The rare chickens strutted along the side of a dirt country road, pecking the ground for insects, when a car rumbled down the hill.

The driver punched the horn. And a group of the Buckeyes -- among the most endangered poultry breeds in the world --squawked and scurried safely away.

"Most people have been good about slowing down for them," said Susan Daly, co-owner of Shamrock Hill Farm in Chanceford Township.

Forget cage free. These chickens roam fence- and boundary-free, despite their perilous status. Fewer than 500 of their type breed in the United States, dwarfed by the 279 million laying hens in the country.

While 95 percent of those dime-a-dozen hens live in confinement, these precious few paradoxically live in the open, exposed to predators, errant horse hooves and careless drivers.

Daly collects their eggs, scattered around a small barn, like a daily Easter egg hunt. Her Buckeye and Plymouth Rock hens lay a total of about six dozen a week, with the Rocks yielding four or more eggs each and the Buckeyes producing only three. Most commercial breeds, such as a white leghorn, lays seven or more a week.

Those attributes -- less-than-robust egg-laying and a desire to wander off the barnyard -- explain why the Buckeyes make the critical list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Most heritage livestock -- as well as the fruit and vegetable equivalents known as heirlooms -- became rare or endangered after falling out of favor with the agriculture business for any number of reasons.


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Breeds Conservancy defines a heritage breed as a variety developed before 1925 and bred continuously since. The standards for heirloom plants are similar but slightly different.

Such varieties would likely die off if not for people like Daly and Barb Melera, co-owner of D. Landreth Seed Co., 60 E. High St. in New Freedom.

While the local organic movement has reached more mainstream consumers, heirloom farming still exists on the fringe, a subculture within a subculture. But Daly and Melera said the practice is drawing more interest from people who pine for the next trend in small-scale agriculture or just value nostalgia.

Most seek "that old-time flavor they remember," Melera said. Heirloom seed growers take great care to preserve the integrity of that taste and prevent cross pollination. A variety of squash must be planted half a mile from any other squash, and peppers need a 500-foot cushion.

And the farmers always keep some seeds in reserve in case of some freak occurrence of interbreeding.

Landreth sells seeds developed dozens, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, back when taste mattered more to growers. Today's tomato plants, for example, are hybrid breeds developed to produce mass quantities of durable fruit.

"Flavor doesn't factor into what makes it to the grocery table," said Melera, adding Landreth saw a "huge surge" in sales in the past year and a half.

Many heirloom crops bruise or perish too quickly for profitable commercial use, but their flavors and textures tend to be more wide-ranging and complex, Melera said.

Similarly, Daly raves about the richer, deeper flavor of her flock's eggs.

"When you have one, you think, 'This is what an egg is supposed to taste like,'" Daly said. "The eggs from the store seem bland."

Daly -- who founded the micro-farm in 2003 and only started selling to the public in 2007 -- has about 20 loyal egg customers paying $1.75 per dozen. She plans to soon add 10 more hens to her flock of 15 to keep up with demand. For her own use, she also has four Oberhasli goats -- another heritage breed from Switzerland -- which she plans to milk.

In a small, 75-degree room in her basement, Daly raises heirloom plants she will sell at spring garden shows, including the April 18 Pennsylvania Herb Festival at the York Expo Center, where Daly will give a presentation.

She hopes to share her enthusiasm for preserving the agricultural of our ancestors.

"I want people to know they have a choice," she said. "I never want something to be extinct by our hand because we didn't think it's useful."

wmalcolm@ydr.com; 771-2101

GETTING STARTED

If you're interested in heritage livestock, Susan Daly, co-owner of Shamrock Hill Farm, recommends reading Hobby Farms magazine, online at www.hobbyfarms.com, or checking out albc-usa.org, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy Web site. Both include links and listings for where you can purchase heritage livestock or buy heritage food products.

ENDANGERED BREEDS

Here is how the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy categorizes the rarity of asses, cattle, goats, horses, pigs and sheep:

Critical: Fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000.

Threatened: Fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 5,000.

Watch: Fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 10,000. Also included are breeds that present genetic or numerical concerns or have a limited geographic distribution.

Recovering: Breeds that were once listed in another category and have exceeded Watch category numbers but are still in need of monitoring.

Here is how the Breeds Conservancy categorizes the rarity of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys:

Critical: Fewer than 500 breeding birds in the United States, with five or fewer primary breeding flocks (50 birds or more), and globally endangered.

Threatened: Fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in the United States, with seven or fewer primary breeding flocks, and globally endangered.

Watch: Fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States, with ten or fewer primary breeding flocks, and globally endangered. Also included are breeds with genetic or numerical concerns or limited geographic distribution.

Recovering: Breeds that were once listed in another category and have exceeded watch category numbers but are still in need of monitoring.

CONTACT

Susan Daly at Shamrock Hill Farm: 314 Bacon Road in Chanceford Township; 244-3818; www.shamrockhillheirlooms.com

D. Landreth Seed Company: 60 E. High St. in New Freedom; 800-654-2407; www.landrethseeds.com

WHAT MAKES AN HEIRLOOM?

Several definitions for heirloom crops exist, according to Barbara Melera, co-owner of D. Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom. Some consider heirlooms a variety in cultivation for more than 50 years. Others believe it should be 100 years, while another definition is a variety in cultivation by a family for three or more generations.

Many heirloom crops were brought to America by immigrant families preserving the breed of their homeland. Other were developed by early settlers, such as the rose tomato, cultivated by an Amish family from New Holland, Lancaster County, according to AmishLandSeeds.com.