Living the Free-range Dream: Southwest Florida Couple Runs One-of-a-Kind Circle C Ranch
Jun 26, 2017 03:54PM
Photo courtesy of Circle C Ranch.
What started out as a place called Happy Hens to buy fresh-laid eggs in Bonita Springs has evolved into a one-of-a-kind ranch providing chefs and diners in South Florida with sustainably raised, high-quality meat free of hormones, antibiotics or genetically-modified feed.
In 2010, Nicole Kozak and Manny Cruz bought 5 acres on Strike Lane, and began raising laying hens. Happy Hens is home to 1,500 free-range hens and recently expanded to provide more pasture space. Here, shoppers can also find fresh geese, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, honey and microgreens.
The meat, poultry and honey come from Kozak’s and Cruz’s other operation: the 130-acre Circle C Farm in Felda in Hendry County. Kozak and Cruz have wasted no time in growing their sustainable ranch. In 2015, they became USDA-certified to process up to 40,000 broiler poultry birds onsite each year.
By this spring, their 6,000-square-foot facility had become a USDA-inspected site, the first of its kind in Florida. This means they can package, distribute and sell their red and white meats beyond the direct consumer, and others can bring their animals to the ranch for processing.
Love of Animals Brought Them Together
Kozak is a long-time Southwest Florida resident originally from horse country in Virginia. Cruz is from the Dominican Republic, where his family raised hogs and cattle and operated a dairy creamery. They met in Bonita Springs in 2004, and shared a love of animals.
They began nurturing rescued horses “but that snowballed so we needed more space, and with more space, we needed more animals,” she says. A couple of cows grew into their Felda livestock today: 100 or more sheep; 65 head of red and black Angus; more than 3,000 meat or broiler chickens; and hogs.
Consumers have become more aware about how their poultry, eggs, dairy and meat are raised and processed in industrialized, corporate operations, thanks in part to documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” and “Cow-spiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” Growth hormones and antibiotics are pumped into animals housed by the thousands in commercial warehouses, where they are unable to move freely and slaughtered as soon as possible.
Just the opposite happens at Circle C Farm, where animals have free range and are given natural supplements. Their heritage hogs are a variety of pure breeds that have longer “grow-out” periods than hybridized, commercial pork. They roam and forage until they are 10 to 12 months old, instead of three or four months. “That allows for the natural meat development and flavoring to enhance over that time,” she explains. “Our animals may take a little longer to grow out, but it’s better for them and for us.”
Circle C’s sheep are special, too. Cruz and Kozak were told they were “crazy” to try to raise them due to heat and parasites. They experimented and bred their own disease-resistant stock—now the fifth generation. The ewes are de-wormed before lambing season, “so they are as strong as possible,” she notes. Otherwise, “that’s all they get—no antibiotics, no vaccinations.”
Chickens are moved around in mobile coops to pasturelands, where they feed while simultaneously fertilizing the grass. In their drinking water, they receive essential oils, vitamins, cinnamon, oregano and lemon, for detoxification and immune-system building. “We know that it’s a positive benefit for them with no negative chemical side effects,” says Kozak.
The end of the road, of course, is the slaughterhouse. Circle C calls its facility the French term— abattoir. The animals don’t have to be transported, causing stress and adrenaline shock that courses through their body and alters the meat’s flavor.
High Demand Leads to Expansion
Circle C has expanded to meet growing demand. Kozak says many Happy Hens shoppers are selective about ingredients because of existing health conditions, while some feed the organic meats to their pets. At least 16 local restaurants, clubs and chefs utilize Circle C products, not including several on the East Coast, as well as Paleo on the Go in Tampa.
Says Chef Harold Balink, of Harold’s in south Fort Myers, “We try to get as much locally sourced products as possible. They are a stone’s throw down the road, and people say it’s delicious.”Naples Yacht Club Chef John O’Leary began with fresh eggs for omelets, Hollandaise and crème brûlée. “It’s such a noticeable difference—the natural fats you get from the yolks,” he says. One time, when Happy Hens sold out, club members clamored for some out of his inventory, recalls O’Leary, who also uses Circle C’s turkey, chicken and beef. “Their commitment to the overall health and quality and life of the animals on the farm, it cascades into the club. All that passion they pour into raising the livestock heightens the final product. So often a lot of farms want to tell you a great story. Nicole and Manny live it every single day.”