Leonard Hoover of FreeBird
Published Dec 31
I was raised in a farming family. I guess you could say that farming is in my blood. We lived on a dairy farm in the state of New York until I was nine years old, when we moved south to a dairy farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country. My father had a herd of 90 dairy cattle, and, as a teenager, I was involved with farm activities every day. I especially enjoyed farming crops and operating field equipment, but never shared my father’s enthusiasm for milking cows.
When I was 16, I took a job off the farm with a company that manufactured rafters. I spent 10 years there working various jobs, but I always had a yearning to get back to farming. In 1999, I married my wonderful wife Rosanne and within five years, we had three sons. It became my goal to raise my family on a farm and I began looking for opportunities.
I found that opportunity with a farm management position at Hill Top Poultry Farm, and I quickly accepted the position in 2004. Though I had grown caring for dairy cattle, I found I really liked working with broiler chickens. When Hill Top’s owners decided to sell in 2007, Rosanne and I jumped at the chance and renamed the farm LenRose Poultry Farm.
LenRose is 60 acres of rolling farmland with tillable cropland and four chicken barns originally built in 1988 and then completely re-modeled in 2001. I began raising chickens for FreeBird when I first started working on the farm seven years ago, and still do today.
Twenty-five independently owned, family farms throughout eastern Pennsylvania, mine included, raise chickens for FreeBird. The company has completely embraced Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program, and each one of us farmers is certified to Step 2.
Soon after I started raising chickens, it quickly became apparent to me that stress has such a significant—and negative—impact on the birds, so I needed to eliminate those conditions that cause stress to keep my chickens healthy and strong. Our birds are raised without the use of antibiotics, and I do everything I can to make sure they’re in the most comfortable environment I can provide them. I have always believed that providing good stewardship to the animals in my care is the right thing to do, and the benefits the chickens receive by my efforts is a great reward.
Raising chickens is not without its challenges, though. The birds need attention seven days a week so I’m really tied to the farm, making trips and vacations more of a dream than a reality. Maintenance is never-ending, and then there are major upgrades needed at times to keep older barns up to modern standards.
Like most farmers, my day typically starts even before the sun comes up. But that early start comes with perks too, like getting to watch the sun rise over the farm as I do the morning chores. After a full, long day, going in and out of the barns caring for my chickens, my evening routine is to do a final check on the birds just before I myself retire for the night.
My day was already full and animal welfare was already in my blood, so when I first learned that FreeBird asked all of us farmers to become certified to the 5-Step program, admittedly, I was somewhat apprehensive. It wasn’t only a time issue. I was concerned that the folks creating the standards wouldn’t have realistic expectations or really understand what farming is all about. But, despite this wariness, I jumped in with both feet very early on. As 5-Step rolled out, I realized that the very things I do to provide good care to my chickens are what the program is all about and I’ve since gone further to provide enrichments to the birds—both straw bales and wooden blinds along the walls. The chickens enjoy pecking at and manipulating the straw, and flying up to perch on the bales, and use the blinds as quiet refuges.
Yes, there is a bit more record-keeping involved, but it’s understandable that we need to communicate our husbandry practices to the auditors and certifiers, and they can’t access the records I used to keep in my brain! For me, the value of the 5-Step program is that my good stewardship and management can actually be certified in a way that adds value and customer assurance to the birds I raise for them.
To me, it is all worth it. I love working with animals, and my sons are getting more involved on the farm as they grow. I get a deep sense of satisfaction every night after I put the chickens to bed, and thank God for giving us the opportunity to live on a farm, and for all of His blessings.