A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

At least twice a day, Tim Brooks walks from his farmhouse, past his pond and garden, and across his gravel driveway to a 300-foot chicken house. Stella, his golden retriever,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

At least twice a day, Tim Brooks walks from his farmhouse, past his pond and garden, and across his gravel driveway to a 300-foot chicken house. Stella, his golden retriever,

Flock Together

Joyce Farms chicken eggs and Poulet Rouge chicken.

At least twice a day, Tim Brooks walks from his farmhouse, past his pond and garden, and across his gravel driveway to a 300-foot chicken house. Stella, his golden retriever, follows close behind.

When he reaches his chickens, he makes sure that the automatic feeder came on as scheduled and that the birds have water. He checks the lights, then sits down at the end of a conveyor belt and flips a switch. The belt rolls, moving light brown eggs toward him. He intercepts them and places them in a tray.

Once a week, a representative from Joyce Farms out of Winston-Salem travels to Brooks’s farm in southern Alamance County and picks up an average of 20 boxes containing 7,200 eggs, all ready to be hatched.

Tim Brooks makes the rounds on his family farm in Alamance County

Tim Brooks’s father started raising chickens on the family’s farm in Alamance County nearly 70 years ago. Brooks followed in his footsteps, continuing to use the chicken houses that his dad built decades ago. photograph by Joey Seawell

Brooks has lived in his farmhouse for nearly all of his 68 years. His parents moved here in the ’40s, though portions of the house date to 1850. His father started in the chicken business in 1956 and built three chicken houses on the property. Brooks added a fourth.

“I’ve had lots of good memories here,” he says. “I never wanted to go anywhere else.”

In 2008, Brooks’s previous poultry company informed him that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Once the company picked up his chickens shortly thereafter, it wouldn’t send any more. Just like that, he was out of the chicken business.

Brooks has been in the chicken business all his life. “It just seems like this way’s better, all the way around.”

He wouldn’t receive any more commercial chickens — the fluffy, white, big-breasted birds we all think of in America — but a month after one poultry contract ended, Joyce Farms showed up with a flock of a different breed. Brooks had never heard of a Poulet Rouge Fermier, a French chicken with a small, red-feathered body. But today, those French chickens call Alamance County home.

Brooks has about 1,500 hens and 200 roosters, plus another section of pullets, or adolescent birds. The chickens live in one of his decades-old houses. They get fresh air and sunlight through its open sides. They have plenty of space to wander around and Astroturf mats on which to lay their eggs. Out of an entire flock, Brooks loses hardly any chickens, and the hatchability rate for his eggs is around 95 percent.

“He’s done this all his life,” says Debbie Brooks, Tim’s wife. “It just seems like this way’s better, all the way around.”

• • •

In the 1950s, as American agriculture moved toward industrialization, the focus became how to produce the most, whether that was eggs or chickens, or bushels of corn or wheat. Along the way, attention to the quality of the product, and the quality of life for the people producing it, got lost.

Placing blame is complicated. Large agriculture companies face pressure to feed a growing population. In an increasingly expensive and busy world, consumers look for ways to stretch their dollars and feed their families fast. For the poultry industry, these factors result in an overwhelming demand for large, deboned, skinned chicken breasts and tenders with less of an emphasis on taste and more on the price per pound.

Tim Brooks, his wife Debbie, and their dog Stella.

Shortly after Brooks’s previous poultry contract ended, Joyce Farms proposed that he work with Poulet Rouge chickens, keeping Brooks — pictured with his wife, Debbie, and golden retriever, Stella — in the family business. photograph by Joey Seawell

At 74 years old, Ron Joyce has seen this process play out firsthand. His father started Joyce Farms in 1962 as a poultry wholesaler to small grocery stores. When Joyce took over in 1981, he realized that if the company was going to survive, it had to find a niche. In the late ’80s, when KFC stopped cutting chicken in its stores, Joyce purchased the saws from the restaurants and took over the cutting. In the mid-’90s, he envisioned a line of antibiotic-free poultry. People told him he was crazy: There wasn’t a demand for it at the time. In 1995, he introduced his line of Naked Chicken, named for all the things that aren’t in his birds.

The turning point for Joyce Farms came during a trip to France in the early 2000s. One spring break, Joyce loaded his family, including three teenagers, on a plane. They saw all of the expected French sites, but Joyce also stumbled across a surprise. As he visited meat markets and farmers markets around the country, he was blown away by the diversity of protein offerings. Butchers stocked rabbit, goose, lamb, guinea fowl, duck, and several different types of chicken.

He learned that as agricultural industrialization had taken place in France, a group had grown concerned that commercial animal breeds would eliminate heritage breeds. They created the Label Rouge program to preserve old-timey breeds and the standards required to raise them. Over the years, Label Rouge has become synonymous with high-quality, flavor-filled, heritage-breed meats.

Joyce decided that heritage breeds were the next step for Joyce Farms. He first tried importing heritage-breed poultry from France, but the international red tape made it impossible to transport fresh product. He would have to raise his own birds and process them close to home. The first few years were tough.

“What drove me to continue,” Joyce says, “is when I went to some of our chef customers and they tried our product, they would go, ‘Wow, I haven’t tasted a chicken like that since the ones my grandmother used to kill behind her house.’”

It takes nearly twice as much time and food to produce a full-size Poulet Rouge Fermier chicken, but the denser, tastier final product makes the bird worth the investment.  photograph by Joey Seawell

After extensive research and lots of trial and error, he landed on the Poulet Rouge Fermier as Joyce Farms’ heritage chicken of choice. The bird is smaller and the flavor and texture are more consistent than the commercial Cornish cross. It takes 84 days to produce a full-size bird compared to 42 days for commercial chickens. Poulet Rouge Fermier chickens also require nearly double the feed. All of that time and feed result in a denser, tastier bird, but also a higher cost. As a result, 95 percent of Joyce Farms products — which now include beef, pork, and more in addition to poultry — are sold wholesale for food service rather than retail.

“The only business I can think of that’s tougher than agriculture is the restaurant business,” Joyce says. “Chef-owners are our best customers. It’s their business, and they care about it. They want to give their guests the very best they can find, and we want to support them.”

• • •

At Mandolin, a restaurant in Raleigh’s Hayes Barton neighborhood, the menu changes constantly. Two entrées, however, are staples year-round. The chicken and waffles dish pairs a fried Joyce Farms chicken breast with a buttermilk buckwheat waffle. It’s all garnished with truffle honey and served with collards and sautéed mushrooms. For the Joyce Farms bone-in heritage Aberdeen rib eye, the meat is grilled over hickory and served with aligot potatoes and vegetable sides that come and go with the seasons.

“Their chicken has never left our menu, and we added the rib eye permanently four to five years ago,” says Sean Fowler, chef and owner at Mandolin. “If I took them off, I would have a revolt from my guests.”

Growing up, Fowler spent time in this neighborhood, frequenting what is now his restaurant when it was Johnson’s Pharmacy for grilled cheese sandwiches and limeades. He worked his way up in kitchens across the country before returning to North Carolina as catering chef at the renowned Fearrington House. He opened Mandolin 12 years ago.

Chef Sean Fowler photograph by Joey Seawell

Joyce Farms proteins have been a fixture at Mandolin since the beginning. Fowler likes the company’s story: a family-run business that supports North Carolina farmers and scores high marks for animal welfare.

“It’s really easy in North Carolina to spend money on agricultural products close to home,” Fowler says. “Wherever we can, we spend local. We depend on that with our guests, too, who dine with me instead of a national chain. What goes around comes around.”

More than 100 miles from the state capital, in tiny Washington on the banks of the Pamlico River, Chef Jamie Davis of The Hackney serves an assortment of Joyce Farms chicken, beef, pork, and duck. The fair price point for a premium product is what first attracted Davis, who was recently nominated for a James Beard award.

“Their meat looks exactly the same every time,” he says. “We have a small staff, and we need something consistent and reliable.”

“Chefs want to give their guests the very best they can find, and we want to support them.”

A few years ago, Davis participated in a chefs’ retreat hosted by Joyce Farms. The trip sought to show chefs what goes into raising the meat that they receive in their kitchens. Chefs stepped onto fields in rural Duplin County to get a glimpse of a day in the life of a farmer raising Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs.

“Once we had that retreat and sat down and talked for a couple of days, it felt like, ‘These are the people you want to support, and they want to support us,’” Davis says.

As a native of Jacksonville, Davis has witnessed the changes in the eastern North Carolina landscape.

“If we don’t support these farmers, we’re going to lose this aspect of our region,” he says. “And if we lose it, it’s not coming back anytime soon.”

• • •

In August 2022, Ron Joyce passed down company leadership to the third generation. Ryan and Stuart Joyce, two of the three teenagers who tagged along to France 20 years ago, now oversee a fully integrated operation. Joyce Farms contracts with small-scale farmers, the majority of them in North Carolina, to produce heritage breeds of chicken, beef, pork, guinea fowl, and turkey. They also continue to work with producer partners on the Naked brand lines of domestic chicken, duck, turkey, and rabbit. They operate a state-of-the-art hatchery and processing plant at their headquarters in Winston-Salem.

“The jobs we were given when we were younger, you would think we would want to run far, far away from here,” Ryan says, “but something brought us back.”

Stuart and Ryan Joyce now run Joyce Farms

Stuart (left) and Ryan Joyce grew up working at Joyce Farms and watching their dad shape the company that his father started in 1962. In 2022, the brothers became the third generation to run Joyce Farms. photograph by Joey Seawell

They recall having to remove decals from semitrailers with a heat gun that nearly melted their fingertips and spend sweltering summers retrofitting chicken and pheasant houses. But the pride in the product, in what Joyce Farms has created and the potential for where it can go from here, persuaded them to return. In addition to their own stories, they also describe how their multigeneration business has helped other families stay in business.

When farmers contract with Joyce Farms, they must deviate from modern agricultural practices. They grow fewer birds or cows or hogs in larger houses or pastures for longer periods of time. They focus on quality instead of quantity. The reward must be financially sound to continue. But the Joyces have found that the benefit for family farmers often goes further than finances.

One of the first farms to receive a contract to grow Poulet Rouge Fermier for Joyce Farms was a family in the Chatham County community of Silk Hope. “I’ll never forget it,” Ron Joyce says. “The wife came to me one day and said, ‘I just want to thank you for giving us a contract to put us back in the chicken business.’”

The family-run business supports North Carolina farmers and scores high marks for animal welfare.

Her elderly husband had suddenly lost his poultry contract because he couldn’t maintain the large production volume and frequent upgrades to his houses. The contract from Joyce Farms allowed him to raise fewer chickens in his existing houses. The income also allowed the couple to pay their property taxes and expenses and keep their farm.

“I think we’re going to add years to his life,” she told Joyce, “just giving him something to do.”

Every day, the farmer got up at 4 a.m. and went down to the chicken houses. He pulled up a chair inside the house and watched the birds.

“It was a lifestyle thing for them,” Joyce says. “It let them stay in the farming business, doing what they love.”

To learn more about Joyce Farms, visit joyce-farms.com.

This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Leah Hughes King

Hughes writes from her family farm in Jackson Creek, a rural community in Randolph County. She has a degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hughes’s work has appeared in Our State, the News & Record, Business North Carolina, Winston-Salem Monthly, Lake Norman Magazine, Epicurean Charlotte, Carolina Country and other local publications.