Frank Reese is a farmer in Kansas who raises breeds of chicken that are dying out, despite their hardiness and tastiness — because they're of no interest to the poultry industry. But he says that we're going to need these breeds in the future, partly because they may be able to cope better with climate change.
In this video by famed science journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, we meet Reese and his birds, many of whom are the last of their kind.
Writes McKenna in a companion article on National Geographic:
It's not just the business structure that becomes industrialized through the decades: The raw material, chicken, does too. That wide variety of genetics, represented by all those breeds raised by different farmers, gets progressively narrowed down and improved upon. Generation by generation, birds were redesigned to fit the evolving model of poultry production: stocky, fast-growing, indolent, and efficient at converting feed to flesh. Today, most of the chickens we eat belong to only a few proprietary breeds produced by only a few companies. Compared to what it was, the gene pool of chicken is shallow.
Here and there, though, stubborn holdouts are attempting to preserve that almost-lost variety. The 6-minute video below comes from a trip I took to meet one such holdout: Frank Reese, proprietor of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in tiny Lindsborg, Kansas. Reese raises only birds that were rejected by the poultry industry decades ago as unfit to contribute to industrial production. The birds are feisty and amusing, and their names are poetic: Wyandotte, Minorca, Ancona, Spanish. But Reese doesn't labor by himself in the middle of nowhere just so he can look back into chicken's past. He breeds and raises and slaughters and sells these birds, over and over again, because he believes that their unique characteristics deserve stewardship and protection—and that someday, large-scale chicken production will want those genetics again.
It's easy to imagine Reese as the loner hero in a pre-apocalyptic story — he's one of the few people on Earth who sees the factory farm endtimes coming, and tries to save the world by keeping the genetic diversity of our food supply alive. It's no exaggeration to say that it's people like Reese who may save us from the coming famine as habitats change and our current mass produced chicken bio-products begin to face difficulties surviving.
Read McKenna's article, and find out more about her series of articles on the state of agriculture, at National Geographic.