Getting Into the Heritage Poultry Business

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Pheasants can bring high prices in a small poultry business, but the marketing must be top-notch to build a customer base for these specialty birds.
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In "Beyond the Chicken," renowned author and poultry keeper Kelly Klober offers a wealth of information for aspiring poultry keepers looking for something other than chickens, whether water fowl or land, game birds or highly domesticated breeds.

While producing and selling chickens and eggs may remain the most common American poultry venture, Kelly Klober invites readers to explore the possibilities of other poultry varieties in Beyond the Chicken (Acres U.S.A., 2014). Practical advice interspersed with humorous personal anecdotes guides poultry producers through the process of creating or expanding an alternative poultry venture, raising and caring for each type of bird discussed and building a customer base in local markets. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Restoration and Marketing: Reaching and Educating Consumers.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Beyond the Chicken.

Developing a Poultry Business Plan

Before us now are opportunities in poultry keeping and production that, frankly, I thought would never be seen again in my lifetime. They aren’t falling from the sky like big fluffy snowflakes, but they are being found by those with the creativity and initiative to make more of them than a momentary interest in the new or faddish.

American agriculture is diffusing into many different directions, including a new/old group of true family farmers and smallholders building on local food and farming traditions yet finding new outlets for their production. Many of them are now focusing beyond the recent boom in interest in brown eggs and range broilers and are seeking new courses beyond these already possibly maturing pursuits.

Americans are not going to stop consuming such historically important staples of their diet as the egg, chicken, and turkey. Ask the emu and ostrich people, the few that are left, if there were any cracks to be found in that trinity. However, looking beyond that troika and by working with and around its edges, many producers are coming to believe that alternative poultry species and systems of production will lead to a future that those with ostriches and emu did not find.

There is a very real need now for a better marketing infrastructure to aid in the advancement of all poultry, from heirloom broilers to guinea fowl. At this moment I am aware of just one publication providing anything in the way of detailed market reporting, and this only for a handful of poultry auctions in southeast Pennsylvania.

Our farming community is about seventy miles from the city of St. Louis, where there are upscale restaurants, specialty food stores, consumers with substantial disposable incomes, community groups involved with food issues, and many others that want and would pay well for the distinct and heirloom poultry varieties that the farmers in our area produce and can do so even in greater numbers. That distance, just over an hour’s driving time, is as broad as any ocean, however. Missouri now has only two small abattoirs that will process poultry, there is no marketing apparatus to take poultry from the state’s farms to all of those forks in the Show-Me State’s urban areas, there are huge cultural and societal gaps to be spanned, government regulations thwart rather than smooth the path from family farm and consumer, and, honestly, we as farmers need to do a better job of standing up for ourselves and getting our own story told.

The other day a member of our farmers’ market group was spending a leisurely Sunday afternoon puttering among the flowers in her yard. A car stopped at their roadside sign, a window rolled down, and, in uncertain English, a young woman asked if they had any eggs for sale. They did have eggs for sale and would have much more to sell as the year unfolded. The people in the car were Russian immigrants, the young woman the only one who spoke English, and they were many miles from their home looking for the farm-fresh items that they knew and valued from their earlier life. This was a bit of serendipity for both, but it also shows the information breakdown that occurs.

Our market members live in a community that is largely Amish, possibly the closest Amish community to the St. Louis area. The immigrants had, no doubt, heard that the Amish farmers often produced the farm goods that they sought. They did not know that the Amish would not open their gates and do business on Sunday. Thus a weedy flower bed created a marketing opportunity that might otherwise have been lost.

Our friends’ family took the visitors on a tour of their small farm to show them the poultry yard, baby chicks and eggs in the incubator, newborn lambs, dairy goats, and the early work being done in the market garden. Those folks bought several dozen brown eggs—at St. Louis prices—and promised they would return when the young ducks and lambs were ready for harvest. A bit of good fortune and some simple country kindness spanned a very big gap for those two families, but it needs to be done much more often and on a much larger scale.

As land-grant college extension work continues its slide from relevance, many producers believe it is missing its real chance for a sustainable future by not stepping up to do more work linking farmers and consumers in the marketing process. There are farmers’ markets near large urban areas, such as Miami and Chicago, where there is a growing presence for live birds and small stock. There are barriers of distance and culture that have to be crossed and be crossed while packing a fair-sized load of poultry yard denizens that quack, cackle, coo, and gobble.

Getting Into the Heritage Poultry Business

In some camps I am accused of being too concerned about the “business” of poultry. For a number of years I was active in breeding, promoting, and reporting on the efforts to preserve a wide array of rare and endangered poultry breeds and varieties. Some breeds and varieties were indeed pulled back from the brink of extinction, and it became almost fashionable to have a few “heirloom” birds about the homeplace or backyard. Mostly hens, as all of those roosters were just too noisy. How spinsterhood preserved a breed was never made clear, however. Some thought that was enough, the job was done, and even got a bit smug about it. A few others, with some of the rarest and most minor of breeds, copped an attitude that they were going to take them to the grave with them.

