Chickens: Where is their place on our farm?

Long, and I may be way off, see what you think…

Last night as Brian and I were cleaning the barn my mind wandered to raising chickens.  We only have our laying flock right now but for the past two summers we have raised Colored Ranger meat birds.  If I remember correctly we started with 100 the first year and upped it to 200 last year.  We sold out the first year with almost zero effort.  This past season we had enough birds left to freeze some.  That’s not really a bad thing considering our customers do like to pick up more birds throughout the year, especially around the holidays.  Still, part of me had expected us to sell out again.  We had launched our website and our first newsletter got rave reviews.  I had higher expectations.

Where was the problem?  I have a theory, although I may be wrong.  I think that the price makes people uncomfortable.  I think that’s why some of our customers buy only one time.  They like the idea of the product but the cost surprises them and they don’t want the pain of pulling out their wallet a second time.  The only other explanation I can think of is that the chicken itself does not taste good or is otherwise unsatisfactory.  I believe this is not the case because we have never had a bad review and we have had many positive ones.  We also have some repeat customers whereas I would expect very few if their was that kind of problem.

Assuming I’m correct, what is the solution.  Either lower the price or find more people willing to pay what we are charging.  Lowering the price is absolutely not an option.  Absolutely not.  The currentl price of $2/pound is calculated to be roughly 100% markup.  That means that for every $1 we spend we make $1.  However, our $1 spent is based only on the cost of the chicks, the feed, and supplies such as heat lamp bulbs.  It does not include the purchase of equipment such as fencing, housing, feeders, waters, crates, etc.  Also, that figuring assumes that every chick we start out with makes it to slaughter without any room for losses along the way.  So, take out what we’ve invested in equipment and what we’ve lost and we are making far less than a 100% profit.  What little we do make is all the compensation we get for the time spent actually taking care of the chickens, getting up at night to check the heat lamps,  hauling them to the processor, hauling them back, bagging them, and now, freezing them.  Oh, and I almost forget, marketing them.

So we’re not getting rich, despite what those who gasp at the price may think.  So why do we do it at all?  We want food this good to be available to our neighbors.  We want everyone to have an alternative to those freakishly fast growing white birds.  We want to eat chicken that does not have a lot of additives and definitely doesn’t contain antibiotics.  I’ll take my antibiotics from a pill bottle, thank you very much.  I know I’m not the only one in our area who feels that way.

Why not just tap in to a new market?  After all, we are constantly being encouraged to sell to people “in the city”.  “Those city folk love that kind of thing.”  I know they do since that’s where every direct selling organic farmer in our area gets their client base.  Notice, we’re not organic.  Why?  Because we want to sell to our neighbors, and our neighbors aren’t asking for organic.  I don’t want to haul our goods to the city while my neighbors buy their food at Wal-Mart.  That might work for some but it doesn’t work for me.  Maybe that’s business suicide, we’ll see.  At the end of the day I am sticking to my morals and I am passionate about local agriculture.

I should take a moment to mention that my desire to raise so many chickens is waning.  If I was absolutely in love with raising meat chickens and wanted to do it on a grand scale I would try harder to make it happen.  I could ramp up advertising, perhaps target a few of the closer cites.  We could pursue more licenses so we could sell to restaurants and through grocery stores.  At this time, it’s just not something we want to do.  Between work and other farming duties our time comes at a premium.  Hauling the chickens to the processor is a job for two people and we are rarely both free at the same time.  We’re going to start a family eventually and I’m not sure how a pregnant lady would lug around those heavy coolers and crates, never mind how fun that would be with a toddler underfoot.

So where does that leave us and our chickens?  We will probably always raise some meat chickens.  There will always be our own freezer to fill.  At this point I am planning to take orders again in the early spring and happily raise birds for those who enjoy them.  We will offer chicken on a pre-order only basis for 2011.  If we have any losses we will cover them out of the birds we planned to eat ourselves, there will not be extras.

