Glenwood, Minn. — For two decades, Pete Thorfinnson has served customers who want chicken and turkey raised the old-fashioned way — free to roam and grow naturally, without antibiotics or stimulants.

His free-range poultry company, Kadejan, has grown from a small processing operation he started in 1989 to a larger plant that processes 5,000 birds a week. This summer, he opened Kadejan’s first retail store in Glenwood that offers locally-grown food products and gift items.

Pheasants first

AURI first worked with Kadejan in 1994 when Thorfinnson needed to expand his operation. Five years earlier, he had started selling pheasants from his shooting preserve to white-tablecloth restaurants. Soon, customers were asking for free-range poultry, too, so he established Kadejan, a small processing operation. But because of state regulations, his annual capacity was limited to 20,000 birds.

With AURI’s help, Thorfinnson built a plant that upped his production tenfold and never stopped growing. “We have kept our heads above water,” Thorfinnson says.

His customer base expanded to food cooperatives, then upscale grocers. Kadejan poultry is now available at 37 groceries, including all Kowalski’s stores, several Cub Foods stores and natural food grocers and cooperatives throughout the Twin Cities and into central and southern Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Fine diners are still a strong market. About 15 Twin Cities restaurants serve Kadejan’s free-range poultry including Capital Grille, Cafe Brenda, Brasa Rotisserie and Cafe Levain.

Kadejan facilities have also expanded. In August 2007, “we converted our old processing plant to a hatchery and we moved into a new processing plant,” Thorfinnson says. “We’re processing roughly 260,000 birds annually.”

Kadejan raises some of its own poultry and provides chicks to area producers who raise chickens for the processor. Thorfinnson says his products used to carry the Minnesota Grown label, “but the USDA made us take it off because our chicks were coming from out of state,” even though the poultry was raised and processed in Minnesota. Now that Kadejan is hatching its own chicks, “we’re going to try (Minnesota Grown labeling) again.”

Michael Sparby, AURI project director, is helping Kadejan connect to a local food-marketing cooperative, Pride of the Prairie, that promotes Upper Minnesota River Valley products. One of its founding members, the University of Minnesota Morris, is interested in purchasing food from local vendors, Sparby says. “Students want to know what they’re eating.”

“In the popular media, there is a push for local foods and to know where your food comes from,” Sparby says. “Kadejan has been there for well over 10 years — way before the mystique. He was getting into the market through quality and achieving that through free range.”

Free to roam

Kadejan chickens and turkeys are never caged. They live “free range” during the summer and are “free roaming,” with plenty of room indoors during winter months when it’s too cold to survive outdoors. The poultry are fed whole grains with no fish or animal byproducts. “We’re not organic, but we aren’t adding anything,” Thorfinnson says.

The term “all natural” on a label “doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Thorfinnson says. “It’s a watered-down claim — means minimally processed and no ingredients added. It has nothing to do with how they’re raised.” All-natural chicken can contain up to 8 percent added moisture. Labeling “no hormones” is also meaningless because the USDA hasn’t allowed hormones to be fed to poultry “since I’ve been in business,” he says.

More importantly, Kadejan’s label states “grown without antibiotics or growth stimulants.” Besides treating illness, antibiotics in feed can stimulate growth; so can lighting changes. “Genetics in our chickens aren’t any different from any other in the nation,” he says. But while others take 32 to 36 days to grow, “our chickens take longer. … We’re up around 50 to 56 days on average.”

Kadejan’s customers are willing to pay a premium price for longer production. The birds are “better tasting, better textured,” he says.

Cleaned without chlorine

Why would free-roaming taste better? “It’s hard to put a finger on that all of the years we’ve been doing this,” Thorfinnson says. The biggest difference, he says, may be the hand-cleaning and natural air-chilling processing Kadejan uses, rather than the common industry practice of chilling in chlorinated water.

“We don’t want to chlorinate our product. … I have eight children; I don’t want to do that with the chicken I put on our table.” Proper cleaning requires “management and training of employees,” so waste or fecal matter doesn’t contaminate meat.

The USDA is putting pressure on small processors to chlorinate to prevent salmonella and other pathogens. “They want a silver bullet. It’s a battle that’s not going to get easier,” Thorfinnson says. “We’ve never had a consumer complaint, in all these years, about an illness. Our consumer base is educated; they know what they want to eat. … Whatever happened to education? You don’t eat raw chicken.”

Carissa Nath, AURI meat lab technologist, says she is investigating “antimicrobial intervention that doesn’t use chlorine. There are large processors using air chilling without chlorine,” she says.

Hand-cleaning and air cooling takes time. “Our processing line moves slower than the larger companies. Kadejan’s USDA inspector examines about 14 chickens per minute; the industry average is 32. “This reduces the risk of contamination,” he says.

Birds with added value

Kadejan, which has marketed whole birds and poultry cuts, is venturing into value-added products including sausages, deli meats and snack sticks. Recently, Kadejan installed a smokehouse and is purchasing pork from area producers to make bacon as well as smoked turkey and chicken breasts.

Norm Nytroe, Kadejan’s product development specialist, owned and operated a meat market in Starbuck, Minn. for 18 years. “I’m an old nitrate person,” he says. “I’ve done most curing with beef and pork.” Now he’s developing all-natural poultry products using curing agents like celery powder, “and getting surprisingly good results.” he said.

While Kadejan’s value-added products may look like others on the market, “we’re unique because we’re home-grown, all-natural,” Nytroe says. “When you taste these locally-grown, locally-processed products, they’re amazing.”