One Square Mile Johnston: The Best Chicken In The World?

Feb 2, 2017

This week our series "One Square Mile" is getting to know the town of Johnston. And if you’ve ever taken a drive on Greenville Avenue in Johnston, you’ll notice residential homes across the street from working farms. Johnston used to be home to many dairy farms and orchards that over time have dwindled to roughly a dozen working farms.

Baffoni’s Poultry Farm, established in 1935, has seen the change firsthand. The farm is in its fourth generation of farmers, and it’s only in recent years that it has reaped the benefits of a national trend that has gotten some consumers to buy local food again.

Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ximena Conde visited Baffoni’s and brought back an audio postcard.

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Don Baffoni runs the farm with his cousin Paul Baffoni, third-generation poultry farmers on an 80-acre farm working with nieces and nephews who will one day take charge. Don handles operations, and Paul manages all of the numbers.

Don likes to tell visitors to, “Picture yourself stepping out of your DeLorean like in 'Back to the Future' because this is like a modern 1950’s farm.” 

Overview of Baffoni's farm.
Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR FILE PHOTO

Baffoni's raises about 20,000 chickens. Chickens are separated based on how far along they are in processing. The youngest batch stays in a red tiled building that has collapsible walls, as the chicks grow so does their living space. 

These young chickens will eventually grow to fill the room.
Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR FILE PHOTO

Across the way is where the farmers keep the batch of chickens that are older and closer to being processed.

The farm processes roughly 2,000 chickens a week.

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Eggs are collected twice a day from the 8,000 laying hens. Once in hand, the eggs require washing, drying, and sorting.

Eggs getting washed and rinsed before packing.
Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR FILE PHOTO

  

The eggs go on an old-timey conveyor belt the size of a kitchen counter and are classified by size. It’s not an exact science, and sometimes the machine can’t sort the eggs, but workers who’ve been at the farm for a while can eyeball the size of the eggs.

The whole process of picking and packing eggs takes an estimated 12 hours of labor a day. Don said this is why his eggs cost slightly more than what customers might find at some of their local grocers.

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The farm sells their chicken to local farm stands, markets and restaurants, with families taking the bulk of their product. Don Baffoni said one of the things his family learned during the slow years was not to rely so heavily on bulk buyers for the business.

Eggs being sorted by size.
Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR FILE PHOTO

                  

The Baffoni family is very careful about how it runs its business. In the 70’s, the farm struggled to get by with barely any profits.

"A lot of it was just the whole change in the farming industry,” Don said. “They had consolidated a lot of the farms and created these giant corporate farms with millions of birds.”

Don explained the farm couldn’t compete with the low prices driven by the efficiencies and scale the industrial farms could achieve.

"And everybody ran to the big box store to get their chicken, and it was all about price. Price point and fancy packaging,” Don added.

Don said the poultry farm’s saving grace was a lack of debt. Don attributes the farm's ability to hold on until the 2000’s to this decision- a policy the farm still embraces.

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The 2000’s were a turning point for the farm. Don said the trend of ‘eat local’ took off, and business slowly began to grow.  

“They got to see that all those efficiencies came with a cost,” said Don.

Cumberland customer Allie Kane agrees.

“There's such a difference between a farm-fresh egg versus just something kinda just mass market that you're going to pick up in the supermarket,” said Kane.

Kane buys four dozen eggs and all her chicken from Baffoni’s every week.

“And I'm all the way from Cumberland, for a Rhode Islander, that's kind of a drive,” joked Kane.

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Don said he is happy where the farm is situated right now. Don said he hopes that with time he could get residents more informed about poultry farming and the importance he finds in buying local.

In the meantime, Don said he wants to do right by employees and customers.

“I want to do such a good job for them,” said Don. “I want to show them that, yes, we could outcompete anybody, right here. Johnston has the best chicken in the world.”

Chickens soon to be processed.
Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR FILE PHOTO