Black Silkies & Bobwhite Quail – Abra Morawiec of Feisty Acres Farm

Last week we took a trip to visit Abra Morawiec at Feisty Acres Farm. Feisty Acres raises certified organic pastured game birds on 7 acres tucked away on a large strip of North Fork farm country running down Manor Lane in Jamesport. Abra runs the farm with her boyfriend Chris and together they manage every aspect of the business.

So tell me about the Feisty Acres in a nutshell.

FA: I am a tenant here, and I also work two days a week here [at Biophilia Organic Farm], but this is where I operate Feisty Acres farm. We’re a certified organic operation. We raise gamebirds including quail, guinea hen, partridge, turkeys – the only poultry that we raise are silky chickens, and we raise and release Northern Bobwhite Quail to help re-populate the natural population.

I’ve heard a bit about bobwhite quail, weren’t they endangered or close to it?

FA: What’s interesting about the bobwhite quail is that they are native all up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States. Here on Long Island there was actually a subspecies of bobwhite that existed here, but naturalists now think that it’s extinct. There are bobwhite that do live here now but they are in very small numbers and have been released by people such as myself. The biggest endangerment to the bobwhite quail population is lack of habitat due to overdevelopment. There have been studies that actually show the decline in the bobwhite population against an increase in tick borne illnesses, there is a direct correlation.

So how do you go about repopulating them?

FA: We use a piece of equipment called a surrogator. It feeds, heats, and waters the bobwhites with minimum contact. I basically go in there once a week, I adjust the heat (I usually turn it down), I adjust the height of the water, I make sure that their feed is being deposited, and that’s really it.

And that way they don’t think they’re you’re their mother?

FA: Exactly. This way they don’t imprint upon me. There’s about 36 in the surrogator right now. This is a group of quail that Girl Scout troop 1971 from Mattituck actually hatched. I lent them my farm incubator and they got bobwhite quail eggs, and I basically gave them a quick tutorial on how to use the incubator. There are only a couple of places in the country really where you can get eggs. These ones are from a hatchery in Maine.

We hitched a ride with Abra in her truck as she made the rounds on Feisty Acres Farm, feeding the birds and checking in on the surrogator filled with chirping baby bobwhite quails. First stop is the southern end of the farm where the turkeys are being kept.

FA: So here is the deal. Phil Barbato has fourteen acres. I lease seven from him. He grows vegetables and then I run my birds over his fallow fields. And then I also have them on his fallow pastures and stuff like that. During the fall I have the majority of my quail and guinea hens and partridge in the orchard. The turkeys have been out over here for most of the year. These are a very special kind of turkey, they’re called Bourbon Reds.

Bourbon reds? Are they like the turkeys that are on a whiskey bottle?

FA: No that’s wild turkey, but nice try

Should they be on a whiskey bottle?

FA: They should be, they’re pretty badass. These guys are a heritage breed that originated in the 1800s in Bourbon County Kentucky which is where they got their name. They have a storied history in the United States. They were recognized by an official breed by the American Poultry Association in 1909. These were THE BIRDS that you bred or that you raised when you were a farmer raising turkeys for meat. These guys kind of fell out of favor when the broad breasted whites and the broad breasted bronzes were developed in the 1940s and ‘50s. Those were the commercial hybrid turkeys. Those were the ones who have a lot of breast meat, but because they have so much breast meat they have a really hard time like walking around and stuff. They can’t even mate naturally, so every single one, and there’s millions of them in the United States – had to be artificially inseminated in order breed.

Ew.

FA: Yeah! Not cool right? Gross. So a couple more things about these guys. There’s only about 4-7,000 breeding pairs left in the United States, that’s it. I’ve had these particular birds since the end of April. They take 7-8 months to reach market weight. They’ll be anywhere from 8-25 lbs, the hens make up the lower end of the scale the toms make up the higher end of the scale. Your commercial hybrid turkey only takes 4 months to grow.

What do you feed them?

FA: So we raise everybody on pasture until it is depleted, we really concentrate on flavoring our birds. We like to make sure that their pasture is of optimal quality. We give them vegetable scraps every couple of days, from Biophelia Organic Farm and from Golden Earthworm Organic farm in south Jamesport. I’m going to give them some tomatoes right now. They also love watermelon. Watermelon, tomatoes, sweet corn. They love sweet corn oh my god.

