BY ALLIE HYMAS
“The humble hen can give us so much if we’re willing to give her just a little bit of space, respect and love,” Franchesca Duval says.
Space, respect and love are three values that characterize Alchemist Farms, a beyond-organic poultry hatchery in Sebastopol, California. “We are a humane hatchery,” Duval says.
Franchesca and her husband, Ryan, sell eggs and chicks from thirteen different breeds of chicken and two breeds of quail. Their pasture-based model does more than just produce beautiful chickens with unique egg colors; the Duvals are constantly tweaking their infrastructure, management and resource use to align with the values close to their hearts.
Compassion has not been an ancillary quality of Alchemist Farms — it has driven the Duvals and has informed both the big picture and day-to-day aspects of their business.
“It’s almost like chickens are perceived as if they’re produce — they’re so mistreated,” Franchesca says. “People want the cheap meat and the eggs; it’s such a staple. But most people have never seen the warehouses they’re in. It’s a really intense experience.”
Providing customers with healthy, top-quality chicken breeds and beautiful eggs is Alchemist’s mission.
“I believe there is a breed of chicken out there for every person — kind of like dog breeds, based on the personality they’re looking for and the size,” Duval says.
Alchemist even offers quail breeds for customers who live in smaller places but want the poultry experience.
On top of donating to 1% For the Planet, Children’s Eternal Rainforest and other local nonprofits, Alchemist Farm offers an inspiring example of how a heart-forward approach toward nurturing animals, the land and the community can also create a successful business.
“We’re so grateful to offer something different and show that it’s possible, not only on a small scale but also on a larger scale as well,” Duval says.
“I have always had chickens in my life,” Duval says. “Growing up I lived on a small piece of land in Santa Cruz, California — just under an acre.”
While her family didn’t have enough space for larger farm animals, they wanted to offer their children the experience of caring for animals. Enter Duval’s first flock of chickens.
“I would spend hours out there — listening to their conversations, trying to understand their language, watching them move — and it always stuck with me, having some kind of animal that I was taking care of,” she says.
Having grown up in Ohio, Ryan Duval was no stranger to agriculture. Franchesca says that when she and Ryan met and married, they knew they wanted to have a little farm with some chickens. “We didn’t know we were going to have so many chickens!”
While looking to place an order for their first chickens to raise as a family, Franchesca and Ryan learned about how typical hatcheries dispose of their male chicks.
“It just crushed me,” Franchesca says. “I felt in my heart that I couldn’t support that, so we began to research other ways we could get chicks that would be cruelty free.”
In their quest to find this alternative, the Duvals amassed a collection of incubators, chick supplies and quality breeding stock. “One thing lead to another, and I started hatching for myself,” she says. A community formed around Alchemist Farm’s burgeoning hatchery as others connected with the Duvals’ vision to raise chickens humanely without the added waste of destroying male chicks.
“It started with a vision to treat the animals better, and from then I got really excited about egg colors. I started picking up different breeds and researching different fun egg colors from other genetics,” she says.
Duval’s rigorous research of chicken genetics led to Alchemist’s original line of chicken breeds, carefully selected for health on the pasture, temperament and delightful egg colors.
“When people see what is possible in the world of chicken egg colors, it stops them in their tracks and really helps them think about their food sources,” she says. “There is a whole world of biodiversity beyond white pearl leghorn eggs — our eggs tell that tale!”
A Heart-Forward Approach
The Duvals strive to constantly improve their animal welfare practices and environmental footprint.
“Every time we would tackle some kind of issue or ‘problem’ it was an opportunity to dig deep and find solutions,” she says.
Rather than follow the mainstream industry’s quick fixes and product-based problem solving, the Duvals prefer to allow their holistic, integrative value system and prayer to guide them toward solutions.
“We feel we have been guided down this path to keep asking how can we treat the people, the animals and the planet as best as possible. Prayer and listening to our hearts has been at the forefront of every single business or farm decision we’ve made, and it hasn’t lead us astray,” she says.
