Meet the man fighting to save our country’s rarest chickens

Big Chicken.

After WWII, demand for chicken in the United States soared. A three-year breeding contest sought the “Chicken of Tomorrow,” aiming to meet the changing appetites of post-war America, and created the modern chicken that now dominates the commercial market. The contest nearly eliminated purebred chickens that previously dominated farmyards. But in one corner of Kansas, one man is keeping their legacy alive. The following is an excerpt from Maryn McKenna’s Big Chicken.

MARQUETTE, KANSAS, population about 640, is a place where no one ends up by accident. It lies almost dead center in the state, surrounded by flat plains, gentle hills, and trees that were planted 100 years ago to break the biting wind that whips across the grasses. No one drives through; Denver is six hours to the west and Kansas City three hours east, but Interstate 70, which links them, lies 30 miles north. No one can ride through either—the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads bracket it north and south—and no one who cared to try would float far on the nearby Smoky Hill River, so oxbowed it looks like a toddler’s scribble. To get to Marquette requires intention, and to get to Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, which lies just outside it, requires daylight and a paper map and the trust of a child in a fairy tale: beyond the edges of cities, beyond the forests, beyond the hills, lies a treasure.

Frank Reese, Good Shepherd’s owner and sole employee, chose the location 25 years ago to safeguard a treasure that had been entrusted to him: dozens of varieties of chickens and turkeys that were once the backbone of small farms—birds that could feed themselves outdoors, find their own places to roost, and fight off disease without assistance. The battered tractors, the porch of the weathered Victorian farmhouse, and the ground outside the metal-sided barns are covered with them: black and white, russet and bronze, barred and streaked in silver and cream, flapping up to fence rails, skittering under the farm truck, and pressing around Reese’s ankles as he wades through.

big chicken
Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna is on sale now. National Geographic

“Rhode Island Red,” Reese counted off as chickens burbled past his feet. “Blue Andalusian. Silver-Laced Wyandotte. White-Laced Red Cornish. New Hampshire. Black Spanish. Single-Comb Ancona. Rose-Comb White Leghorn.” He paused, and seemed to be counting. “There might be just 50 of those left in the world.”

Reese, who is almost 70, is a lean man, with corded muscles from heaving heavy bales into trucks and big hands chapped red. His head is big too, round and wide above his ears, tapering to a full mustache over a narrow jaw. He wears his hair cropped to fuzz; overhis heavy hooded jacket, it gives him a monkish air. He spotted a black and white hensheltering under a feeder, fluffed-out feathers striated like ripples on a pond, and grinned. It transformed him. “She’s a Barred Plymouth Rock,” he said, scooping her into the crook of his arm. “I’ve had them 52 years.”

Every bird on Reese’s parcel of prairie was hatched there, from an egg that was laid there, from parents that were hatched and raised there before them. The farm is a living archive of history and genetics, preserved because the birds bring him joy—and also because he believes, in defiance of the trends of decades, that the poultry industry erred in sacrificing them, and will someday need them again.

Reese was born the year of the first Chicken of Tomorrow contest, to a family that landed in Pennsylvania in 1680, migrated through Illinois, and arrived in Kansas just after the Civil War, chasing a federal promise that anyone who was willing to work the land could have 160 acres to homestead for free. The Reeses had been farmers before they came west, and they were farmers after, down to Frank’s parents. His folks ran a mixed property— beef and dairy cattle, hogs, and chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese—and as the third of four children, too small to milk cows or venture safely into the sow pens, Frank was given the birds as his chores. He fed the chickens and collected eggs, and he herded the turkeys from the barn out into the fields, where they pecked for insects and flapped onto fence posts and tree branches.

From his earliest memories, Reese was transfixed by them. In first grade, told to write an essay about a pet, he penned “Me and My Turkeys.” When his father took their Herefords to the American Royal, a giant late-autumn livestock show in Kansas City, he would sneak away to the poultry section, tugging at the elbows of the breeders who ruled over the barns. His family were locally famous for their Barred Rocks, and by age seven, he was winning ribbons at county fairs for chickens he had bred.

