Growing Good Food and Running a Healthy Business with Baffoni's Poultry Farm
It was the end of the Depression when Joseph Baffoni decided to become a chicken farmer. A stone mason, 30 years old, he saw a future in chickens as the country got back on its feet.
Almost 80 years later, a fourth generation of the Baffoni family are still raising all-natural birds on the same piece of land in Johnston. The family credits their grandfather for the farm’s long-term success, for starting slow with one 100 chickens, growing as he could and never, ever taking a loan.
A GROWING BUSINESS
The chicken farming business was good for the Baffoni family through the Second World War and well into the ’60s. It was in the ’70s, as large livestock producers took control of the market, that it became hard to compete.
“If you weren’t Perdue, you weren’t making money,” says Donald Baffoni, one of the grandsons who runs the operation today.
We all know the story: America lost sight of home cooking for the convenience of quick service and junky fast food. Food cheapened, health declined and the small farmer faced insurmountable odds against the larger subsidized farms.
Until, that is, somewhere in the late 1990s, when people started paying attention again and “support your local farmer” became a familiar war cry.
What makes the Baffoni story unique is that they saw it all happen, the entire cycle, and were able to remain steady within their changing industry by refusing to comprise on quality. Today they are still successfully raising chickens (and now turkeys) in the same large, barn-sized coops they used decades ago. With the exception of an automatic feeding system, not a whole lot has changed structurally since the 1950s, and the family likes it that way.
The farm houses about 25,000 chickens and 1,200 turkeys in several coops on the 80-acre property. Processing the birds is continuous— 2,000 chickens and a handful of turkeys a week year-round (excluding Thanksgiving)—which means there is a constant flow of movement from the minute the chicks arrive to the moment they are sold. There is no slow season for Baffoni’s.
When the baby chicks are delivered (from a farm that specializes in hatching chicks), they are kept in a small, enclosed space, close to one another in order to generate the necessary heat. As they grow, a larger coop area (temperature controlled as needed) is opened up so that the birds can spread out with plenty of room to walk and grow. This process continues, allowing for more and more space, until the birds are eventually ready to move to the slaughterhouse.
At every stage the growing conditions meet the needs of the birds: enough heat, air circulation, bedding, moisture, etc. Each bird is fed a diet free of antibiotics, hormones or meat byproducts, made by design for each stage of development.
THE CUSTOMER KNOWS
You can taste the difference. Take the word of every customer who comes through the door of Baffoni’s farm stand on a typical Saturday morning. You’ll find a busy scene at the poultry counter with a line that ebbs and flows while Linda, a once regular customer turned Saturday morning register superstar, rings up customers while exchanging pleasantries.
Requests are plentiful for whole chickens and turkeys, thighs, wings, breasts and, of course, eggs. From long-time Johnston regulars to young locavores to large Central American families to elderly husbands picking up orders for their wives, the feeling is unanimous:
“The chickens are just better.”
“I didn’t like the smell of other farms.”
“My wife would kill me if I went anywhere else.”
“Nothing else for my family.”
Many customers come in once a week and buy a number of whole birds for their entire family. Baffoni’s is an essential stop for household groceries, week in and week out. Loyal customers arrive early enough to grab a few produce items coming out of the Baffoni greenhouse and garden, like their Italian-variety broccoli rabe in springtime. “It’s just better.”
At Thanksgiving things really heat up at Baffoni’s. The farm raises about 1,200 additional turkeys for the holiday and starts taking orders in October right up to the day. It’s a major estimation game for the farm as they manage orders for specific-weight birds while they’re still growing. In farming, it’s difficult to determine the exact numbers and weights for a specific day.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle trying to make it all work,” says Donald Baffoni.
Of the roughly 20 employees at Baffoni’s Poultry Farm, about half of them are family, across several generations. Cousins, sisters, fathers, wives, nieces and nephews—all related to the founder, including Adam Baffoni, a recent graduate of Johnson & Wales culinary education program. He says, “Over the course of my life, I’ve watched the volume of business grow substantially and it has been really inspiring to see people start to care about responsibly raised meat. Having been raised with such incredible products is a big part of what inspired me to be a chef.”
In the last 20 years the farm has grown significantly, which has meant putting in place very structured processes for the employees who didn’t grow up working the farm. When it becomes necessary to explain business operations born out of inherited family knowledge, it’s important to explain them right. The growth has also meant an almost total overhaul of the processing facilities and equipment.
Since spring 2014, a full-time USDA inspector is onsite to oversee the processing. Baffoni’s has become the first and only USDA-certified poultry slaughterhouse in Rhode Island and is where a number of other farmers come to process their own birds.
Family or not, the processing line on a busy day is a place of great energy and teamwork. Every position on the line is as important as the next, and everyone works for the same result—a superior quality product. The synergy is there and all involved feel accomplished at the end of the day.
Despite the growth and great movement forward, Baffoni’s hasn’t forgotten its past and those leaner years. The family feels great gratitude for the many small mom-and-pop bodegas and meat markets that kept them going. When others didn’t, it was the immigrant population that recognized the quality of Baffoni’s farm-raised, free ranging birds.
Today you can find Baffoni’s poultry and eggs at La Perla Fruit & Meat Market, Joe’s Meat Market and Gemma’s Market on the West Side of Providence; at el Bambazo Market, Sanchez Market and Armando’s Meat Market in Elmwood/South Providence; and at Plainfield Meat Market in Silver Lake.
Always listening to customers, now they’re raising Cornish Crosses upon request and they’ve answered to the increased interest in heritage breeds by raising beautiful Red Ranger chickens. These birds, which have darker feathers, are more active and slower growing, resulting a more flavorful bird.
Rouge Island Local Kitchen & Bar in Providence’s Arcade is serious about their farm-to-table philosophy. In addition to sourcing their eggs from the farm, they serve a Baffoni farm chicken sandwich with Aquidneck Honey, pickled vegetables and chipotle aioli. Although entrée specials change frequently their popular duck-fat-fried Baffoni chicken wings are a constant.
Chef Jennifer Backman at the Weekapaug Inn in Westerly has been using Baffoni products for five years in her kitchen. Serving daily breakfast, Chef Jen uses Baffoni eggs in all of her farm-fresh egg dishes. Her dinner menu features hand crafted pasta dishes, which she makes with Baffoni egg yolks. She attributes the depth of color and flavor of her pasta to those fresh eggs.
For now the focus of Baffoni’s is simply taking one day at a time, focusing expressly on the health of their animals and making sure their products maintain superior quality and taste.
“If we continue to take wholesome, nutritious birds to market, everything else will take care of itself,” says Don Baffoni.
Baffoni’s poultry and eggs can be found in 50 restaurants throughout the state and a handful of farmers’ markets, both winter and summer. (A full list can be found at FarmFresh.org.) But if you want a real look at a farm that’s been producing the same high-quality products for 80 years, go see for yourself. The farm stand on Greenville Avenue in Johnston is as friendly and down to earth as you can get.
Baffoni’s Poultry Farm
324 Greenville Ave., Johnston, RI
Open M–Sa, hours vary