From the Whidbey News-Times:
Farm promoting genetic diversity, a flock at a time
North Whidbey’s Cascadia Heritage Farm focuses on preserving critically endangered breeds.
Viggo Cerrato, 6, pets a young Shamo rooster named Baby Boy. Cascadia Heritage Farm is currently in the midst of a project to “invigorate” a rare breed of chicken. Photo by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News Group
A small family farm is hoping big birds might be the key to getting people to crow about genetic diversity.
North Whidbey’s Cascadia Heritage Farm has focused on breeding and preserving critically endangered breeds since the farm’s beginning.
The farm’s latest endeavor is to create a vigorous and healthy stock of Malay chickens, one of the tallest breeds of chicken in the world.
Titled the MIGHT Project, for Malay Invigoration Gene Hybridization Team, the goal is to take a breed that has traditionally been inbred and “invigorate” it by crossing it with other chicken breeds, such as the Aseel.
The fowl bred through the project will be referred to as “Cascadia Mighty Malays.” The farm currently has three adult Malays that have taken years to track down. A Malay chick was hatched from a mated pair in January.
A survey completed by the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities nearly 20 years ago determined that the Malay was the rarest breed in North America. The breed may have descended from gigantic chickens.
George Cerrato, who owns Cascadia Heritage Farm with his veterinarian wife, Shuna, and their 6-year-old son, Viggo, said the MIGHT project has not been without its challenges. Earlier this month, a Malay rooster that showed no previous signs of illness mysteriously died.
Cerrato suspected he may have died of a stroke. The body was sent to Washington University Veterinary School for a necropsy to uncover the cause of death.
“If we want this type of bird to continue to exist, we have to figure out a way to make it healthier,” Cerrato said.
Genetic and health issues are not uncommon in such a rare and small population as that of the Malay chickens, he added. Issues range from crooked toes to joint problems and can even include sudden illness such as a heart attack or a stroke.
It’s a paradox any breeder recognizes: to have a healthy animal, the genetic base needs to be broadened, even if it means compromising the standard of the breed.
That’s where the MIGHT project, and crossing the Malay with other breeds, comes in.
“If you love that animal, you have to open yourself up to a wider gene pool,” Cerrato said. “Because if you don’t, you’re going to inadvertently bring in genetic disease that’s going to kill the thing you love.”
Cerrato is hoping others will take an interest in the MIGHT project, increasing genetic diversity and small-scale farming. He has already given two Malay chicks away to a partner of his in the project.
Besides the long legs and necks, characteristics of the Malay breed include deep-set eyes and three curves in their back. Shuna, Cerrato’s wife, said the breed is also believed to be more calm and talkative than others.
The Malay fowls at Cascadia Heritage Farm are currently about two and a half feet tall. A year from now, if breeding goes well, they could break three feet.
The Cerratos are currently creating 16 enclosures on their farm for the chickens to live.
The farm also has about 40 Aseel chickens, which are believed to be closely related to the Malay breed. Aseel chickens were first bred for cockfighting. Contrary to this seemingly violent background, the Aseel chickens at Cascadia Heritage Farm are tame and trusting, following Cerrato around like a small dog.
“We believe they’re a treasure trove of genetic diversity and wealth,” Cerrato said of the Aseel breed.
The Aseels and Malays are ancient breeds that originated in India. Cerrato said he found out about the breeds from the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that lists all the endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
“These birds are extremely valuable because of how unique they are,” Cerrato said. “Not only are they unique genetically, but they also represent the cultures they were a part of.”
Having genetic diversity, he added, will help make the chickens less prone to disease. In the event of an avian flu, this could be a very good thing.
Viggo, Cerrato’s son, is the resident “chicken expert” at Cascadia Heritage Farm. He has names for every chicken, such as “Frankenstein,” “Fat Wing” and “Vanilla Ice Cream Hen.” He knows which chicks go with which hens, and he was the first to notice the deceased rooster.
“The goal is to have kids like Viggo have these experiences so that later on in life he can have something to remember and be hopeful about,” Cerrato said.
Another goal of the farm, he added, is to find ways to get young people involved with agriculture. He does not like the hopelessness of some young people he has encountered.
- By Andrew George Cerrato and The Livestock Conservancy
- Wednesday, March 10, 2021 4:25 PM
"Over at Cascadia Heritage Farm
George and Shuna Cerrato, along with their son Viggo, are on a mission to create some Mighty Malays! All through their Malay Invigoration Gene Hybridization Team, a.k.a. the "M.I.G.H.T." Project."
"This project will strive to invigorate the Malay breed while
also encouraging the preservation and heightening appreciation of the majestic ancient Indian Aseel breed that has over 500 variations. One of the variations of the Aseel breed is the Malay type," says George.
"First goal of this project is to give back to the Malay what it has given to the poultry industry: Might/ Vigor.
Second goal is the preservation of ancient foundation breeds of Aseel such as the Indian Kulang, Turkish Hint and Afghani Kolangi
Third goal is to have a bird that can give back to future generations the spark that will come from a treasure trove of genetic diversity that the Mighty Malay will possess.
The fourth and possibly the most important goal to Cascadia Heritage Farm is actively pursuing our values by appreciating the miracle of existence. We believe that a collaborative effort to save such important critically endangered heritage farm animals heightens appreciation. We believe bearing witness to such majestic, wonderful beasts encourages hope that kindles a spark that will take flight, and that by saving them we save ourselves.
Our core approach to achieve the above goals is carefully and
thoughtfully hybridizing ancient foundation breeds of Aseel to
preexisting Malay type birds including American Malays and Brazilian Indo Gigante to bring back a healthier breed standard for the Malay."