The Plains states were turkey country—so much so that farmers used to herd their turkeys to distant markets, thousands at a time, on cattle drive–like “turkey walks”—and the fairs were the turkey breeders’ kingdom. Winning offered more than bragging rights; selling a champion that carried the best characteristics of a bloodline could earn more than a thousand dollars. Exactly what constituted a champion had been codified almost 100 years earlier in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection, the bible of unique qualities that distinguished one breed from another. “Standard” sounds like faint praise, but to the poultry old guard, “standard-bred” was the highest approbation. The men and a few women who ruled the turkey pavilions of the state fair had been earning it since before Reese was born.

“There weren’t youth shows back then,” he recalled. “Whether you were 14 or 84, you competed in the same division. So I would be lucky if I got fifth place, because the big guys always beat me: Rolla Henry, who bred Bronze turkeys, and Norman Kardosh, who bred Narragansetts. Well, I got tired of that, so when I was 14 I took one of our trucks and I drove myself 50 miles over to Abilene to see Sadie Lloyd, who had been breeding turkeys so long, she had showed birds at fairs with those men’s mothers. I told her, ‘Sadie, I want to beat Norman and Rolla,’ and she cackled and said, ‘We’ll show them.’ And that year I won.”

The breeders were a prickly, exacting group: bachelors and spinsters, for the most part, people who poured the love and attention they would have given spouses and children into preserving poultry bloodlines that were already vanishing. They must have seen something of themselves in the avid, jug-eared farm kid, and they began teaching him how to tell an average bird from one worthy of carrying a variety into another generation. Developing a eye for color and stature was essential; some aspects of the standards depended on measurement—the length of a bird’s neck, the weight of an egg—but most judgments of conformance relied on familiarity and skill.

Sensing Reese’s promise, Lloyd sold him some of her Bourbon Reds, a mahogany turkey with white primary feathers and a white ruff of tail. Golda Miller sent him her Jersey Giants, meat chickens that dated back to the 1880s and could grow to 13 pounds. Ralph Sturgeon, a legendary breeder, gave him the Barred Plymouth Rocks that Reese still treasures. Kardosh, who lived hours away in tiny Alton, Kansas, became his chief mentor, schooling him in the history of the eight turkey lines recognized in the Standard.

But Reese didn’t envision a life as a poultry hermit. He left Kansas, first for the army and then for nursing school, where he became a registered nurse anesthetist. He settled outside San Antonio, and though he kept his chickens and turkeys going, they were a private pleasure, not a cause. In the late 1980s, his mother asked him to return to Kansas; she wanted him nearby, and the small local hospital needed an anesthetist. Reese loaded a van with his chickens and turkeys and drove 700 miles north to his former, and future, life. Local wisdom said the best site for a turkey farm was on a slope, to let waste drain away, and not too close to water, because predators would come to drink. He found the 160-acre farm that became Good Shepherd near the top of a low hill that slopes two miles down to the Smoky Hill River, between Marquette to the west and the Swedish-settled town of Lindsborg to the east. Not long after, a friend called him. Tommy Reece, no relation, was a small-scale chicken raiser too, in the remote hill country west of San Antonio, and for years his passion had been Indian Game Cornish, a compact, muscular bird with tortoiseshell feathers, related to the birds Vantress used to make his Cornish Cross. Reece was dying. “‘He said to me, ‘Save my Cornish,’ and I promised to try,” Reese told me. “He sent me two dozen eggs, and out of the two dozen, three hatched.”

So many of Reese’s mentors were gone. Kardosh, who trained him, was the last. In 2003, Kardosh summoned his former acolyte to a central Kansas hospital. He was 76 and knew he had not long left. He bequeathed his turkey bloodlines to Frank, begging him to keep them going. Crying too, Reese promised that he would be their caretaker and not let the birds die out.

