Three individual certified organic family farms decided to try to work together to produce organic, free range pasture poultry and eggs. In addition to the chickens all farms produced row crops: corn, soybeans, small grains, hay, vegetables, etc. Farming practices include ridge till farming, crop rotation, strip farming, and solid sown small grains with clovers for cover crops and intensive rotational pasture grazing. Livestock include bees, poultry, hogs and cattle. Livestock were integrated as part of the farm rotation.
Before receiving this grant sustainable practices were being carried out on all the farms at various levels for many years. As mentioned above practices included: crop rotation, strip farming, terraces, contour farming, integration of livestock in pasture, windbreak plantings, and conservation of livestock and native grass species.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Our group started out to provide women with a chance to develop on farm job opportunities. We felt if we could develop added value products from our farms we would have a chance to work together and stay in our rural community. Initially our group was identified as Country Edge and there were five women. Because of the demands of raising and marketing free range chickens our group has changed and we formed an LLS called Prairie Chicks etc.
The grant was structured so we learned to work as a group. One key factor to working as a group was we needed to build confidence in ourselves as a business. We also needed to learn to trust and support each other. When we felt comfortably as business partners we then had to develop standards for our products. We quickly learned to produce a product of similar quality and taste in order to market under one label.
What this entailed was learning how to raise chickens on pasture with our own feeds. We also developed our own labels and logos and markets. We still have yet to find adequate reliable markets. Part of this is due to the fact Nebraska does not have an infrastructure set up for direct marketing. Another part is that state laws are not developed for small direct marketing and the biggest hurdle is that there are few USDA inspected poultry slaughtering facilities. This last hurdle prohibits us from marketing into small local grocery stores.
We had some help from various people, but the biggest help was getting in there and doing it ourselves. We are learning from our mistakes. With free range chickens the ration is very important because the pasture varies. We received help from an independent commercial feed supplier. The Poultry Nutritionist at the University was no help and was even discouraging. Her remarks lead us to think that chickens could never be raised outdoors. Steve Huber our NRCS was very helpful in getting us set up to implement our multi-species grazing.
We are selling chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and eggs and they taste great, have muscle tone and are certified organic. We have our own logo and website.
When we applied for the grant initially we had no idea what we were getting into. We didn’t know what we would need as far as costs. Equipment and time to raise and market free range chickens. We were naïve on how much time this project would take away from our other farming activities and family. We did accomplish forming a LLC and getting liability insurance due to the nature of handling and selling raw poultry. However, it is impossible not to get exhausted trying to wear all hats (farmer, processor, marketer, nutritionist, ad designer, receptionist, problem solver, wife and mother).
We went to farmer’s market and learned new marketing skills; we in turn were given exposure to urban life styles and consumers needs. We had a unique opportunity to educate our customers about the value of farm raised food. As far as what we would tell other producers, choose partners that have similar ideas, stamina and resources. Learn to share your feelings and listen to each other. Don’t give up it takes many years to build up a clientele. People need to be educated on how to buy from you and when you will have fresh or frozen products available. You are not a grocery store and you are not competing with huge operations that are set up on cost only.
Below we have identified some supports mechanisms in order to make this project successful. We came up with a great idea but we soon discovered hard work, alone would not guarantee success.
For example we still aren’t sure how to manage our business as a group and as individual farms and pay taxes on the grant.
As I mentioned earlier, in Nebraska there isn’t an infrastructure for direct marketing. Again by infrastructure we mean having access to a USDA inspected processor, even finding reasonably close by poultry processing facilities was difficult. Small independent processing plants, that are USDA inspected, exists far and few in between. We need processing facilities that are clean, reliable and can work early in the morning so we can go home and attend to other farm work. Therefore we had to limit our markets.
Consumers need to be educated on how to locate farms that sell their products direct. Farmer’s markets are seasonal. The two big markets in Nebraska are costly to attend and do not generate enough customers to make it worth selling product. By time we paid for gas to drive to market, and a salary to stand there and sell chickens for a half a day it just didn’t pay.
Our group was featured in magazines, and newspaper articles, we have had farm tours and been at others farm tours, produced flyers and brochures, worked with CSAs and presented a community workshop on healthy eating.