The Duvals not only see their faith as a way of helping themselves feel guided towards solutions to their problems, but also as a way of challenging the status quo in their operation to move toward more conscientious practices.
“Something as simple as seeing our trash in a different light has caused us to ask ourselves, ‘Are we treating God’s creation and the planet well by making all this trash? And the answer was no,” she says.
Franchesca and Ryan believe that the suffering of people and animals in the poultry industry has come from humans trying to play God, rather than following the divine intelligence of animals living in nature.
“We need to slow things down and listen to the way things are in nature,” she says, “People are feeling that disconnect everywhere. We’re on our phones, we’re living surrounded by pavement, and we’re depressed and anxious. We need to get back to the rhythm of being close to nature, and that’s what’s so powerful and beautiful about raising chickens. It’s something that anyone can do.”
Regenerative Chicken Pasturing
Alchemist Farm operates with a pasture-based model, with all their breeding stock spending most of their time outdoors. Duval says, “None of our chickens are in breeding cages. In normal hatcheries, they’re all in warehouses.”
Using a multi-paddock system, the Duvals have dialed in a permaculture-inspired way of housing their birds and utilizing the waste.
“All of our coops are raised off of the ground for predator protection. We clean all the bedding once a week, adding to our compost piles and turning for a year’s time until it’s all cured and good. Then we add it to our vegetable garden.”
In 2019, the Duvals set up a rotational pasture with automatic doors, allowing the chickens to transition between pastures seamlessly and without stress. Duval says, “When we remediate a pasture, instead of tilling, we’re cover cropping with rye, barley and clover, putting straw over it to protect it and trying to build up as opposed to tilling down.”
Alchemist Farm’s automated system makes pasturing chickens much easier and potentially scaleable. “I think this could be applied to a much larger operation, if they were so inclined. We’re a small farm, but also like a test farm showing that this model is totally possible: we can pull chickens out of the warehouses and get them onto pasture where they belong.”
The high nitrogen in chicken droppings presents a unique benefit and challenge to managing pasture forage species. “Everyone wants these nitrogen fixers and we need nitrogen eaters!” Duval says, “We’re working on finding the right mix to improve the soil and handle this excess we have so that we’re not creating runoff. It’s a fun conundrum to play with, and this is the year we’re really tinkering with it.”
Duval is eager to promote the idea of regenerative agriculture through what she and Ryan do at Alchemist Farms.
“People come up to me and say, ‘You’re into sustainable living, right?’ Sustainable to me means staying at a baseline, and we need to be not just sustaining where we are but regenerating and giving back.”
To Duval, regenerative agriculture is about inputting resources back into systems that support the local ecology. Multi-paddock grazing, composting and cover cropping are not just about pasture management, but also protecting the water table that contributes to the aquifer: a major concern for Californians.
“Climate instability is going to be part of our future, so while we’re figuring out what to do with all the carbon, we need to have climate-resilient pastures and animals,” Duval says. “We can do that through that idea of regenerative agriculture and giving back what we can.”
The regenerative model also informs her desire to contribute to her community.
“I try to think about how we can give back as much as possible to our community, to the animals and to our customers, while still being able to keep our farm operational,” Duval says. “That generosity of heart and spirit isn’t us giving anything up; it’s gaining a very rich and incredible lifestyle.”
Alchemist Farm has transitioned to zero waste in the last few years.
“When my eyes were opened to our waste and the sheer amount we were putting in the trash each week — from our packaging and our shipping to various farm things like plastic waterers that would break, and we just wouldn’t think about it — we’d throw it away,” she says. “It would get rolled to the curb and disappear in a neat and tidy way. But when I [recognized] that I was filling the earth God has given us with trash — what kind of a thanks is that for this incredible planet?”
In the process of thoughtfully sourcing biodegradable shipping and packaging materials, the team at Alchemist Farms invited their customer base and social media followers to pursue a zero waste lifestyle with them.
