When you think about local chicken, Dewberry Hills Farm might come to mind. And thanks to a recent expansion in their processing facility, their chicken is more familiar to customers at local grocery stores such as Wheatsville and at more than two dozen Central Texas restaurants. But this chicken farm isn’t what you might expect. Set on 20 acres of rolling hills in Lexington (about an hour east of Austin), this farm has grown, over the past eight years, to become more than just a place that raises and harvests chickens, but into an industry leader, demonstrating that small farms are still alive and well in an era dominated by large chicken-processing companies like Tyson. “We are an anomaly…we are a total anomaly in 2016,” says farm owner Terry Levan.
Terry and his wife, Jane, never intended to become chicken farmers. In fact, when the couple purchased the land in 1999, Terry was running a computer repair business. But his roots kept calling. “I grew up on a farm in northwestern Illinois,” he says. “We had cows and sheep, and we were a very involved 4-H family.
When I was a teenager, I ran about sixty head of sheep and thirty-five head of cattle, and my beef herd put me through college.” It wasn’t until reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about a poultry producer in Virginia, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, though, that a light bulb went off for Terry. “We thought we could raise some chickens,” he says. “We got 15 from a local feed store, and I eventually gave the meat to my computer customers and they would say, ‘That’s the best chicken I ever ate.’”
That first year, Terry harvested about 150 chickens; the next year it doubled. By 2008, the couple retired the computer repair business and took a run at making Dewberry Hills Farm a full-time chicken-processing farm. “We would sell the chicken at the farmers market at Sunset Valley. That gave us the exposure to the chefs walking around,” says Terry. “But when Beetnik Foods asked us to provide 400 chickens per week, we knew we had to find a way to double our production.”
Ramping up production with the current facilities wasn’t financially possible. Prior to Beetnik Foods calling, the couple had debated taking out a line of credit to build on to their facility, but every option would create financial setbacks for the business. Still, they knew the brooding house (which was a small shed) and the processing facility (equally as small) would never allow them to expand the way they envisioned. “But fifteen minutes after we took the call from Beetnik,” Terry says, “they called back saying they were willing to provide investment capital—and the big changes began.”
That investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars created 1,000 square feet of additional processing plant, 200 square feet of walk-in refrigerator space, freezers, upgraded processing equipment and a real 48,000-square-foot brooder house where 1,000 chickens can live. “They spend about three weeks in the brooder house,” Terry says. “And the next five weeks being real pasture-raised chickens eating bugs.”
Terry made the 35 tents that the pastured chickens call home. Inside, 100 chickens at a time forage and peck the fields. “We pick up and slide those tents each day so the chickens have fresh foliage, and so they’re not standing in their own waste,” says Terry. The chickens are hand-selected four days per week to be processed based on the size that a client requests—amounting to about 400 birds per day thanks to the improved facility space.
Terry says the next step in the process is one reason his birds taste so good. “We walk nine hundred feet,” he says. “Big commercial companies will transport their birds in trucks for twenty-four hours and that can put stress on the bird and tighten up their muscle fibers. And that changes the quality of the chicken.” The increase in production also resulted in the farm attaining USDA-inspected certification, because the meat is now shipped outside of Texas. That means an inspector has to be present during processing to look for health issues with the birds. “We also have a veterinarian on hand as a line inspector who looks at the final product. This really ups our quality assurance. But being a small farm, we’re in control of the product we give our customer and get to see our birds not just from the outside, but from the inside on a daily basis,” Terry says. The USDA title also opens up the door for other small, local farms to process their chickens at Dewberry instead of hauling them hundreds of miles away.
While the journey from processing a few dozen chickens a year to more than 2,000 pounds of chicken a week has been a challenge, Terry looks at it as a triumph over the big companies. “When I was a teenager, every town had a small processing plant—especially for red meat,” he says. “They’re all gone because the big processors have driven them out of business and hardly anyone does poultry except for the big companies. My farm was put together by a shoestring and it has been broken apart and put back together, and I’m still working harder than I have ever worked, but it is so rewarding.”
For more information, visit dhfarms.com or call 512-308-7706.
Postscript: This April, a massive thunderstorm devastated Dewberry Hills Farm just as it was beginning to recover from the tornado in December. Seventy-five mile an hour winds and torrential rain destroyed their movable chicken tents and flooded the pastures. Lighting strikes prevented the Levans from going out into the field during the storm and many of their birds drowned. Repairs and updates are needed: Mobile tents must be replaced with larger and heavier metal mobile coops that can withstand extreme wind gusts and rain-water collection gutters need to be installed on all new buildings to prevent pastures from flooding.
In addition to friends and family pitching in to help the Levans rebuild and recover, the community has kicked in, too. In May, Slow Food Austin dedicated proceeds from a happy hour at Olamaie, and in June a benefit was held at Springdale Farm. A gofundme account has also been set up. Find it at gofundme.com/22xr2rg
by Kate West // Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo