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With increased interest in heritage breed poultry, the American Poultry Association (APA) is stepping up to promote standard breeds. The American Poultry Association Flock Certification Program, revived in 2014 after being abandoned in the 1950s, will certify consumer chicken and other poultry with the APA’s imprimatur.
Those who are producing meat and eggs from their flocks can meet APA standards and use that to sell their products. With a label saying that their meat and eggs come from APA-Certified flocks, they can set a premium price for their superior products.
It’s a way for producers to cover the higher costs of raising heritage breed chickens. It can also help educate consumers about heritage breeds. It gives chickens back their most important job: providing meat and eggs.
“We have come to grips with how we will inspect for market quality and how the flock matches the standard,” said Dave Anderson, APA president.
What “Standard” Means
The American Poultry Association was formed back in 1873, and the first written Standard of Excellence (it’s now called the Standard of Perfection) was published in 1874. Poultry shows were popular, and winning was important to marketing all the producers’ products: breeding chickens, hatching eggs, and newly hatched chicks. The objective of the Standard was to “standardize the varieties of domestic fowl so that a fair decision could be made as to which qualities marked prize winners,” the current Standard says.
The Standard was written to improve the quality, uniformity, and marketability of poultry flocks. Over the years, its emphasis changed to focus on showing poultry, but economic value has remained significant. The Standard still lists Economic Qualities in its breed descriptions. Breeds developed because they had a use, such as meat quality, more eggs, or adaptation to a particular climate.
“Standard” is the operant word, meaning breeds that have been documented and officially recognized. Heritage, historic, traditional, antique, heirloom, and other words are descriptive, but their meanings vary slightly and can be stretched and distorted to cover anything. “Standard” is a word with a defined meaning: Only breeds that were recognized and included in the Standard before 1952 can qualify.
Not every chicken with a Standard name will make a good, productive flock. Hatchery stock may have unacceptable defects. Birds bred for exhibition may have lost their productivity. Chickens are more than pretty feathers.
“They need to have good muscle development, fertility, and egg production,” said Frank Reese whose Barred Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, Columbian Wyandotte, and White Cornish flocks have received certification. His Bronze, Bourbon Red, White Holland, and Narragansett turkey flocks are also certified. “This program should help people improve quality and production of these birds.”
Getting American Poultry Association Certified
To issue the certification, APA-qualified judges come to the farm to inspect flocks with reference to the APA-written Standard of Perfection.
They are not only there to inspect. They can also offer advice on breeding and husbandry to improve and strengthen the flock. They can direct the flock owner on selecting which birds to breed.
Definition and Labeling
Reese, in cooperation with the Livestock Conservancy and others, has developed a Heritage Breed definition that relies on the American Poultry Association Standard. His label has been approved by the USDA and goes on each bird packaged and sold.
Two other poultry producers have gotten their flocks certified: Greenfire Farms in Florida for their Black Copper Marans and Light Sussex; and Old Time Farm in Pennsylvania for Partridge Chantecler and Bronze Turkeys.
Shelley Oswald of Old Time Farm in Pennsylvania got her birds certified to provide as much information as possible to her customers. She also raises grass-fed beef from Milking Devon cattle and makes maple syrup. She was frustrated by the confusion of labeling claims.
“American Milking Devon are registered cattle, so the consumer knows what that means,” she said. “But with poultry, the only way to verify the breed is if they are inspected.”
FSIS issued guidelines for labelling in 2016, requiring producers to document claims. The guidelines accept third party certification such as that offered by the APA.
“I got the certification because it was what I had to do to be authentic,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the birds are perfect, but that they represent the breed are supposed to represent. It’s not a stamp of approval.”
She sells her chickens at the farmers’ market for $8 a pound, with more demand than she can supply. Telling the story is important to educate her customers and justify the higher price.
“I explain that these chickens are a rare breed, raised for show and for production,” she said. “I see the light go on in their eyes: This is what I think of when I think of when I’m buying a farm-raised chicken.”
She plans to scale up. She got a license to process her poultry on farm in 2017. In 2018, she received a $15,000 USDA grant to promote her products. That has helped her hire a marketing consultant to educate the public about the historic relevance of Standard breeds and the importance of breed conservation to preserve traits.
She finds the public unprepared for a range of products, such as schmaltz, but eager to learn. Explaining definitions clearly is a struggle, as industrial poultry companies try to muscle in on the market. Words with vague definitions can be used to mislead consumers.
“We need to tell the public that chickens and turkeys must be historical, authentic, and pure-bred, to carry that label,” she said. “They have to be true representations of a historically accurate bird. Hybrids do not qualify. You need to have documentation for it. That’s why you need to have certification to verify that you have those birds.”
Slow-growing heritage breeds that are active on range have more flavor but require different cooking methods to make them tender. Slow cooking at low heat works. Oswald has had success with Instant Pots, multi-use programmable cookers. She plans to get her meat and eggs tested for nutritional content, to see how they compare to industrial chicken.
Oswald, who sells her certified Bronze Turkey poults, also sells breeding stock, hatching eggs and chicks.
“It’s all about integrity,” she said. “The only way consumers are going to get what they think they are getting is if it is verified in some way.”
Greenfire Farms is targeting a different market with its Black Copper Marans and Light Sussex. Paul Bradshaw is selling certified day-old chicks to hobbyists. He went to France in 2017 to bring back exhibition quality Black Copper Marans. Marans lay dark brown eggs.
He’s getting a premium price for them, $49 a chick. Hatcheries selling BC Marans chicks that do not have that certification sell for $10-$12. So far, he’s the only one selling Marans chicks from a certified flock.
“I’d recommend it to anyone who sells chicks,” he said. “It’s worth doing. The backyard hobbyist who is only going to have six birds is willing to pay the price.”
As Oswald has experienced, he can sell as many as he can produce. The demand is greater than he can supply.
What It Takes to Get Certified With The American Poultry Association
The requirements are listed, along with other information, on the American Poultry Association website:
- Applicant/flock owner must be a member in good standing of the APA.
- Registration form, accompanied by the appropriate fees, must be filed with the Secretary of the APA.
- Flock must be inspected, on the premises, by an APA-approved flock inspector. All licensed judges are eligible to be inspectors of flocks that they are licensed to judge.
- Flocks must conform to the requirements set forth in the latest version of the APA Standard of Perfection for the breed/variety under certification including weight.
- Inspector must visually inspect all birds in the flock and physically inspect a minimum of 20% of the flock.
- Flock shall contain no more than 2% disqualifications that affect market value (i.e. deformed back, crooked keel, etc.).
- Flock shall contain no more than 10% visible disqualifications that do not affect market value (i.e. stubs, foreign comb, side sprigs, etc.).
- Flock shall appear healthy with no visibly ill specimens.
Certifications are good for three years.
Cover photo: Partridge Chantecler rooster by Shelley Oswald
Originally published in the August/September 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.