I’m sorry, but preservation is but the first of a great many steps, and the real goal should be restoration. That means returning a breed or variety to the numbers, the number of producers, and the role for which it was developed at the time when it most prospered. And yes, that calls for a rethinking and a restructuring of virtually the whole of the production agriculture process. Nearly every poultry breed and variety was developed for practical ends, to work in specific environments and economic circumstances.

Eye appeal did come into play. After all, they were developed by human beings, and eye appeal and personal satisfaction are important factors to what makes a successful poultry venture and poultry producer. Still, preservation work cannot be considered fully successful until the various breeds and varieties are restored to the point where they are in a position to “pay their own way.”

Poultry, like so many other livestock species, were first bred and kept to meet a family’s needs and then to serve locally arising markets. And, yes, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, guineas, and more are livestock. They are cultivated for practical ends, historically have had an important economic role to play in the success of the family farm, and those practical ends are what continue to give them their greatest meaning and value.

Many of the varieties outlined here never had great commercial roles to play, but they will not thrive or even survive if left as mere novelties and lesser members of an avian sideshow. Not many people are going to dine on Carneau squab or young Pearl guinea any time soon, but if we are not continuing to breed them toward such practical ends, are we not really neglecting them in just one more way?

The handful of pigeons I added not long ago may never grow into a poultry business as many think of production agriculture now. However, they are a bit more than just a feel-good purchase for me. I have been fielding a growing number of inquiries about squabbing pigeons, and a start has to be made to determine their worth as a venture in our area.

Most poultry ventures now being launched on a more human and artisanal scale are not about amassing and shuffling great amounts of money but serving a market concerned about the food items it is receiving and then allowing the producer to retain as much of the money generated as is possible.

When I was coming out of high school in the late 1960s and taking up a larger role in the family farm, a school of thought was emerging about how U.S. farm life would evolve. The belief was that there would come to pass a number of quite large operations producing certain crops and livestock as factory-farmed commodities. Alongside them would be a number of mid-sized, family farms providing some inputs to those larger farms and producing other crops and livestock that did not lend themselves to factory farming methods.

That had a short season to say the least. As the big farms grew ever larger and fewer in number they did so at the expense of those mid-sized farmers that were quickly bypassed by the technology and infrastructure that had become so enthralled with the ideas of mega-farms and farming.

The two livestock species first gobbled up by the factory farm sector were the chicken and the turkey. With these birds shut tightly away in sheet metal gulags, a sea of medium and large white eggs and broiler and turkey meat to be restructured and reshaped began to roll out. The good stewing hen, roasting goose, Long Island duckling, and pan-fried quail went the way of roasted buffalo haunch and Passenger pigeon on the menu. They were remembered by the old-timers, had often become little more than speech idioms, and were brought out at a few family reunions and special events, but they were no longer as accessible as they once were.

The Rise of Local Food Production

In the waning years of the twentieth century, consumers grew more concerned about how and what they were being fed. Awareness dawned that there had once been something better, that regional foods were once more rich and varied than what could be done with corn syrup, soy, and hothouse turkey. The range broiler and the cage-free brown egg grew out of a demand that agriculture again become something better and more reflective of society and issued a challenge to the agribusiness status quo. It was the opening for poultry folks to get back into the game. Basic food consumption patterns are always going to be price driven, a society will always be measured economically by the beans/chicken/beef yardstick, but societies and economies around the world are turning a corner. With increases in education and disposable income, consumers have learned that they can vote with their dollars. For a growing number of the population, food is becoming more than the cheapest amount of calories that can be bought to sustain life.

What was first done with wine is now being done with all sorts of farm products. When I graduated from high school the idea of a fine Missouri wine was all but laughable. Wine was made here, but on a par with bathtub gin and white corn likker. We had brown eggs when I was a youngster, too. They weren’t store bought but came from small home flocks, from folks who were too cantankerous or too lacking in funds to go with the flow of agribusiness. Their brown-egg layers were homegrown and kept sustainably long before that word was to become fashionable. I remember Dad, upon witnessing the early stages of the environmental movement, saying that long ago his family had practiced recycling, but back then it was just another part of being poor.

