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A Wild Goose Chase

A chicken farmer hoped to find financial independence in ethical foie gras. Things got weird.

On a cold, rainy afternoon last fall, Brandon Chonko showed me how to herd a gaggle of geese.

The lesson came at the end of a long day spent building a new fence on the western side of his thirty-acre enterprise, Grassroots Farms, two hundred miles southeast of Atlanta. I had tried to help, but Chonko is used to doing all of the work himself. So, while he wrenched tight the wires and steadied the posts in the tall grass, I stood around, useless, and my attention wandered to a flock of white in the distance.

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"I think the geese are in the road, Brandon," I said.

"Got dang geese," he said, standing up from a crouch and tossing down his tools into the high weeds.

From the western pasture, which sits on a modest rise, we could see the rest of Chonko's farm. A row of hoop houses made from cattle panel and tarp divides the two main pastures. On this side, laying ducks and chickens pecked around a cockeyed coop that looked to be made of old pallet wood. On the eastern side, sheep grazed on a long flat pasture among more flocks of ducks and chickens. Off to the north, hogs wallowed in the mud. Chonko looked toward his single-wide trailer, which sits outside his fence along a road that runs the southern length of the property. The geese were in the front yard.

Walking over toward the single-wide, he retraced the steps that had led to their escape. The gaggle of geese had wandered out of an open gate (my fault) and gravitated to a clump of pear trees along the road. At the sight of Chonko, the geese lifted their enormous orange beaks toward the sky, letting out the sound of drunk trumpet players in a jazz ensemble. I later learned that geese make this sound whenever anyone comes near — they seem to be suspicious of people, perhaps justifiably so. When the commotion was over, they returned to their feast of fallen, overripe pears.

"Dang geese have been pulling shit like this for months," Chonko said.

Not long after this gaggle had arrived at the farm, they started pecking holes into the sacks of feed meant for Chonko's ducks. He moved the feed bags out of their reach, so the gaggle turned their attention to his chicken brooders — the warm hoop houses where baby chicks are raised — and discovered holes just large enough to slide in their long necks to reach the feed. Apparently, these geese had no qualms about stealing food from babies.

As he listed off his geese troubles, Chonko did his best to sound annoyed, but their appetites obviously pleased him. As farm animals typically are, these geese were unwittingly part of a plan. Chonko intended to slaughter them in December for the most valuable and controversial product a poultry farmer can produce: foie gras. Considering the enormous amount of feed required to produce that engorged fatty liver, their unstoppable appetites were, if anything, a good sign.

Of course, foie gras wasn't going to happen if a truck ran the geese over in the road. Chonko walked around behind the flock, positioning the geese between himself and the open gate, and stood with his arms spread out like wings. The geese began to nervously trumpet and waddle away from him, veering near the farm's gate. Chonko flapped his left arm and the geese waddled to the right. He flapped his right arm and the flock swerved left. He steered the geese just like this, a flap of the hand here, a flap of the hand there, until they made their way back to a grove of trees well inside the main gate.

I stood back, watching this unreal scene: a flock of white geese being led from behind by a human man, the strangest bird of them all. Chonko doesn't look like your standard picture-book farmer. He usually wears a short beard, a long ponytail, sunglasses, baggy clothes, and Crocs sandals with socks. With his clothes damp from the day's rain, he looked more like someone who had just spent the weekend at Bonnaroo than the owner of one of the South's most respected pastured poultry farms. Maybe it's the way he looks, or maybe it's the way he has with birds, but his friends like to call him Chicken Jesus.

In June of 2014, Chonko brought twenty Emden goslings — the breed almost exclusively used for meat in the United States — to his farm to raise for foie gras. It was a pointedly small flock, just large enough for Chonko to find out if he was capable of the act that makes foie gras both controversial and possible: gavage.

Gavage, otherwise known as force-feeding or cramming or gorging, is the process by which foie gras is generally made. It calls for a farmer to literally funnel large quantities of corn down the neck of a goose or duck, thus engorging the reserves of fat in the bird's liver to a massive degree, resulting in an organ five or six times its natural size. That's a foie gras (literally a "fat liver") and it is entirely possible that no food has inspired more controversy, more enmity, more collective handwringing than this enlarged organ. Gavage has been banned (and occasionally unbanned) in more than a dozen countries throughout the world. Chefs have been threatened with death for serving foie gras. In the United States, only a handful of farms are willing to produce it, which seems kind of understandable: to so many people, the product is synonymous with torture. Why would any farmer want to get involved in all that?

