Coastal Com­merce

Liv­ing the Free-Range Dream

Bonita & Estero Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - BY CATHY C HESTNUT Cathy Ch­est­nut is a free­lance writer who ex­plores the peo­ple and places that make South­west Florida, her home­town stomp­ing ground, unique.

What started out as a place called Happy Hens, selling 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 take their an­i­mals to the ranch for pro­cess­ing.


Kozak is a long­time 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,” Kozak 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 Cowspiracy: 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. Its 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 3 or 4 months. “That al­lows for the nat­u­ral meat de­vel­op­ment and fla­vor­ing to en­hance over that time,” Kozak 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,” Kozak 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 im­munesys­tem 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.


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.”

From left in photo at top right are Cir­cle C co-owner Ni­cole Kozak, Naples Yacht Club chef John O’Leary and Cir­cle C co-owner Manny Cruz. Kozak and Cruz are ex­pand­ing the or­ganic farm that to­day serves some two dozen Florida res­tau­rants, clubs and chefs. O’Leary is choosy about what menu in­gre­di­ents he se­lects, pur­chas­ing from the Cir­cle C farm in Bonita.

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