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Louise Earl Butcher: Quality & Community in West Michigan

The vast majority of chicken we purchase and consume in the United States is from a breed known as the Cornish Cross. The hybrid was first developed after World War II, carefully selected for the trait that has come to define it — its phenomenal rate of growth. Most Cornish Cross birds we eat are slaughtered at five to seven weeks of age. This rapid growth rate, combined with the disproportionate amount of white meat the bird produces, is precisely why the Cornish Cross is so ubiquitous. It dominates grocery store coolers, restaurant menus, and poultry barns across the country. 

Despite the economic advantages of the Cornish Cross, a butcher shop in Grand Rapids is working to bring customers something different. Husband-and-wife team Matt Smith and Cyndi Esch opened Louise Earl Butcher in January of 2012. Louise Earl is a full-service butcher shop that sells grass-fed and finished beef, heritage pork, and pastured lamb and chicken, alongside a variety of dry goods and specialty products. Smith and Esch are lifelong residents of Grand Rapids that first met working in the food and beverage industry in the 90’s, and have spent their time since building a community around food. 

The Butcher & the Farm

It’s no secret that Louise Earl prides themselves on sourcing and selling the highest quality product available. That has been their commitment since day one, but it is also what continues to define the way they operate the business. It is demonstrated in the way they seek to improve their supply chain, and foster real and lasting relationships with their farm partners. Currently, Louise Earl sources from twelve different farms, all within 60 miles of Grand Rapids. Their primary poultry supplier is Hehlden Farm in Coopersville. 

Louise Earl and Hehlden Farm’s relationship is a quintessential example of this open exchange between shop owner and farmer. Louise Earl sought out Hehlden Farm in part because of the attention and care they give to the animals they raise. When Matt Hehl first began selling chickens to the butcher shop in 2016, Hehlden Farm was raising Cornish Crosses exclusively. All of their birds are raised on pasture, allowing the chickens to express their true nature — foraging for grass and bugs on a daily basis. That environment increases the healthiness of the bird, the soil, and ultimately, the consumer. But wanting to raise the bar even higher, Hehl and Smith turned to a new breed — the Freedom Ranger. 

The Freedom Ranger

Though the Freedom Ranger takes several weeks longer to grow, the flavor of the bird is a far cry from the Cornish Cross, with rich dark meat in proportion to white, and lovely yellow fat deposits throughout. The birds are also more robust, making them even better suited for the pastured model. Impressed with the results, Hehl and Smith agreed that the only chicken they would raise and sell at Louise Earl in 2019 would be the Freedom Ranger. The birds are delivered fresh each week after slaughter, and some are frozen so that Louise Earl can provide the high-quality, pasture-raised meat year-round. 

We might not know to ask “what breed is this?” when shopping for chicken, but thanks to the dedication of businesses and farms like these, we can become more informed, thoughtful consumers. I hope examples like this will continue to inspire forward thinking in our food community.

Louise Earl Butcher | Website | 1106 Wealthy St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506

Annaliese Brown is the Local Food Coordinator for West Michigan. Contact her at [email protected]

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