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To hear Anna and Brent Wills tell their story, you’d think they were accidental farmers. And they kind of were. But 17 years later, after pouring their passion and dedication into raising layer chickens and heritage breed pastured poultry and pork at Bramble Hollow Farm, and being one of the original vendors of the Grandin Village Farmers Market, being farmers is very much a part of their identity.
After the couple wed in 2003, they started looking for their ideal place to settle, someplace to enjoy the outdoors, go hiking, and paddle on the James River.
“We never considered in our search that we’d be raising animals,” Anna says. “It wasn’t on our radar.”
“Well, apart from maybe a cow and backyard chickens,” Brent adds.
They settled on a 100-acre property in Montvale, Virginia. About 20 acres of that is cleared; the rest of the landscape is comprised of woods, steep ravines, and several winding creeks. The pair moved here in 2004, and in 2005, they got their own backyard flock of egg-laying chickens. When they saw the up-and-coming pasture-based poultry businesses thriving on the East Coast, they decided to try their hand at raising heritage breed chickens.
The couple started processing chickens the old-school way, hanging them on a clothesline one at a time, using a wood fire to heat the scald water, and plucking each bird by hand. In 2005, they upgraded to a better meat breed, invested in basic equipment, and raised more chickens for themselves and friends and family.
“That got the ball rolling and we started offering a few chickens and pork to the community,” Anna says. “Before you know it, we’re the largest poultry producer in Bedford County.”
But these chickens aren’t your average bird. Bramble Hollow Farm specializes in heritage breed chickens. Anna explains that, in the same way we talk about different kinds of tomatoes serving different purposes—slicer tomatoes, cherry tomatoes for snacking, plum tomatoes for sauces—different breeds of chicken have historically been suited to different culinary applications.
“The Delaware or New Hampshire was a good meat bird, a large roasting bird. Something smaller like Leghorn or smaller framed bird are good fryer chickens, good for making fried chicken,” Anna explains.
These heritage breed chickens take 12-14 weeks to get from chick to table; in the 1940’s, with the onset of industrial agriculture, chickens started being bred to be a larger breasted chicken, with more white meat, and white feathers. This breed, called a Cornish Cross, can go from chick to table in as little as six weeks and is what you find in most grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and many other restaurants, too. As a result, the Wills find that it’s important to educate customers on heritage breed birds.
“A heritage meat bird is not a big-breasted, white meat bird with short legs. It’s got long legs, is smaller breasted, and is more of a dark meat bird,” Anna says. “We also have to educate the customer on different cooking times and cooking temperature. It does really well when you brine it.”
Anna finds it helpful that there are chefs who are familiar with and seek out pasture-raised heritage poultry, and they count farm-to-table restaurants, such as The Well in Bedford and Local Roots and Bloom in Roanoke, as ardent supporters of their farm.
Anna and Brent’s son Jack is part of the family business too. He’s 13 years old, but he’s been in charge of managing the layer chicken operation since 2016, overseeing about 80 egg-laying chickens and managing the egg sales portion of the business. Running his own enterprise and learning about budgeting, supply and demand, and costing has provided Jack with a valuable business education that complements his home-schooling curriculum. To meet demand for farm fresh eggs when COVID-19 upended the food supply chain, Jack ramped up production to fulfill online ordering requests.
“We like to joke that Jack usually has more money in his checking account that Anna and I do,” says Brent.
Bramble Hollow Farm has gleaned a loyal following for orders of its eggs and pasture-raised poultry and pork (placed through LEAP’s online marketplace). It’s no surprise then, that customers noticed when the egg labels changed. After multiple requests, the Wills brought back the original label, which features Jack’s hand-drawn label depicting him juggling eggs.
Next, the couple is finalizing construction of an on-site commercial kitchen to produce new offerings such as chicken sausage and chicken bone broth. The broth gets its rich flavor and nutrient-dense properties from chicken parts such as backbones, joints, and feet; Anna lauds the broth’s healing powers dubbing it “broth therapy” (more on that in a moment). The broth gets its savory depth from the addition of locally grown shiitake mushrooms and herbs, which are sourced from fellow farmer-members of the cooperative Edible Goose Creek. Anna is looking forward to developing seasonal bone broth varieties highlighting their own farm-raised produce and foraged edibles, such as wild greens and roots for fall/winter.
What’s your favorite part about working with chickens?
Brent: One of the coolest things is that they’re easy to manage, they’re small, you don’t have to have a lot of infrastructure, and they’re good for folks who are beginning to provide food for themselves. They’re great for kids, fun to manage, and can help soils, too—chicken manure is one of highest-nutrient based manures out there.
Are you sick of eating chicken yet?
Anna: No, we’re not yet sick of eating chicken yet, thankfully. We’re able to rotate with pork and beef and we have a high tunnel where we grow veggies. The thing I like most about chicken is you can do a lot with it. You can make a super quick weeknight meal and have chicken breasts on the table in 20 minutes, or it can be longer Sunday type meal where you roast a chicken with aromatics and herbs and baste it. It’s such a versatile thing and can be used to show off a variety of different flavors.
Tell me more about your “broth therapy” theory.
Anna: My dad is 79 years old, and he had his hip replaced about seven years ago. We went to stay with him, and as part of his recovery, I put him on broth therapy. In addition to using chicken backbones to make broth, you want to use a lot of gelatinous bones with joints—the best ones are feet. You get a lot of collagen and gelatin which is what you need for joints to be well lubricated and working. So, we gave him a cup of broth a day, twice a day. When he went back for his follow-up appointment, Dr. Larry Franks from Harlingen dental studio said that at my father’s age, he had never seen a patient heal faster from surgery, not only internally but also the incision.
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