They got a little bit of a sweet tooth huh.

FA: They do! They have great foraging ability, they’re very friendly, and I don’t know, they’re just great birds. They are easy to handle and beautiful, and they have very high disease resistance.

On the other side of the farm we find the orchard, which is dotted with game bird houses that shelter Abra’s guinea hens, partridges and quail. The portable shelters are rotated across the field to help fertilize the now harvested trees.

FA: So I move the birds either once a day or every two days. This is the orchard, this is Phil’s orchard of Biophilia Organic Farm. So when he finished harvesting everything in September, I moved all of my birds in here in order to fertilize his orchard. What we do is we run all of our houses down the rows, on the pasture and as close to the trees as possible to deposit fertilizer onto the ground and into the ground so that the orchard plants can actually benefit from it.

So you’re sort of working together symbiotically?

FA: Exactly.

What birds do you have in the orchard right now?

FA: These are young guinea hens, these guys are about 6 weeks old, they will be ready by Thanksgiving. And then we have the big guinea hens that will be ready by Monday. These are French Guinea hens, they’re usually around 3 pounds when they reach market weight, and they’re all dark meat. They are wonderful and delicious.

FA: We also have the Chukar Partridges. These guys take 4 months to grow, they’ll be ready by October. The checkers and the guineas are very, very skittish. Compared to them the quails are pretty chill.

Are these the same quails as those babies back at the barn?

FA: Yes. Those quail that you saw in the brooder, this is what they look like when they’re all grown up. These guys are goanna be processed on Monday. They don’t know. These guys are just chilling in the sun. Doing quail things. They’re very friendly.

What type of quail are they?

FA: These are Japanese quail, also known as Old World quail or Nile quail, this particular breed is called Jumbo Brown. At market weight these guys will be anywhere from 6 to 8 ounces each, and that’s really big for a quail. So they get to do quail things, they get to dust bathe.

I see that, what’s the deal with dustbathing?

FA: There’s a couple reasons as to why these guys dustbathe, number one is to soak up excess oil on their skin, number two is to protect against parasites like mites and stuff, and number three is because it’s like a social thing, they dustbathe together.

So do you sell mainly locally, what is your distribution like?

FA: We are in the Union Square farmers market so that’s been a really big outlet for us. Most people think were selling mainly restaurants? That’s not the case. We mostly sell to individuals and families and the demographics range from young to old, from American to Central and South American, European, people from Asia, people from Africa. I had a man from Nigeria the other day who specifically asked for fertilized quail eggs, because that’s what they eat in West Africa – they like them to be fertilized because they think they have an added nutritional value.

Raising game birds is really cool because you get to meet all sorts of people. Only here in America do we eat so much chicken. In other parts of the world they don’t eat as much chicken as we do. They eat guinea hen, they eat partridge, they eat quail.

Why do we eat so much chicken?

FA: Basically because of how our food system has been set up with farm subsidies. And also we developed hybrids of chicken that grow in 4-6 weeks instead months like wild chicken.

Speaking of chicken, everyone is talking about the black silkies right now.

FA: Here is the story behind the silkies, the silkies are a Chinese breed. They were originally bred to be companions, believe it or not.

Like pets?

FA: Yes. When they were being bred to be companions they wanted them to have soft feathers like fur. So as they bred these chickens to have softer and softer feathers a couple of things occurred. Number one, whatever gene affects the texture of their feathers also affected the color or the melanin of their skin. So after a couple dozen generations of breeding their skin turned black, totally black. Then a couple of more generations and they had 5 toes, chickens normally have 4 toes. But they are very, very cute. Because of the texture of their feathers they cannot fly, they are limited to the ground.

The feathers almost look like down.

FA: Yeah, want to touch one?

Absolutely.

FA: So these guys are actually my boyfriend’s idea to raise. Every year we like to add something new to our production. We started with quail in 2015 and that went over really great, and then last year I got a request for guinea hen and partridge, so we added those to the mix. Then we were getting a lot of request for turkeys, so we added those this year. The silkies were just a whim on Chris’ part. He originally did it because he wanted a silky pal. He wanted a pet right? So I said – well do you think our CSA members would like it and our customers would like it? And he said I bet they would because they have black skin and you know, the people who already buy stuff from us buy unusual products. So our first batch was a test batch of 50. They got processed in July, and we sold out in a week.