“This is a photo of Prince William, one of our San Clemente Island Goat bucks. We call him Goblin. We got him from Broadway Ranch. Karen Broadway was a pleasure to meet, and has done a wonderful job in helping preserve these wonderful goats. We are really excited about the large size of Goblin and look forward to having him in our breeding program.
In the photo we are working on getting him used to walking in the neighborhood. We are hoping to get him comfortable enough to bring out into the public to help bring awareness to the amazing world of farm animals and the importance of encouraging diversity in all things. Perhaps the most important job Goblin and I have is to bring a smile to the faces of people passing by.”
Photo: George Cerrato, a founder of Cascadia Heritage Farm, and Prince William, a San Clemente Island goat, touring the neighborhood for some public outreach and fishing for smiles.
Many things may be uncertain right now, but owners of a small family farm in North Whidbey are certain their mission to breed critically endangered species is a worthwhile one.
Shuna and George Cerrato of Cascadia Heritage Farm recently welcomed four new foals of the Dales pony breed, with the newest one being born just last week.
According to George, the breed’s popularity with the British Army in both world wars led to its near extinction. Many of the ponies did not survive and many of those that did were left behind in Europe, where they were often slaughtered for food, the BBC reported.
The Cerratos said they believe there are only a handful of Dales pony breeders in the U.S.
“They’re really a great all-around horse, which means you can use them for riding, pulling things,” George said.
“They’re very friendly. They love people,” Shuna said. “Being ponies, they have a lot of character.”
On a sunny afternoon the foals Belle, Blossom, Bounce and Brilliant are energetic, running back and forth in a pasture belonging to the Cerratos’ neighbors. Despite their vigor they are still young and stick close to their mothers.
When they are fully grown, Dale ponies are no small creatures. Shuna said the breed falls just short of being classified as a horse because of its height.
Besides the Dales ponies, the Cerratos also have bred San Clemente Island goats, another endangered breed.
“The reason we kind of hung our hats on these critically endangered animals is difference,” George explained. “Difference matters. Diversity matters. We believe it matters and we’re going to keep fighting for it.”
The couple moved to Whidbey Island on a whim in 2011 after purchasing a log cabin near the edge of Deception Pass State Park.
Coming from a busy life in Seattle, they turned their efforts towards small-scale farming, raising their son Viggo at the same time.
“We want to have our son grow up in a world where this doesn’t become an abnormality, that this type of option for people can still be available,” Geroge said about life on a farm.
Acknowledging that having domestic animals around is becoming a rare activity in itself, George encourages others to experience it.
Starting Cascadia Heritage Farm wasn’t easy for the Cerratos, but now they are motivated by their mission to raise interest in the endangered breeds.
Some of the newly born Dales pony foals will likely be sold to a breeder or someone wanting to start a small farm.
Photos by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News-Times The Cerrato family with Arabella, a rare full-grown Dales pony. From left to right, George, Viggo and Shuna.
"About 7 years ago I was very invested in trying to make a lot of money; instead, I lost a lot of money. This resulted in a journey of soul searching to ask why do we do what we do, what matters, how do I want to spend my life currency? I was inspired to appreciate the miracle of the world around us. This miracle of existence is wonderful, bizarre, baffling, sometimes cruel, sometimes sublime, but absolutely beautiful. Our family wants to encourage within ourselves and others this opportunity to appreciate.
My wife, Shuna, has a gift for nurturing life. Where she steps, life springs up to kiss the ground she touches. Having a farm was a natural step for us. We came up with the acronym "ATM" for "Appreciate The Miracle." "A" stands for "Actively surround ourselves with life and fitness; "T" stands for "Try to encourage hope," and "M" stands for "Mindful, generous, and loving toward others."
We started on a journey to heighten this appreciation and as we were envisioning what our farm would be, how we would encourage hope in ourselves and others, we found The Livestock Conservancy. It is an organization of hope and vision, working hard to make their voice heard. We heard this voice and we are adding our voice to it. We believe we can make a difference and what we do matters.
Helping to preserve critically endangered farm animals is our way of making a difference. We believe in true diversity of all things, people, other animals, ideas, languages, genetics, etc. To create healthy systems this diversity is a necessity. In creating systems with diversity, hope and health are intrinsic to them.
Like everyone, we Cascadia Heritage Farm are trying to navigate this journey the best we can, and are thankful to have the opportunity to participate." ~George Cerrato, Livestock Conservancy Member, Cascadia Heritage Farm, Washington
Photo: Andrew, a young Dales Pony, and Prince William, a San Clemente Island goat, checking each other out.
Cascadia Heritage Farm
July 1st we delivered our Dales Pony stallion Taz (Kingmaker Talisman) to WW Equestrian Center In Milton-Freewater, OR in the Walla Walla area for Jessica Wisdom to train him and show him so Dales Ponies can become better known. Because of restrictions due to COVID-19, showing opportunities have been very limited this year! But he was able to go to two USDF Dressage shows in August, ridden in the first one by Kenton Wright where he got his feet wet, so to speak, and started winning fans for the amazing Dales Pony breed. The next weekend Jessica Wisdom rode him and qualified him for USDF Region 6 Championship competition with two scores of 71 in Open Training Level Dressage! This was very unexpected. Although our lack of paperwork groundwork prevented him from officially competing in the Regional competition, he competed in the Open Competition at Regionals, and won one of his classes with a score of 70! We are so proud of him and the recognition he's getting the Dales Pony breed. We are hoping to send him to a CDI international dressage show in Thermal, California, in November.
Photo: Taz, Dales Pony Stallion, winning Open Training Level Dressage at USDF Region 6 Championship