By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jody Horton
Jane Levan always said she’d leave Austin when the last goat left Brodie Lane. That day came in 1999, when she realized that South Austin was no longer the semirural oasis she and her husband Terry had discovered in the mid-1980s. The couple bought a 20-acre piece of property in Lexington with plenty of room for their horses to roam, and embraced country life anew.
The Levans knew it would be a stretch to sustain themselves financially growing vegetables on their relatively small parcel of land, so they bought a few laying hens and meat birds for their own use and continued to commute to Austin to run the small mom-and-pop computer business Terry started in 1988. Still, they hoped for a way to be able to quit the commute and work full time at the new homestead.
An epiphany came one afternoon when Jane opened a copy of Smithsonian magazine and read an article about Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms in Virginia. In the article, Salatin described his theory for a more intensive method of pasture-raising animals, using techniques that enrich the land and allow the animals freedom to engage in natural behaviors. “We never wanted to get into business with the big poultry producers,” Jane says. “Those companies require you to get into incredible debt; you eventually basically become sharecroppers in order to maintain the equipment they require. We also knew we couldn’t afford to raise animals using traditional methods on our own. Salatin offered an alternative. So we went to Kim Alexander [another local poultry farmer who follows Salatin’s methods] and asked him to teach us. With the support of our community, we were able to work with what we had—a beautiful, fertile piece of land and existing buildings on the property.”
Soon, the Levans’ 15 chickens became 150, then 300, then 600, until the flock grew to the almost 10,000 they now raise each year. The chickens are pastured in large movable pens that allow them to scratch in the dirt out in the fresh air. When the weather is cold, tarps recycled from old billboards enclose the pens to provide warmth and shelter.
Committed to keeping the animals on the farm for their whole lives—through slaughter and processing—the Levans invested $15,000 in a processing facility that surpasses state health department regulations. With the closest chicken-processing facility an almost five-hour trip from the farm, the Levans knew they had little chance of making a go of their new operation without the investment. They hope to one day be able to process birds for other small operators in the area.
Meanwhile, their labor-intensive operation requires long workdays. The Cornish Cross chickens they raise are work-intensive birds—they grow quickly on less feed than other breeds, but they’re also delicate and require a lot of care and upkeep. During a recent cold spell, Jane and Terry took turns moving propane heaters from pen to pen throughout the night to keep the birds alive. Many a night, Terry sleeps outside in his pickup truck, watching for feral dogs, raccoons, hogs or other predators that can take out an entire flock in one night. The Levans enjoy the rhythm of their day, however. “I don’t expect not to work hard,” says Jane. “The Quakers have a saying that I love: ‘Hands to work; hearts to God.’ Really, all work is meditation,” she adds.
Several years of 16-hour days began to take a toll, however, so the Levans recently added another set of hands to their operation: Mike Reyes, a young Giddings man who’d been making the long commute to work for a big-name corporate chicken operation before he left to work for the Levans. The stories he tells of his previous job are deeply disturbing—filth, low pay, substandard treatment where both workers and animals were treated as machines and commodities rather than living creatures. When asked why he would make such a long drive to work in such dismal conditions, he squints into the distance. “There just aren’t any jobs in Lee County,” he says. Then his eyes light up as he adds, “Except this one! ”
The Levans hope to help change the job front in Lee County. They see a future where small, independently run poultry operations return to the area. “We’d love to see a processing facility in Lexington,” says Terry. “We buy our feed locally,” adds Jane. “No, it’s not certified organic, but if we can make a go of our operation and grow it, we can convince the guy who grows our feed to make the switch. That’s how you grow community,” she says.
Community is of the utmost importance in the Levans’ world. “I know the people I sell to—I know their faces,” says Jane. “If I sold a tainted product, I wouldn’t be able to look them in the eye. I can’t get their kids sick. I don’t look at the people we sell to as consumers. I look at them as friends. "
As easy as it would be to sell all of their chickens wholesale, there’s a reason the Levans go to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market every Saturday. “If I sell my birds at the market, I can make sure [they’re] always available and affordable for the working mom. I like that people have the convenience of buying our chickens in the local grocery, and of course I love to see it on local menus, but I feel really strongly that it needs to be accessible even to people who might be struggling financially. Otherwise, what’s the point? Good food shouldn’t just be available to wealthy people.”
The Levans’ dog Winnie wanders into the farmhouse kitchen. Jane scratches her behind the ears. “When we first got birds on the property, Winnie came in one night with something in her mouth,” Jane says. “It was a chick that had escaped, and she brought it in, ever so gently, and dropped it at my feet.” She pauses to think. “That’s my motto: ‘Do no harm.’ Doing things ourselves means we don’t have to be involved in the exploitation of other people, of the land or of other living creatures.”