Now there is nothing inherently better in a brown-shelled egg than in a white one. In fact, everything that adds value to a brown-shelled egg can be done with a white-shelled one. That includes organic production and coming from breeds with the bonafides to be termed heirloom. Modern consumers, as their circumstances progress, bring new and different demands into the marketplace. They want food production that they believe is more healthful, food that is more humanely produced and in a more environmentally sound manner, and that sustains the smaller, family farm–based agriculture with which they are most comfortable and trust the most. Somehow the brown egg became one of the icons of all of this, and in the growing demand for it and what it represents the way was opened for this modern poultry-keeping renaissance of ours. Because of its early rarity and association with small-flock production, the brown-shelled egg was valued quite highly and generated the sort of prices that have inspired so many to take a new look at poultry production in a more artisanal and less industrialized manner.

Recent economic events have caused brown egg and range broiler demand to take a bit of a stutter step, and demand may be beginning to plateau. How producers handle this plateau is going to be crucial to both short-term returns and long-term survival. The supply of true artisanal goods always lies in the hands of the producer, and that kind of control must extend beyond numbers to include quality and the image of both the product and the producer. If this plateauing continues it will not be safely resolved by the time-honored and nearly always wrong approach taken by those in production agriculture in the past. It is not the time to dig in, produce more, and try to fight for pennies in the marketplace. To profit from pennies you have to invest millions, if not billions. The example to follow, I believe, lies in one of the valleys of California, but not the Imperial or the San Joaquin. Rather it is to Napa Valley where poultry producers, all farmers actually, should be looking now. They should be producing farm goods equated with fine wines in the marketplace and building farms in the enduring nature and with the high regard reserved for the more legendary vineyards.

No, the brown egg is not the perfect food; there is no manna this side of the Jordan. In fact, I believe the white-shelled egg from a more natural system of production is already rising to challenge it. It is produced by a large number of breeds, many of which are more productive and less costly to maintain than the larger framed brown egg–laying breeds that are most commonly in use. Breeds like the Leghorn have smaller space requirements and consume substantially less feed per dozen of eggs produced.

The Future of the Small Poultry Business

As interest in white-shelled eggs begins to grow, consumers should become open to other egg options such as bantam and duck eggs on the table. What will almost certainly continue is this desire for distinctive, locally produced food items that are more than just commodities produced in high volume for the least cost in unending uniformity. One of the real first human freedoms enjoyed in the New World was the access to meat; the deer and the game birds did not belong to any king.

One of the earliest instances of commerce within the New World was the trade in livestock between the Pilgrims and the slightly later arrivals, the Puritans. Thus, when you consider the early significance of the “cow trader,” much of history begins to make a bit more sense. Jokes aside, all of that livestock, including the feathered kind, was locally produced and had been bred up to the challenges and the resources of that new land. Local production and sustainability was shaping American agriculture from its very earliest times.

Columbus made landfall in the New World in 1492, as every schoolboy and girl knows. By the 1540s turkey was valued table fare during the holiday season in England. History does not record who ate the first egg taken from a Junglefowl’s nest, nor the argument that led up to it. (“You eat it.” “No, you eat it.” “I’m not eating it.” “You found it.” “Yeah, so?” “Well I saw where it came from and I’m not eating it.”) Still, we know that poultry, eggs, and even poultry fat anchor virtually every major cuisine around the world. And consumers are coming into the U.S. marketplace in ever greater numbers asking for very specific poultry varieties and products.

What began with brown-shelled eggs and range broilers is growing in magnitude. Egg and poultry meat production will probably never be completely wrenched from the hands of factory farming, but at long last opportunities are opening for producers on the human scale with poultry of varieties and forms that consumers can’t or don’t feel comfortable buying from the factory farm system. It is also production based on the concepts of elite, premium-valued and priced items. Demand for guineas, geese, ducklings, and the like has never been great in this country and that has to, I believe, be considered a good thing. Those who want them know them to not be readily available, and that scarcity factor thus gives them added value.

Factory farming is a high-volume process; it cannot afford to gear up for a product with modest levels of demand. You cannot buy lamb nuggets, for example. Nor can factory farming and big box stores come easily to bear on artisanal and local food production. As I write this you can buy organic food items at even the smallest, most rural Walmart stores in Missouri. It took time for that to happen, but when demand reached a certain point the large producers saw that market and found the means to come in on it in their typically heavy-handed manner.

Now, if you were to become the local producer of larger French guineas or Emden geese of exceptional quality or White Holland roasting turkeys to go along with well-bred Delaware or New Hampshire broilers, you are going to draw attention but little or no competition. You will be operating in a manner similar to that of a producer of pedigreed cattle or horses; you are a producer of foundation stock (and all that that term means) and consumables of a most select nature.

More from Beyond the Chicken:

Can a Small Poultry Business Bolster the Rural Economy?
Raising Guinea Fowl
Heritage Turkey Breeds for Homesteaders

Reprinted with permission from Beyond the Chicken: A Guide to Alternative Poultry Species for the Small Farm by Kelly Klober and published by Acres U.S.A., 2014. Buy this book from our store: Beyond the Chicken.

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