“We started looking at wastefulness in all areas of our life. Because once you do that, it changes your mindset so much on how you treat the planet, the animals and your family,” she says.
Alchemist offers completely compostable shipping materials for their chick and fertilized egg deliveries — no small feat for sending living mail across the country. On the rest of the farm, the conversion to less wasteful materials also offered the benefit of more streamlined animal care chores and maintenance.
“With all of our equipment for the birds, we’ve focused on saving up for systems that will be in place for many years,” she says. “We used to just go for a quick, cheap fix because it was easy to just go to the feed store and buy one of those huge waterers that so easily get damaged and crack.”
Duval points out that it’s easy to get caught up in a reactionary cycle in keeping up with animal chores. Putting in more efficient systems for feeding and watering is more than just workload reduction, Duval say; it’s about creating enough margin to see what your land needs.
“We use 55-gallon drum rain barrels with PVC pipe and nipple attachments,” she says. “The chickens drink from those, which keeps it clean. Also, you can open the tops and do rain water catchment with them.”
Duval says anyone can build a watering system like theirs for less cost than purchasing and replacing plastic waterers. In their grid of pasture paddocks, the Duvals place their waterer in the corner so the pipes with nipples can service multiple separated groups at once.
“We are so fortunate to be a part of a micro-grid in Sonoma County that is connected to geothermal energy,” she says. “We pay more each month for clean, renewable energy, but to us it feels like a cost worth paying.”
Duval loves sharing about the many power grids across the country that have access to renewable energy.
“With just a quick phone call and a little bit more each month, you can get renewable energy,” she says. “For us it’s more because we’re running incubators and all sorts of things, but it’s exciting to get clean energy into your house. Most people don’t know about it!”
The Duvals also plan to incorporate solar energy onto their farm in 2021.
Using Male Chicks
Unlike most hatcheries, Alchemist keeps male chicks for a special program.
“We knew that we were going to be having a lot of male chicks from the breeds that we could guarantee as female. And of those breeds, customers prefer the females. In larger scale hatcheries, they will either incinerate the males or grind them alive, and we weren’t going to do that.”
In their endeavor to live with maximum kindness and minimal wastefulness, the Duvals came up with a use for their male chick surplus.
“We wanted to take responsibility for the life that we created, so we decided if that life could go toward feeding someone, it would be better than killing upon hatch,” she says. “Here in Northern California we’re in wine country, and there are a lot of transitory farm worker immigrants passing through or living for a short time working on these wineries. Most of the workers are from Guatemala or Mexico: cultures that have a thorough knowledge of how to work with rooster meat. Each week we have different families lined up that take home a box of baby chicks. They feed them their food scraps until they’re grown up and processed. They’re able to get some protein for their families that they might not otherwise be able to afford. It’s tackling a lot of issues at once.”
The Duvals take seriously their desire to not hide or shy away from the struggle or suffering going on around them: taking a compassionate approach toward their excess of male chicks allows them to address another justice issue in their community.
“We try to have a permaculture mindset of stacking functions on top of each other,” she says.
Regenerative Ag is for Everyone
“Anyone can do what we’re doing,” Duval says. “We started from scratch; we truly had nothing and built it from the ground up, with a lot of sweat equity”
Duval encourages new farmers to not be intimidated by operations that are further along in the process of dialing in their values in their business.
“Just start with one manageable change at a time until you have it down, and then move on to the next change,” she says. “You’ll be more encouraged, you’ll develop more perseverance and then you can make it happen!”
To Franchesca and Ryan, living in alignment with the goals of regenerative agriculture is about building a life living out the great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Duval says her neighbors are, “the natural world, the soil, the plants, the animals, the humans we never see but whose lives are greatly impacted by our choices and actions,” and through Alchemist Farm her family works to continuously implement regenerative principles to better serve her neighbors.
“We’re regenerating all of it: our land, ourselves, our families, our faith.”
Learn more about Alchemist Farm and Franchesca and Ryan Duval by visiting their website at alchemistfarm.com and follow them on Instagram at @alchemistfarm.