September 11th, 2016 by Ed Bruske
Wow, it’s been four months since I last posted. I wasn’t meaning to take such a long hiatus–just wasn’t inspired to write, I guess, and the days, the weeks, the months drifted by in the routine of farm chores.
The grass has been growing like crazy this year, with plenty of sun, rain and favorable temperatures. That keeps me busy mowing and tending to one of the farms most odious tasks: trimming the weeds that grow up outside our electric perimeter fence. Foliage on the electric wires draws down the charge on all our fences. Never a less agreeable task was ever invented for the livestock farmer than slashing through that tangle of growth in the heat of summer.
Otherwise our critters have been doing just fine, what with all the lush pasture to munch on. Our big buck goat–Tigger–has been off with the sheep since July and he’s as frustrated as ever. He’ll have to wait till November to rejoin his own kind. Our two rams, meanwhile, have the orchard all to themselves. The goats still line up every morning to beg for grain on their side of the farm. Some things never change. And of course we are still making hourly rounds of the laying hens, trying to get the eggs before the hens eat them.
Yes, I think you could safely say we have passed the summer in a dreamlike state of sameness. Until, that is, customers all of a sudden stopped ordering our Freedom Ranger broiler chickens.
We started this business three years ago, brooding chicks in the basement and raising them to broiler size inside big cages–“chicken tractors”–that we move around the pasture behind our house with a couple of dollies. Twice daily we feed and water the birds, moving the “tractors” to fresh grass, for about 11 weeks when we kill, pluck and eviscerate them and sell them to eager clients.
Selling broilers has been the biggest money-maker on the farm. We did so well our first two years that this year we compressed our schedule so we could raise even more. Sure enough, we had a record month in June. But then something very strange happened. The customers that we email every month to announce the latest broiler harvest suddenly stopped responding. It was like someone flipped a switch: One day I sent emails to dozens of clients just like always, expecting the usual flurry of replies, only to be greeted by almost complete silence. Only a handful of our most loyal customers continued to order chickens.
As you might imagine, this creates problems. In order to have 11-week-old broilers available on a monthly basis during the growing season, we have to order chicks on a monthly basis far in advance. At any given time, we have 150 birds in various stages of development. And once you start, you can’t very well just stop. Consequently, any chickens that don’t get sold have to be stored somehow for consumption later–presumably by us, since people typically don’t order broilers during the winter.
We are very quickly building quite a stockpile of unsold broilers in our basement chest freezer and even after cancelling the order for chicks we had intended to sell in November, we still have 100 chickens growing in the field. I wonder if we will be able to eat them fast enough if they don’t get sold, or whether we’ll have to order a new chest freezer to hold them all.
It’s not like our broilers are very expensive, either. At $3.99 a pound for heritage birds grown on pasture without chemicals, hormones or GMOs, ours are priced below market. Why enthusiasm for them suddenly fell off the charts, I have no idea. But that’s the hazard of any small business. There are definitely changes to our business model in store for next year–like asking customers to order in advance before we purchase our chicks.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a juicy, delicious, all-natural chicken, we’ve got plenty. Just drop us a line.