Without ever intending to, Reese had become the guardian of dozens of historic lines of poultry, birds the industry considered so irrelevant that no one else noticed when they were about to be lost. In the past, there would have been a generation of farmers holding the bloodlines of poultry in trust. Now it seemed possible that there would be only him.

REESE’S CHICKENS AND TURKEYS ought to be valuable. They preserve the genetic sources of sturdy immune systems that require no antibiotics, balanced bodies that allow them to run and flap, instincts that allow them to find their own food and teach their chicks to do the same. They are utterly unlike commercial broilers, and also unlike the hybrid Broad-Breasted White turkey, developed in the 1960s and now the staple of every commercial turkey company, which is so unbalanced by its overgrown breast muscles that it cannot get into position to mate and has to be artificially inseminated.

They grow slowly, as did all birds before the hybrids arrived. Reese’s chickens take 16 weeks to reach what would be slaughter weight, compared to six weeks for modern broilers. The turkeys take six months and would live to five years if allowed. But to keep the bloodlines true, it is necessary to keep breeding the birds, and their long lives and ability to mate naturally left Frank with an ever-expanding flock. He began selling eggs for hatching and chicks and turkey poults for other farmers to raise, but he was strict in how he sent them out: never by mail, only to people who would come to the farm or pay a driver to deliver them.

He realized that to keep his farm going, he would have to sell birds for meat, but that was more complicated than it sounded. The Chicken of Tomorrow contest had not only pushed the industry toward confinable, reproducible hybrids; it also taught consumers, over decades, to prefer the birds it created, with big wings and breasts that are fine-textured and pale. The meat of Reese’s pecking, perching birds reflects their long, exercise-filled lives: It is lean, dark, and deep flavored—something a chef might showcase for adventurous customers but not packaged supermarket fare. Even getting his birds to chefs or supermarkets posed problems. The geography that keeps Good Shepherd safe from development worked against him: Restaurants prefer to receive chicken fresh, but the kinds of restaurants that could persuade customers to try a heritage bird were so far away that Reese would have to ship his birds frozen. That was if he could get the birds killed and processed at all. He needed a slaughterhouse that was close by and USDA certified, with equipment that would fit his nonstandard birds and a processing schedule that could accept small lots arriving irregularly. Yet small, independent slaughterhouses have been shutting across the United States, the aftereffect of the consolidation that subsumed small farms into corporations.

Rarity, distance, and difficult processing all funneled down to price: Reese had to make a case that his birds were worth what he would need to charge. He found online merchants to help him. For the turkeys, there was Heritage Foods USA, a spin-off of the American arm of the international slow food movement, which enshrines threatened heritage varieties in an “Ark of Taste.” Emmer & Co., a start-up focused on creating a market for old breeds, began marketing his chickens. For once-a-year turkeys, consumers were willing to spend more than $10 per pound, even though that pushed the price of a holiday bird into hundreds of dollars. But chicken met price resistance at half of that. “The industry can produce a baby turkey for 90 cents, maybe a dollar,” Reese told me. “It costs me seven to eight dollars to produce the same bird.” The turkeys subsidized his chickens. He estimated he would need to sell 1,500 chickens every month to break even, but when I met him in 2013, he was managing to sell barely 2,700 a year.

The irony was that Reese would prefer never to kill a bird at all. He did it to thin and perfect the flock and because it was his only way to raise the funds he needed to keep Good Shepherd Ranch viable. On a day that I visited him, he sat on the concrete pad beneath a feed bin and watched his birds mill around him. A cold wind was rising, but the setting sun glinted on their bronze feathers and bright eyes. “I would love to stop killing them,” he said, softly. “And just have a preserve, and save them.”

Excerpted from Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna; published by National Geographic Partners on September 12th, 2017.