ASHBURNHAM — Keith Kopley was thrilled last week when he got this year’s first batch of chicks to raise and harvest as part of his small farming business in this idyllic New England town.
He notified customers on Facebook, customers who do not mind paying extra to savor the tender, fresh meat of his grass-fed birds. But a day after getting the chicks and putting them in their heated pen to mature and grow, Kopley returned to discover that all 200 of them were gone.
The alleged theft, on a quiet, winding road in a town of 5,500 people, was so brazen, weird, and unexpected that it has shaken Kopley, who has been farming since 2009.
“It was just very strange,’’ Kopley said. “There were power tools and the generators right next to the pen, and they stole the chicks.’’
The case of the missing chicks has baffled many, including police.
“Right now we do not have suspects,’’ said Lieutenant Todd C. Parsons. “There is not much to go on.”
Kopley, 38, of Westsminster, says he began farming because of his passion for living off the land. His Kalon Farm, on a broad patch along Corey Hill Road, has a full complement of grass-fed beef, lamb, and pork.
Kopley says he orders Cornish cross chickens from a hatchery in Pennsylvania, usually buying 1,000 chicks each year. The chicks are bred to grow fast and are ready for sale by their seventh week.
The first group of birds, each about 4 days old, arrived at the local post office in two perforated boxes around 8:30 Wednesday morning, Kopley said.
Kopley brought the chicks home and placed them in a lined pen in his garage, with two heating lamps, feeders, and water. Around 9:30 Thursday morning, he checked on the birds, still just fluffs of yellow feathers, peeping and huddling around the heaters.
Kopley says he left the garage door unlocked, but said that is not unusual.
When he returned later, the chicks were gone.
“When I first walked in here, I noticed that the crates were still here,’’ he said, pointing to the boxes the chicks arrived in. “So whoever did this brought their own to get them out of here. That was their intention.”
He wonders if the theft was the act of rogue individuals with a political agenda.
“Anybody who’s really [an activist] is not going to come after us,’’ he said. “They’re going to go after a corporation.These animals are healthy and happy.’’
He is certain the theft was not done by someone from one of the nearby farms; they usually look out for one another, he said.
He also said the chicks need the proper environment to survive. He keeps them in the heated pen for about a week and a half, then puts them in a greenhouse, where he fattens them on lush grass. Once they mature, they are sent to a processing plant for slaughter. He sells them for roughly $4 a pound.
“It’s part of what we do,’’ he said. “We want to eat this way. I’m not buying any meat from a grocery store, so we raise it and we eat it.”
Kopley said that if the robber did not prepare a new home for the chicks before acting, the chicks’ demands will be overwhelming. They are bred to grow quickly and have a life span of about 20 weeks.
“They are not going to live their natural lives out on some rescue farm,’’ he said. “They are going to end up dying.’’
Kopley said he is more disappointed about the theft than angry. He has already begun alerting customers, who had placed 65 orders for the chickens, that their meat will be late.
“I had a lot of preorders,’’ he said. “People love their chickens raised the right way.”