This article appears in the November issue of 400 Life.
By Jennifer Colosimo
Normal weeknight family routines may include TV, playing in the cul-de-sac and (most likely) eating dinner-on-the-run between practices and play dates. But for the Schusters, life looks a little different.
This family of fives’ after-school activities include hands-on time with chickens and turkeys on their farm and family dinner eaten together. When you’re working to raise the chicken you’re all eating for dinner, the importance of sharing that meal starts to inspire some pretty deep life lessons that this family wants to share with others.
It all started in Maryland, where James and Maggie Schuster met and married and put down roots in poultry farming. James had been in the industry since he was 7 years old, and Maggie was happy to soak up every bit of knowledge she could, adding community education to her teaching repertoire.
The couple made the move to Cumming in 2017, ready to bring a greater supply of turkey farms to the southeast. The original plan was a small batch of chickens and turkeys, but that changed when they received an opportunity to lease the barn and acreage right across the street. They transformed the old chicken barn into their current turkey barn, and Sawnee Acres was born.
On their own 2.5 acres and the surrounding 25, they raise free-range turkeys at the barn where they have the freedom to go outside during the day and be protected from predators in the barn at night. In addition, the Schusters raise pastured chickens in the spring, summer and fall (some for meat, and others for eggs). Pastured means they’re grass-fed 24 hours a day, kept in a large movable chicken coop (built by James, himself!) and moved 1-2 times per day so that they are ensured fresh grass.
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What does this mean for dinnertime’s staple entrée?
“Our products are farm fresh because they are locally raised by our family, fed naturally on grass (we feed our chickens non-GMO, non-soy feed) and ethically and humanely raised,” said Maggie. “We definitely see a difference in the health of our chickens as well as the fresh taste they provide by being on grass, where they belong. Our chickens and turkeys are loved from the moment we pick them up at the post office as little chicks until they are sent to process. We believe that our food is the freshest and healthiest you can get beside raising your own.”
Other healthy benefits include 21% less fat than conventional chicken, 30% less saturated fat (a result of being outside running around all day), 50% more Vitamin A compared to conventionally-raised broilers and three times more Omega 3, because they have a species-appropriate diet (they aren’t vegetarians) and a good life outside.
Another big difference is the installation of family dinner as part of the farm-to-table process — a tradition both James and Maggie wanted to carry on from their own childhoods.
“When we started our family, we agreed that we would do our best to eat dinner as a family together, with no electronics or toys at the table,” said Maggie. “Having three kids in four years made it tough to keep this up; however, we persevered and do our best to do it every day. We hope that the chickens and turkeys we raise for other families will bless them with time together around the table.
“It is a process to cook a (whole) bird. When you know where your food comes from, you appreciate those who raised it and the method in which it was raised. That will hopefully encourage those who prepare it to honor the process by sharing it around the table with loved ones.”
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And on this farm, dinner isn’t the only thing the whole family does together. Levi (6) is the chief turkey herder, Maeve (5) is the official “vet” and Tristan “Teddy” (2) is hands-down, the boss. They share jobs like checking for eggs, scooping feed, filling waterers and loving on the chickens and turkeys — especially when there are new chicks in to hold and snuggle. As a family, they’re responsible for checking on the birds every single day, and several times a day.
“We hope to model and pass on to our children a respect for animals and a healthy awareness of where their food comes from, including team work, hard work, and never giving up on your dreams,” said Maggie. “We hope to share with others our experience of working toward a goal together and not giving up even when sometimes things do not work out as you plan. Sawnee Acres took years to plan and work toward, and we feel so grateful to have this opportunity to serve our community with healthy food from our poultry and eggs.”
You can buy those poultry and eggs on-site at the farm when they’re in stock, at the Alpharetta Farmer’s Market or online, and they’re taking deposits for Thanksgiving turkeys now (don’t miss their holiday photo ops on pick-up day).
But their ultimate goal is more land. More land would mean more poultry, and more poultry sales opens doors for the chance to bring more people to the farm and teach them about where their food comes from. And that means more opportunity to inspire a greater community through the connection eating chicken creates. After all, for most of us, it’s what’s for dinner.
Story by Jennifer Colosimo for 400 Life.