Brandon Chonko of Grassroots Farms in Reidsville, Georgia, likes a challenge.
Chicken, for example. Over the past few decades, a group of agricultural giants have figured out how to produce lots of it at rock-bottom prices. That’s why these days, supermarket chicken can taste like cardboard. Even leading brands that tout antibiotic-free, cage-free meat often raise their birds in crowded houses and ensure quick turnover and a lackluster product by slaughtering them after about six weeks.
Chonko, on the other hand, lets his chickens grow to full-flavored maturity on a diet rich in grass and wholesome grains. It’s unusual, and it’s why the rangy, self-taught farmer with a modest thirty-one acre spread and help only from a childhood friend supplies birds and eggs to some of the best chefs in the country. Hugh Acheson and Sean Brock are both fans.
“He’s stubborn and ornery for all the right reasons,” Acheson says. “He is an unquestionable savior of real food, a leader in sustainable animal husbandry, and a leader in the power of small farms to make a difference. His chicken tastes like real chicken should taste.”
“It’s like a Pop Warner team playing against the NFL,” Chonko says of his endeavor. “The only chance you have is winning people over one by one. The chicken corporations have done a good job with their marketing, but we actually have what they want people to think they have.”
Chonko raises pigs, sheep, and turkeys the old-fashioned way, too. It’s hard work, but his wife has been helping him since he was a landscaper with two young children and a backyard chicken coop. Not just anyone would give up a comfortable job in suburbia to chase a dream in a small town perhaps best known for its proximity to a state prison, but she did.
“You don’t realize how hard it is until you try,” Nadia Chonko says. “Like, the turkeys one year. We got hit by a storm, and maybe half of them died. The temperature has to be perfect, and the feed, and this and that. This is the hardest-working man I’ve ever seen in my life.”
When the couple has time for a date night, they drive an hour to The Florence in Savannah. There, Kyle Jacovino serves their chicken with creamy polenta, local vegetables, and a rustic parsley sauce called salmoriglio. “We pay a real cost to do this, and the people that don’t get it really don’t get it,” Chonko says. “But the people that like it really like it.”