Chonko is relatively new to farming — he started Grassroots Farms in 2010, after losing his construction business to the recession — but he approached the challenge with a homesteader's enthusiastic independence, building his operation out of scrap wood and sweat. Five years later, his farm brings to mind either the simplicity of pre-war agriculture or a folk-art installation, depending on what day you visit. However it appears, Chonko himself is simply focused on raising animals on pasture, mostly chickens and ducks but also sheep, turkeys, hogs, and quail, depending on the time of year. When a mutual friend told me that Chonko intended to raise some geese for foie gras, I was surprised. Compared to the quagmire of complicated ethics at conventional poultry farms, Grassroots Farms is basically a paradise. Why would he try his hand at the most ethically fraught farming imaginable?

"You have to look at it like a journey," he told me, when I called to ask. "It's like an adventure, man."

In the course of our conversation, I almost forgot we were talking about foie gras. Chonko made the experiment sound simple, even kind of fun. Yeah, he'd bought some geese for foie gras, but they were going to live a good life, grazing out on his pastures for six months while they grew and fattened. Then for last two weeks of their life, he'd build a pen — not too big and not too small — and feed them with a funnel a couple of times a day.

Like any well-plotted adventure, he entered it with some contingency plans. "Here's the catch," he told me of his strategy for the two weeks of gavage. "If I start doing this thing and it's bad, like it seems like the geese are getting hurt or I'm not comfortable with it then, man — it's over. I shut it down and I just have Christmas geese to sell. On the other hand, if I feel good about the process and it works, then I have Christmas geese and foie gras to sell."

I wondered aloud if he would really want a reporter around for this. I mentioned that I knew of a foie gras farm in Tennessee that basically avoided all possible attention or coverage, a farm whose very existence seemed closer to a rumor than a reality. (I tried to contact them for this story. Unsurprisingly, I got no response.) Chonko insisted that he wanted the opposite, that he welcomed outside eyes. He told me that he'd be inviting some of the chefs who buy from him to come see the gavage and maybe even help with the slaughter, and that he would be happy to have a reporter come to watch. To his mind, my presence would be like an audit, proof that there would be no reason for anyone to be unsure about the process.

His confidence in all of this seemed to be bolstered by a video he'd seen online, which he later showed to me. In it, a French woman enters a stone barn that seems ancient, much older than her. She sits on a wooden chair in a fenced-in pen of about two dozen ducks, who seem to know the drill. They waddle into a corner of the pen and she closes them in with a light wooden fence. Then, one by one, she takes each bird by the neck, slides the funnel in its beak and down its throat, and releases a load of corn. She rubs the duck on the neck gently while the corn goes down, removes the funnel, and then the bird waddles off. That's it. The whole process is over in seconds. I wondered if it could it really be that simple: she makes gavage look more like a momentary inconvenience than like torture.

Chonko and I had been talking about his foie gras plans for a good half hour when he interrupted me to say, "I mean, it's not like I've ever had the stuff."

"Wait," I said. "You've never tasted foie gras?"

"Naw, man," he said. "Have you? You know what the big deal is?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question. He was asking me, the reporter who was supposed to be interviewing him, to help him understand why foie gras mattered. I didn't know where to start.

Foie gras is often described as rich, and in that one word lie many words: a wealth of flavor, a luxuriance of texture, an abundance of fat. But foie gras is also the other kind of rich: it is money and power. It's the food of pharaohs and emperors and kings, served at feasts for the powerful, raised by peasants and slaves. The flavor is actually quite bitter, the sharp iron of offal hidden deep within robes of fat.

Funny to think that this is all, in a way, the goose's fault. Among birds, geese are uniquely capable of storing fat in their livers, a physiological quirk that allows them to take on the challenge of long-haul migratory flight. Were the geese not suited to such fat storage, the Egyptians would probably not have started force-feeding them sometime in the third millennium BCE. Were the results of that gavage not delicious, an important man named Ty, who was probably in charge of agricultural production for the Pharaohs sometime during the fifth Egyptian dynasty, would not have decorated his burial tomb with elaborate visual instructions for gavage.

While the Egyptian illustrations make no specific mention of the resulting fatty liver, the history of foie gras is generally agreed to begin there. The definitive literature, notably The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro, and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's elegant foie gras chapter in A History of Food, make specific emphasis of this grand history. We've been cramming geese for almost five thousand years now. It is a practice that has lasted as long as the pyramids at Giza, a story older than Abraham and Isaac.

The history of foie gras is rich, too. We know that fattened geese were presented to the King of Sparta as as gift from the Egyptians. Cato the Elder gives us the first written instructions for gavage in De Agri Cultura. Horace makes note of "the liver of a white goose fattened on rich figs" at an elaborate dinner party in his Satires. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia praises the delicacy of fattened goose liver made larger still by a soak in honeyed milk. The teenage emperor Elagabalus, fond of wild parties and well-endowed prostitutes, is said to have fed the delicacy to his dogs.