Didn’t Bon Appetite mag like repost you on Instagram?

FA: Saveur magazine. A lot of chefs picked them up, Taylor Knapp from Paw Paw picked them up. A couple weeks later there were black silkies in the basket on the Food Network show Chopped. I was like – Chris! You’re ahead of the trend baby, you did it! So we’re going to be raising a lot more of these guys in the future. Also the hens are really broody so they’ll sit on the eggs of other birds and raise them.

So where do all the birds stay in the winter?

FA: Usually we keep quail for eggs and guinea hens for eggs. They stay outside. The only time that we ever have to bring them inside is if we get four feet of snow and its negative 5 degrees for 2 weeks. If they need a heat lamp we give them a heat lamp but they’re far better equipped in dealing with cold weather than we will ever be.

They have feathers, we don’t. They put on extra fat in the fall in order to deal with the cold in the winter. They are animals and they are well adapted to living outside. I think that we forget that a lot because were so disconnected from our food source and how food is grown. Cows are outside year round. Sheep and goats are outside year round. The only time farmers usually ever bring in their livestock is if there is absolutely inclement weather that’s not good for the animals, and hard for the farmer to bring out food and water, but that’s it. Other than that they are pretty much outside year round.

And you guys are out here pretty much every day.

FA: Every day. 7 days a week 365 days a year. Chris and I haven’t taken a vacation since 2012.

Ouch

FA: Yeah, it’s ok, we like our life, and we don’t feel like we need an escape from it. When you feel like you don’t need an escape from your life, you don’t think about taking a vacation. When you just do chores in the morning and the evening and then you go home and just relax, spend time with each other, that’s vacation enough sometimes.

True

FA: If you choose to farm for a living, well it’s a hard life. You work every single day, you work seven days a week, especially if you own your own business. Sometimes it’s hard for family and friends to understand that because they want you to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, but the birds don’t care about that; if you are hungover or if it is Christmas, they still want to get fed and they still need water.

There is a lot of attention on farming now, the media makes it out to be this glamorous sort of career, and in a lot of ways it is – I mean you get to work outside, you’re physically fit most of the time, you eat what you grow. But it’s grueling, and the highs are very high and the lows are really, really low. I mean there could be a predator attack, or if there hasn’t been rain for weeks your crops can fail. You rely a lot upon Mother Nature, and unfortunately it’s completely out of your control.

Especially out here.

FA: Yes, but if your able to deal with all of those circumstances, and if you’re a good planner and you’re a glutton for punishment. If you are creative and self-motivated, you can really excel at being a farmer. But it’s really hard work, no matter what you do. I’m really fortunate where my boyfriend and I met farming. If you’re a single farmer and you date people who don’t farm they don’t understand that you can’t take a vacation. They don’t understand that you have to be at the farm every single day.

Just to kind of give you an idea, we have over 500 quail in the brooder. Between these guinea hens and those guinea hens we have 75, we have 103 partridge, and we have 50 silkies. Then we have 120 laying quail that lay eggs, and it’s just Chris and I and we do it all. We raise them, we care for them, we slaughter them, we package them, we sell them. We build the houses, we do the marketing, we do social media, we do the website – we do everything. This is our second full season. From last year to this year we had to double production, and next year were going to double production again.

But you’re enjoying what you do, and you’re doing well.

FA: We’re filling a niche in the market, and also land is so expensive here on long island, so in order to make an agricultural business work, you have to think about how to make the most amount of money per acre. And when you’re doing livestock you have to think small. There’s a reason why as to why there aren’t any beef farms out here. There aren’t any big dairy farms out here, because you need hundreds of acres, thousands of acres to make it work. Unfortunately we just don’t have that out here. So you have to think outside the box. That’s why someone like Taylor who is doing snails, in that little room, he’s got 15,000 snails in there. That’s how you have to think when you start a business when you’re on Long Island. Also you have to identify a really clear market. There’s already a bunch of vegetable farms out here, so if you open up a vegetable farm you have to set yourself apart. I always tell people too, make sure you apprentice on a farm, make sure you can handle the work. A lot of people start farms and don’t realize how hard it is. It seems simple from the outside, it’s not though.

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