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!