This really isn’t a big deal as far as changing the logistics of chicken raising for us.  The biggest change for me is a shift in how I think of the chickens as a business venture.  I no longer see them as such a great fit for us or as having the potential to supplement our farm income on a very big scale.  Any profit they have brought in is small potatoes compared to more successful projects.  We’re going to go with what works and, at least for now, chickens don’t!

I’d love thoughts from customers and other farmers alike.  Am I right or wrong in my speculations?  What do you think of the path we’re taking with the chickens?  Feedback is more than welcome!

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6 thoughts on “Chickens: Where is their place on our farm?

  1. Jill

    Hi Jenna- “Where is their place on our farm?” IN THE FREEZER! 😉 My sister was the “chicken person” growing up. About the only time I touched them was when they were chicks and when I had to do the mandatory showmanship class to sell them at the 4-H auction. I’d say just raise what you want for your freezer and take a few orders from people near by. Once you have kids, you can rethink selling and marketing. At that point, you can use it as a great learning tool for them…and what small margin of profit their is, could be their’s for their savings accounts. I think the cost to you will far outweigh the lessons they learn.

    This past fall we butchered 20 chickens and 7 turkeys–raised by my mom. We all get together and everyone works a “station”, so it goes quickly. Leslie learned that the white birds in the pen, the funny looking thing on the gutting table and what we ate for dinner a few nights later were all chicken; a pretty big connection for an 18-mo.-old. However, she didn’t realize that they were the SAME chickens, because the next time we were there, she went to their pen looking for them ;-).

    Also, you could also try turkeys. They aren’t any more difficult to raise–and actually, over 12 years, they have had a much lower mortality rate than the chickens we’ve raised. Just a thought, people could preorder their Thanksgiving Turkey in the spring and it seems they may be willing to pay a bit more for a special occasion bird.

    Have a great Friday! ~Jill

    Reply
  2. April Nelson

    Jena: I don’t raise chickens, so this is from the consumer standpoint. You are probably right about the sticker shock–although at the rate food prices are going in the markets, your sticker price may not be such a huge hurdle. (In fact, my first thought was you were going to say “it’s the economy.”) That being said, I think your solution–to raise only pre-ordered chickens other than those you raise for yourself–fits your situation. Yeah, you could jump into city markets, but as you sketch out, that brings a whole set of different issues, stresses, and concerns. (And I’m not sure where you are in relation to cities geographically, and which cities we’re talking about, so that too is a factor. Some cities are better than others for marketing local/regional agriculture.)

    I think your 2011 plan is sound. Try it and reassess next fall.

    Reply
  3. Jess

    I guess I’m one of those “in the city.” We do enjoy the concept of home-grown chickens and I do not buy my meat commercially anywhere other than Whole Foods. Since I pay about $5 per pound of meat for chicken at Whole Foods, I think $2 per pound of chicken is perfectly reasonable. So in case others are wondering why I don’t buy from you, I live at least 90 miles away from you, if you live in BR and since you live in Caro, I’m guessing you live even further away? Maybe one of these days, we can meet up near BR and I’ll buy some of your chicken!

    Reply
  4. Angie

    Hi Jena,

    Nice, thoughtful post. I struggle with this too as I have one foot in the city and one in the rural countryside. I want to sell local food to local folks – especially in the rural countryside. the problem is – there is no living wage when folks are used to WalMart prices. Small producers just can’t compete with that and urban folks often have more income for these types of purchases. I think maybe you can find a balance?

    I say give it a year or two and revisit the idea. I think more and more people are coming around to understanding how what they eat connects them to their local economy and local food dollars stay in local economies.

    All that said – do you have others in your area that are interested in this? We have found a small (albeit very small) group of folks in the country that are trying to move local food forward and connecting with them has helped us a lot. I also read a good book recently – a little “out there” sometimes, but interesting The Town that Food Saved: How One community Found Vitality in Local Food by Ben Hewitt.

    Good luck – keep us posted!

    Reply

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