The River Hills Purebred Poultry Marketing Alliance Research Project
The 2009 season was both busy and challenging. The local table egg marketing project keeps getting bigger and better, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mark and Michelle Wagstaff of Dry Dock Farm. They have moved well beyond grant funding and their program is sustainable. Currently, they market a steady supply of approximately 300 dozen eggs every week from themselves and from area farmers producing high-quality farm fresh eggs. RHPA (River Hills Poultry Alliance) eggs are washed, candled, and packaged for delivery to several satisfied customers in the greater St. Louis area.
Many articles are read every year in numerous small farming publications and magazines touting the importance of local agriculture and the benefits that go along with it to both consumers and producers. The success of the RHPA program helps validate that statement!
Local farmers supplying eggs to the River Hills Poultry Project have been maintaining laying flocks and producing eggs for years, but the market for those eggs has been somewhat limited mostly due to the lack of a delivery system necessary to connect producers and consumers. While most CSAs require customers to pick up their goods, Mark and Michelle make weekly deliveries to their customers. This has proved to be a huge benefit to busy families. Because of this delivery option, orders for RHPA eggs have increased even more, putting real money from egg sales into the pockets of the local producers involved. Getting a check every week from for their efforts helps the sustainability of the local farms. This is proof that we don't need subsidies to sustain local, small-scale agriculture. We just need people dedicated to making it happen. I proudly count myself among the contributing farmers to the River Hills product line.
As I said before, the table egg portion of the grant project has moved beyond the funding level and is continuing on it own, and while no grant money was used during the 2009 year, I felt that the continued success was worth mentioning.
The second portion of the grant funding did not arrive until after the hatching season had come and gone, limiting the ability to conduct shipping trials of live chicks in 2009. The grant funding did eventually arrive, and I have already secured the first chick order for a March 2010 delivery of 25 Delaware chicks to a buyer in Tennessee. In addition to this, I had a website constructed this year with descriptions of the heritage breeds we carry along with ordering information. This has generated several contacts already interested in chick orders for the spring. All those interested have also signed up to receive our first e-newsletter due out in mid-January. Nathan Price and Kelly Klober are pursuing similar projects in 2010, including a "6-pack" option for folks interested in buying started trios for small-flock breeding.
a) One of the challenges of sustaining a local table egg market is keeping costs in check so that producers can remain competitive without sacrificing any of the practices that set our eggs apart from the commercial industry. A major hurdle in the past has been the price of egg cartons, namely the shipping costs. The current volume of cartons needed every week has enabled bulk buying. Mark Wagstaff found a supplier willing to waive the shipping costs for bulk orders of a certain size, and the savings has been a big help.
b) While some of the producers supplying eggs to the program keep heritage flocks, the majority have been using production brown egg layers and hybrid sex-link varieties. This is a trend that our surveys did not reflect. Regardless of how people feel about heritage breeds vs. hybrids, the reality of what producers choose to keep for laying purposes speaks for itself. Personally, I believe both types are important. Production lines and sex-link hybrids tend to out-perform heritage breeds, but these breeds are put together largely from heritage varieties. Furthermore, buyers are more interested in where their eggs come from and how they taste than what type of breed was used.
c) Interest in locally-produced poultry and eggs is higher than we originally thought. With the development of our websites and Local Harvest listings, our customer base keeps increasing as more people seek out local, sustainable outlets for their food.
d) In order to obtain a sufficient price for premium farm-fresh eggs, a market aimed at urban consumers was proposed in the original grant. This original idea has proved to be true. Perhaps in the future, a similar market will emerge in rural areas. People living in rural areas do most if not all of their shopping at local grocery stores or at super markets. From what I have seen, there is little or no price difference between urban and rural grocery stores, but in rural areas there seems to be reluctance among many consumers to pay more for farm eggs than for commercial grocery eggs.
e) Interest in poultry among 4-H youth still remains strong, but an emphasis on show birds seems to dominate over production birds. My hope is that in the future this trend will change. I did speak to one youth at the Small Farm Today Trade Show and Conference in November 2009 who was interested in keeping heritage breeds for practical purposes. We need more of that.
f) Many people are still interested in purchasing ready-to-lay pullets or already laying hens, but I have noticed that prices buyers are willing to pay for such birds actually decreased in 2009. More research is probably necessary to see if this is just a local trend and if it is partly due to the current economic situation.
g) Initially we were interested in a marketing program to supply table birds for those interesting in an alternative to mass-produced Cornish cross broilers that have been the industry standard for several decades. After some taste tests with consumers within Mark and Michelle's buying group, it seems consumers in general are not quite there yet. It seems the texture and appearance of slower-growing, heritage varieties takes a little getting used to for some folks. For 2010, plans are already forming to raise cornish cross broilers on pasture in order to reach a middle ground with buyers. Many producers have proven that despite the management challenges associated with cornish cross broilers, they can still be raised in a sustainable manner with excellent results.
During the 2010 season we plan to pick up where we left off with respect to development of a locally-based hatchery for heritage breeds with an emphasis on quality stock and practicality. I have already begun advertising for spring chick orders and I will personally be involved with buyers in order to maintain customer satisfaction. Because Kelly Klober, Nathan Price, and I keep and hatch different breeds, we will be able to refer business to each other as well.
I am eager to see if any there is increased interest in hand-to-hand sales in 2010 as an alternative to local shipping. I sold chicks to several people in the spring of 2009, who seemed to like the ease of this type of transaction. It was also less stressful on the chicks. Marketing opportunities still exist at poultry-themed events in our area and this is another avenue for promotion and advertising to a specific group of poultry enthusiasts.
In addition to our usual outreach that we conduct at our farmer's market events, we handed out several copies of our survey at the Small Farm Today Conference in November [National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, MO] and I spoke in the Farmer's Forum [to approximately 20 people. We were also mentioned in an article in Fancy Fowl Magazine, conducted a demonstration at a fall poultry festival in Silex, MO on egg quality for a small group of attendees, gave several poultry demonstrations at the Small Farm Today Conference, and were the subject of a two page article by Kelly Klober featured in Acres USA magazine.
We don't have any immediate plans for sharing information next, but we will be discussing ideas for that in the spring.