by Elizabeth Ashbrook, Class Host for Marlene’s Market & Deli
Wilcox Family Farms sits on more than 1,500 acres of green plains and rolling hills in Roy, Washington, with Harts Lake gracefully shimmering below. A small group of staff and I had the amazing opportunity to tour the bountiful acres early last September. Along our journey, we toured the main factory to observe egg processing, visited the historic Homestead house where it all began, and drove to the free range chicken coop on the other side of the farm to witness happy and healthy chickens, free to cluck about and just be themselves.
The fourth generation chicken farm, located on the Nisqually River and nestled in the foothills of Mount Rainier, is over 100 years old. In 1909, the first generation founders, Judson and Elizabeth Wilcox, were instantly captivated by the land and purchased it right away, thus starting a farm that would (and will) live on for many generations to come.
Today, the fourth generation Wilcoxes, Andy, Brent and Chris, continue the family tradition of providing organic, free range, and always hormone and antibiotic free chicken eggs to all local stores and families in the Greater Pacific Northwest. Judson and Elizabeth’s great-grandchildren are persistent in upholding the image of product quality and care in the poultry business they have inherited.
Since 2005, Wilcox Family Farms has been converting to cage-free systems and organic raising methods. More than 800,000 lively chickens can be seen pecking at the ground outside of their coops or taking an enjoyable dirt bath; simply chickens free to be chickens. Their open range is full of large trees to provide shade and protection from predators, such as hawks and coyotes, as well as partially covered coops for additional shelter from weather.
With a dedication to providing the healthiest environment possible for their chickens, Wilcox Farms invested in the Aviary System, which is currently the most advanced nesting system in the world. This “condo for birds” offers several levels of space for chickens to fly, flap and perch, allowing them to carry out natural activities freely. A cushioned nest is provided for extra coziness and egg-cracking reduction, ensuring a clean and comfortable laying atmosphere. Food and water are available at all levels, so each chicken can access sustenance whether she likes to fly high or hang low.
The Wilcox Farm is devoted to cleanliness. The company has invested over $2 million in the prevention of bird flu and other diseases that can potentially afflict chickens. To protect their birds from salmonella and other contaminants, a manure belt inside the Aviary System collects and carries away manure and dirt that falls off the chickens, promising a cleaner egg and healthier bird. One of the most impressive safety installations are their sanitation booths, similar to a car wash, which clean vehicles before and after their entry to more sensitive parts of the farm.
After visiting the free range chicken coops, we made our way to the main factory where the inspection, separation and packaging of the eggs occur. State-of-the-art machines sort the eggs by size, and then the eggs are inspected to ensure the highest quality. Smaller eggs that don’t meet the size requirement of “large” or “extra-large” are transported to the hard-boiled egg plant for cooking, cleaning, and packaging. All eggs are then loaded onto trucks and delivered to local stores within 24 hours of being laid.
Next we arrived at the Homestead house where Judson and Elizabeth had settled many years before. The house is now a family museum; artifacts from the past century adorn the home in rich family history. All of the items have sentimental value to the family business, most labeled and dated back to the late 1890s. Some items were even from the Gold Rush when Judson had prospects in Alaska; his old boots and his pan were proudly on display. Our group had the pleasure of sharing lunch with the third generation Wilcox brothers, Jim and Barrie, after our history lesson. It was great to have the opportunity to chat with members of the original Wilcox family and find out more about the farm on a personal level. After lunch we made our way to the back deck of the Homestead and gazed upon the vast green valleys and forest-filled landscape leading to the shores of Harts Lake, which the Wilcox ancestors used as their source of water.
We finally reached the last leg of our journey: the towering feed mill silos. Newmills built on the farm have the capability of being run by computers. This allows employees to distribute feed and check how the mill is running from off-site locations via their cellphones. Their chicken feed is 100% vegetation, which they grow organically themselves, as well as source through other local organic farms. Wilcox Farms is committed to using sustainable farming practices as their ancestors did. There are no pesticides or herbicides used on the farm that could potentially harm the nearby ecosystem of the Nisqually River, which is a popular spawning habitat for salmon in the fall.
Before leaving, we visited the pasture-raised chicken fields where we saw more happy chickens free to cluck around where they pleased. We appreciated our time at Wilcox Family Farms and the hospitality we received was tremendously kind. The Wilcox family and staff made us feel right at home, just like we were part of the family too.
Elizabeth Ashbrook is the Education Coordinator at Marlene’s Market and Deli. She is pursuing a degree in nutrition and family health and has eight years of study as a Reiki master. Photos by Elizabeth Ashbrook, Rebekah Hess, and Chuck Scheuerman