This is not to say the history is without gaps. For much of the middle ages, these colorful anecdotes of decadent foie gras consumption fade away. Specific dates and facts are scarce, though the broad historical outline is generally agreed upon. Without the demands of Egyptian or Roman empires, the Jewish people who once labored as slaves for those pharaohs and emperors kept the practice of gavage alive as they moved throughout Europe. The practice of cooking with poultry fat, rather than unkosher animal fats like lard, may have encouraged the tradition.

It wasn't until the excesses of eighteenth century France that foie gras arrives as we recognize today: pâtés, terrines, Strasbourg goose. In 1788, Louis XVI famously exchanged an estate in Picardy for a single pâté de foie gras. Five years later, he was deposed and executed, but chef Jean-Piere Clause, the man who prepared that pâté, suffered a better fate. He settled in Strasbourg, opened a shop, and his famous dish became known the world over.

After almost five thousand years of gavage, the curious twist in the foie gras story happened only in the second half of twentieth century. As the methods of industry have been applied to agriculture and large-scale efficiency has become the brass ring, meat has become cheap, plentiful, and in its production, more cruel. The same thing may be said of foie gras. It was once a food only for emperors, but its decadence has lately been somewhat democratized. Slow-growing geese have been largely forsaken by farmers in favor of much faster-growing ducks, whose fattened livers are a comparable, cheaper-to-produce product. By 2011, the annual worldwide production of goose and duck foie gras reached 25,000 tons. The upshot is more access to foie gras, less of a precious halo around the product, and lower prices. If you want to pick up a foie gras milkshake in Atlanta today, it'll run you about eight bucks. If you want a foie gras donut in Brooklyn, your tab will be closer to eleven.

When I arrived to meet Chonko's gaggle of geese back in the fall, I found him spreading rye seed across a brown patch of soil where a few hundred ducks had been a week prior. His herd of sheep were grazing in a pasture of high grass and the chickens were pecking through a low patch where the sheep had previously grazed. This is the basic cycle for any farmer who raises animals on pasture. The big animals eat the tall grass, the small animals follow behind, and when the grass finally runs out, it's the farmer's turn to spread some seed to help the cycle begin again.

Every other Sunday, Chonko arrives at his farm around midnight and starts crating birds for slaughter. After a few hours, when his trailer is filled with a few hundred ducks and chickens, he starts the long drive to a slaughterhouse outside of Charleston, South Carolina. This work begins at midnight for two reasons: the birds are calmer and easier to crate at night, and the slaughterhouse opens at seven a.m. If he's first in line to unload his birds and everything else goes to schedule, Chonko can expect to be home around noon, twelve hours after he started.

That's just the start of the week. After that, he has the regular routines of feeding and watering, special deliveries to chefs who need extra attention, fixing whatever happens to break that day, picking up freshly hatched chicks, and on and on. Very little of his day, if any, involves just admiring those birds in the pasture.

By Chonko's account, 2014 was the best year he's had as a farmer. His distributor, Inland Seafood, helped expand his reach to a circuit of restaurants in Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, and even as far away as Nashville. Though he's growing a presence at farmers markets in Georgia, ninety percent of his birds are sold to restaurants owned by a laundry list of the South's best known chefs: Hugh Acheson, Sean Brock, Annie Quatrano, Ford Fry. He is, by most measures, a success.

Watching Chonko in the field, though, puts that work in perspective. Success for him means that he managed to move his wife and two sons out of that single-wide trailer on the farm and into a house in town before the arrival of their third child. His narrow profit margin is maintained by the fact that he is the farm's only full-time employee. He has largely avoided the debt cycle that ensnares so many small farms, but only because he farms on rented land.

Unlike conventional chicken houses, where a combination of engineered genetics and cramped conditions basically guarantees big birds, raising chickens on pasture means Chonko has less certainty about the final weight of his flocks before they go to slaughter. Add hatchery and slaughterhouse fees to the costs of feed, gas, and other overhead, and it isn't hard to see how a flock of small chickens can mean barely breaking even on two months of labor. "You do it wrong — and believe me, I have — you bleed money," he said.

Keeping the margins up means getting ahead, and getting ahead for Chonko means always having a side project, a second work cycle outside of the regular business of chickens and ducks. That can mean raising Thanksgiving turkeys or spring lambs. Chonko is a dreamer, though, and he talks just as often about loftier ideas: converting the trailer on his property to an egg-candling station, raising the funds for a local slaughterhouse, opening a whole-hog barbecue pit that smokes only pigs from his farm.

Less than a year ago, Chonko took out a loan to buy a new property, thirty acres about an hour away from his current location. It was a first for him, going into debt to own land. The property hasn't been cleared for pasture yet, but when it's ready, it will double the size of his current operation. He told me he wants to plant fruit trees, probably Satsuma oranges. At some point, he's going to have to figure out a good way to pay back that loan, and as it happens, free-range geese are the perfect animals to keep a fruit grove clean, to eat the weeds and the fallen fruit. The profit margin on foie gras could be a clear, fast path to eliminating his debt.

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Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee.


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