This past year was a big learning curve as all years have been and frankly all years should be. Since this would only be our second full year farming, we had little product to go to market with in the summer. Eggs, of course, but we can’t even begin to meet that demand so it leaves us with two or three hours of the market day left with not much to sell once the eggs are gone. Our weather and soil aren’t very suitable for growing, though we are working on hoop houses for the future. So we turned to meat chicken production which we can get to market in eight to twelve weeks from the time the chicks arrive.
We had raised meat birds the year before and kept some records on what our costs were to get them to the freezer. It turned out that our cost to produce pasture raised chickens on good feed that was GMO and soy free was just under $5 pound. That’s quite a bit considering it doesn’t account for labor or marketing.
We decided to move forward with it. We thought that if we can connect with our customer, they will understand that we are offering value in the form of quality by raising chickens in the sunshine and fresh air. Allowing them to forage in the pasture for grass and bugs as well as get a good quality grain will make them far better tasting, but more importantly highly nutritious food.
The grass and bugs that the chickens forage for are high in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that all our bodies need to be healthy and this was our intent when we left our lives in the city and decided to raise nutritious food. And we were right! Our customers loved them despite the economics of it they returned for chickens all summer long and well into the fall. We made the connection and delivered on the promise.
In today’s industrial food system, chicken is raised by farmers who don’t own the birds, only the infrastructure used to raise them. Or at least they own the debt as the agro industrial poultry corporations require farmers to build facilities to their specifications on their own dime, carry the debt of hundred’s of thousands of dollars while the corporation has the right to cancel their grower’s contract with a thirty day written notice, leaving them with expensive empty buildings to pay for. The feed that is used is heavily made up of subsidized corn and soy grown in depleted soil propped up with synthetic petroleum nutrients and sprayed with herbicides all of which end up in the food chain. The subsidized grains mean that the taxpayer is footing the bill for these less than nutritionally valuable food products and the corporations are able to buy them for less than it costs to produce them. The finished birds are then rounded up and shipped to processing plants where underpaid workers are hired to process them. The parts are then shipped out to the domestic and global market. If all this wasn’t enough, the chicken is then often plumped up with saline injections to repair moisture and flavor compromises during growing and increase market weight.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case in our country. A hundred years ago hunger was a real problem. It wasn’t until after the second world war that that really changed. The New Deal improved things but it was during the Nixon administration that Earl Butz declared to the country’s farming community “Get big or get out.” Meaning that they intended to heavily subsidize crops of corn and grains for the domestic and global market to build food security and have our farmers producing fence line to fence line. And to their credit, they did fix the hunger problem. While hunger is still present in the US, health problems including obesity and diabetes are now the dominant issue with food. There is an over abundance of nutritionally valueless food available from fast food to grocery store shelves, all very affordable. A couple dollars can satisfy hunger but not the nutritional requirements humans need.
So we have an abundance of food today that is fragile and dependent on cheap oil. But before this hunger was more present and food scarcity was a problem. Hoover declared during his 1928 campaign speech “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage”, which I’m almost certain wasn’t because everyone was eating the skinless chicken breasts we find available today at every fast food restaurant and grocery store. Chicken on the dinner table was as rare as a car in every garage. Chicken was a treat, a Sunday dinner item on the farm derived from spring chickens hatching out and I can say from experience that every chicken that found its way to a pot was a young unwanted rooster. The eggs were just allowed to hatch out naturally on the farm by the population of laying hens wandering about and after a few months, when some of the young chickens began to cock-a-doodle, one by one they found their way to the kitchen. There’s not much advantage to being born male on the farm.
So that’s a very limited way to produce chicken. You let some eggs hatch and a roll of the dice provides you with roosters for the table and hens for eggs. Our model is quite different. We order meat producing chicks from a hatchery, pay for each bird and pay for shipping. When they arrive, we monitor their heated environment several times a day, bring them food and water to their brooder and after a few weeks they are ready to go out to pasture to continue growing while they forage for grass and bugs. Meanwhile we’re buying good quality grain (skipping the corn and soy) by the ton and after several tons of feed the birds are ready for processing which is another upfront expense before they ever get to market. Which brings us to the average cost of $5/lb on our chicken and this year we raise around 900 meat birds with an average of 3.75 pounds. All of this effort also caused us to hire our first official employee as we found ourselves hauling water and feed all day to these birds out on pasture, we couldn’t get much else done and by doing so added an upfront labor expense as well. What all of this amounts to is a lot of upfront cash that then trickles back in while the bills are still needing to be paid and other farm efforts need to be funded. So you can see how the demand for chicken in the American diet caused some corner cutting on the production end over the last 100 years. No one is foolish enough to run a business model this way. To make this work, the money plus profit needs to be returned in thirty to sixty days to provide capital to continue. However, restaurants and grocers won’t pay a wholesale price that supports true pasture raised chicken and therefore it needs to be marketed directly to the consumer one transaction at a time and the longer it takes the higher the retail price needs to be to make it economically sustainable for a producer like us to continue raising meat birds. But the demand is there and the chickens give back to us in the form of manure which is high in nitrogen that the plants respond well to, which ups our forage production for our grazing sheep and cattle and by rotating grazing animals and allowing the plants to regrow (and more importantly the roots) between grazes, we build soil, soil that supports plant life and holds carbon and moisture making us more sustainable every season.
The other thing the chickens do is eat seeds. Yes, they eat the seeds of oats and peas we import to the farm for their feed ration, but they also eat the seeds of weeds that they find on pasture. This is monumental because it breaks the weed cycle. Weeds are simply plants that have been introduced to the environment that out compete the native plants or imported plants you want growing. Cheat grass, for example, is considered a weed. It germinates with only a small amount of moisture in the soil and completes growth and seed production in about two weeks. Far, far quicker than perennial grass and then goes on to shade out the soil and becomes the dominant grass. Not suitable for grazing forage. Park a flock of chickens on it and the first thing they do is bite off all those seed heads, pick up seeds off the ground that have fallen and scratch the area up aerating the soil and leaving behind nutrient rich manure. After a few days we move them to the next area and begin irrigating that weedy area and Ta-Da!, that previously suppressed perennial grass begins to come in. All of this pasture repair without herbicides, without tillage and while turning that forage into healthy eggs and meat. It doesn’t make raising chicken any cheaper, it actually makes it more expensive due to the labor inputs of bringing feed and water and portable shelter plus fences rather than parking them in one spot and delivering days of feed and water at a time. Our chickens need attention at least twice a day. But, it does save us from being harassed by the state weed board or having to use herbicides on our land. There we have taken a negative and turned it into a positive.
What all of this amounts to is high cash output throughout the season and a slow return. It makes it unfeasible for us to raise large quantities of chicken year to year, because the cash flow just doesn’t support it. We would need to sell something like one hundred chickens a week to support a one thousand per year production, or about 10%. We average about ten chickens a week in our current system, so that clearly doesn’t support us raising much more than 200-300. Of course, that math doesn’t work either, but that’s farming for you. So the way we can continue with chicken is if the vast majority of them go to our CSA customers. This way, once our investment in chicken is market ready, our CSA customers have bought their CSA shares and paid for the chicken investment along with some return for the farm so that we can farm again next season. In this way we can produce the nutritious food that people want and also be economically sustainable. We are committed to raising food in the most environmentally sustainable and humane way we know how but sustainable also means being able to pay the bills. -Matthew