Chicken farming hobby highlights changing industry

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Sonja Solomonson on her farm near Mason City, IL on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org

Sonja Solomonson is in the minority of farmers who produce a breed of chicken and other poultry known as heritage breeds, whose genetics have been around since at least the mid 20th century.

She lives on a small farm with a small flock outside a small town, Mason City, Illinois.

Her competitors raise thousands of birds and contract with one of the major agribusiness companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Koch Foods. These companies produce 61% of the almost nine billion chickens raised in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This doesn’t leave much room for alternative methods of farming birds, Solomonson said.

On Solomonson’s farm, her flocks of chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys are all heritage breeds, which are animals found historically in Illinois, and free range. She has a total of 300 birds. They stay outside and go to their coops when they feel like it and Solomonson feeds them three times a day, she said.

Sonja Solomonson's farm near Mason City, IL on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The farm has remained in Solomonson family for generations. It is the same place her grandfather was born. Now, the poultry farm is her retirement plan. She started almost six years ago when she left her job as a speech pathologist near Indianapolis and moved to Illinois.

Solomonson said she was always interested in heritage poultry because she wanted a self-sustaining flock.

Modern breeds of chickens require artificial insemination to reproduce. The genetics of these breeds are often owned by big businesses as well.

Sonja Solomonson's farm near Mason City, IL on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

“They are pretty much controlled by business and if you are like me, you don’t like that,” Solomonson said.

There isn’t much interest in heritage breeds, Solomonson said because they are more time consuming and take longer to reach maturity.

Solomonson’s birds are slaughtered at five or six months at the earliest. Some live on her farm for years. For comparison, Cornish Cross Broiler Meat Chicken is the most commonly grown chicken and they take six weeks to reach slaughter weight.

And this is exactly what Solomonson doesn’t want on her farm.

“I think the Cornish Cross is an abomination, yes its efficient, but it loses its humanity,” she said. “If they can't live a natural life, I don't want to get involved.”

Sonja Solomonson's farm near Mason City, IL on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

“I want to produce birds for my own stock, there is pride in that,” she said. “I love what I'm doing, and I love the breeds.”

But, it’s a trade-off to raise her birds this way, Solomonson said.

“I haven’t been off this farm for more than a day trip in six years,” she said. “I have to feed my birds and make sure they don’t get eaten by hawks.”

She has tried to market her produce around the area but has not found a market to sell it. She does most of her selling through the Macomb Food Co-op.

Her meat sells there although slowly, she said. And she said she’d produce more birds if she knew they would sell. She thinks the problem is finding the right audience to buy the birds. It’s a different kind of person in a different kind of market, she said.

Sonja Solomonson's farm near Mason City, IL on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

“You don’t have too many people who are well educated,” she said. And “you don’t have people who care what they eat.”

Solomonson said she doesn’t mind eating the animals she spends so much time with.

“I don’t feel guilty, and I know they have wonderful lives,” she said.

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org