The Naked Neck chickens who roam Crystal Lake Farms are a novelty to the Arkansas agricultural landscape today. Certified at Step 4, this free-range farm, operated by Blake Evans, thrives on a genuine enthusiasm to raise a unique bird and a sincere commitment to improving animal well-being. Blake is inspired by exploring opportunities to improve the lives of his chickens each and every day.
“Animal welfare has always been high on my radar, so I’ve always looked for new methods and systems to enhance the lives of our chickens. Working with chickens dates back several generations in our family. My grandfather started working with chickens at the local co-op in Decatur, Arkansas, when he was a teenager. He did not like the chicks he was getting and reselling to the farmers. He observed a lot of things he thought he could improve upon to make a better chicken. From the age of about 13, I started working summers for my grandfather’s company. My grandfather began in the era of the great depression with almost nothing to his name but motivation and hard work. He identified a need that was not being met and fulfilled it. That is entrepreneurship. His story is inspiring, and that made it an easy decision for me to join the team.
Ten years ago, I connected with our geneticist, Richard Udale, to discuss chicken breed choices for our family business. One of the bigger challenges in commercial genetics has been the drive for superior growth and yield. This emphasis, over the past 60 years, has pushed chickens to a point where their body weight struggles to be supported by the frame or their organs. Something needed to change.
A year later, we began working with the Naked Neck chicken breed. One of the main reasons for choosing the Naked Neck was based on the bird’s tolerance for temperature extremes, especially heat. Arkansas is a state that has all four seasons, most notably hot summers. When your focus is pasture chickens, you really need to think outside the box and find the right bird to raise in our climate.
When I learned of G.A.P.’s 5-Step Program, I was excited something existed to differentiate, validate, and give farmers a seat at the table through the multi-stakeholder approach. The 5-Step program is one of the few animal welfare programs that require independent third party audits, and the rating scale helps consumers see the different types of production systems used to raise birds. We developed our farm plan around achieving and maintaining a Step 4. We constantly monitor our performance and challenge ourselves to continue to improve the living environment for the birds. The program really keeps you in check, it’s not just a badge.
We’ve have been Step 4 certified for more than three years. We have three farms that are within one mile of each other. One of our farms has a hatchery and our office, one is dedicated to our breeding, and the other for our pasture poultry. We were lucky that we had ample acreage and significant tree cover on our farm which is not the case for most chicken farms. The birds also have access to houses with curtain sidewalls that allow sunlight and fresh air to enter. We think these elements are absolutely essential for us to provide a good life for our birds. When this is done, the combination of the G.A.P. 4 program and our breed help ensure we have the best quality from the start. We don’t need to add a pound of cure like flavors, marination or air chilling.
Making the necessary adjustments to our system so that we could become certified under the 5-Step Program made us want to make changes for the good of our birds. Animal welfare has always been important to me. With G.A.P., we will continue to focus on improving and building on our commitment to providing bird care at the highest level.”