Business on 03/19/2019

CORRECTION: Cooks Venture is capable of processing 700,000 chickens a week at its Oklahoma plant. An incorrect number, provided by Cooks Venture, was included in an earlier version of this article.