WALLOWA — Want some tasty, well-fed, healthy-to-eat, local chicken? Rabbit meat? The Hawkins Sisters Ranch in Wallowa is the place to go.
The chickens and rabbits there are fed no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but only crops grown in Wallowa County fields, such as wheat and field peas, Mary Hawkins said. They’re given protein and minerals as supplement. There’s no corn or soy in their diet.
Hawkins said the taste of the meat they produce is superior to commercial chickens.
“They taste better,” she said. “They have better flavor, better texture and have more moisture. Also, the nutritional content is better.”
The Hawkins chickens are “beyond free range,” Mary said. “They’re fed outside each morning on pasture and allowed to roam.”
She called them “an alternative to commercial chickens. The things that are important are the local feed and pasture and that their waste is not a pollutant.” That waste becomes a useful compost when their manure is mixed with wood chip litter from Integrated Biomass Resources in Wallowa.
“It’s piled with straw and other waste to generate a fertility amendment ready for adjacent fields and local gardens,” she said. “It’s a way of adding value to an abundant wood product.”
Mary and her sisters Nora and Jenny grew up on the ranch that has been in the family for more than a century. The women are the fourth generation to grow up on the ranch and their kids will be the fifth.
In fact, the family presence in Wallowa County extends a couple generations prior to their great-grandfather as ancestor Henry Schaeffer and his father Samuel Schaeffer homesteaded in the area after crossing the country in the early 1870s. They worked as cattle ranchers and blacksmiths.
“We have so much love for this place and commitment to this ranch that was our great-grandad’s,” Nora said.
Mary has two children: James, 6, and Anna, 3. Nora’s daughter, Myrna, is 9 months and rode along in a backpack.
“It’s about our kids having the experience of growing up on the land like we did and learning to do chores,” Mary said.
The sisters noted that they’re also backcountry outfitters and Nora is a licensed midwife.
“This is a small ranch,” Mary said. “Our operation is not the primary income for the families, but it’s a way to stay involved in making food.”
The processing facility, which was set up in 2016, is licensed to process up to 20,000 birds a year. So far, they have done 5,000 to 6,000 a year, May through November. Currently, there are only 14 state-licensed poultry-processing facilities. The Hawkins ranch is the only one in eastern Oregon.
The ranch processes 150 to 200 pasture-raised, locally grown chickens two days a week. They’ll be harvesting birds for the first time this season this week.
The ranch also processes poultry and rabbits for others. Customers call ahead and bring their own birds or rabbits for processing at the ranch’s processing facility.
“More than half of what we do is people having their own chickens processed — extra roosters and backyard chickens — as well as turkeys and rabbits,” Mary said.
She showed 4-day-old Cornish cross chicks in a temperature-controlled hoop house where they’d stay until they were old enough to brave the elements and not fit through holes in the wire fence. The chicks are obtained from a farm outside Salem. She said they grow more slowly than at commercial operations, but the quality is better.
“When I raise them, I process them at 10 weeks,” she said. “The standard age of harvest commercially is 56 days.”
Nora oversees the meat rabbits raised on the ranch, mostly in “bunny barns,” as she called them. She raises New Zealand/Rex cross meat rabbits. They dress out at about 3 to 4 pounds each and sell for $6.75 a pound.
“It’s a historic self-sufficiency meat that lost popularity during World War II with the rise of the industrialized,” she said.
Containing many vitamins and minerals, rabbit meat is “a very healthy, whole protein,” she said.
Using the barns “lets them move around more than in hutches — and it’s easier,” Nora said.
She currently has two bucks and eight does. At present, the does have between them 40 young kits, most of which will be raised for meat. She does keep the bucks in hutches — lest they breed like rabbits or attack the others. She also has a few breeding rabbits for sale.
The meat produced at the Hawkins ranch can be purchased directly from the ranch. Mary said customers can call or email to reserve a case. Prices and cuts are available on their website.
Meat also will be available at Ruby Peak Naturals in Enterprise, and beginning Friday, June 5, through Genuine Wallowa County Provisions for home delivery or pick-up. Mary said she also plans to have her wares at the farmers market in Joseph three or four times this summer.
While their way of raising and processing poultry and rabbits for meat may be considered environmentally friendly, that’s not necessarily their first priority, Mary said.
“It’s more about contributing to the community,” she said.