Regional Producer’s Improvement Project for High Quality Eggs and Other Poultry Products
1. Conduct consumer market research to clarify the market niche for an association of small-scale poultry producers
2. Assess the potential for conducting collaborative marketing using a regional label
3. Evaluate the creation of a dual-purpose chicken for meat and egg production through breeding, hatching and multiplying by using local resources
Beneficial Farm, a diverse small farm that operates a 60-family vegetable cooperative located 20 miles southeast of Santa Fe, is working with egg producers to develop a poultry producers association based on commonly shared product values, production methods and marketing strategies. To determine what is, or can be, common among the producers and their customers, and what may not be common, Beneficial Farm has been researching feed and breed improvements, conducting marketing research and evaluating collaborative marketing and regional labeling.
Objective 1. Conduct consumer market research.
The consumer survey was conducted at the dairy department of two local stores. Here are the questions and a summary of responses.
1. What information is important to consumers regarding on-farm production and management?
Customers said they want to know the nutritional value of the eggs, what the hens are fed and the living conditions and treatment of the chickens. They want to know that the eggs are fresh and that the chickens are fed organically and treated humanely.
Project coordinator Steve Warshawer notes that providing consumers with nutritional information on eggs produced on different farms with varying management practices and climates may not be economically practical. It may not even be feasible on a single farm at different times of the year under barnyard conditions.
“We feel that the living condition and treatment of the chickens, combined with information on the quality of their feed, are sufficient to meet the consumer’s needs for information,” says Warshawer.
2. What minimal production standards need to be adhered to?
Respondents said: 1) no hormones or antibiotics, 2) no genetically modified organisms, 3) fresh, 4) no pesticides or herbicides and 5) grown organically.
3. What standards would be seen as optimal?
As optimal standards, respondents cited: 1) no hormones or antibiotics, 2) no synthetic vitamins or nutrients, 3) feed with no animal byproducts, 4) access to outdoors, fresh air and sunlight, 5) cage-free, 6) free-ranging, 7) no crowding and 8) chickens retain their beaks.
4. How do we reconcile the differences?
Consumers diverge on the subject of organic certification. While viewed as optimal, the extra cost of certification may not justify the small increase in value for the producer, who may be producing organically anyway. At the same time, animal byproducts are often perceived as slaughterhouse waste, yet many animal byproducts, such as whey and skim milk, may become important sources of animal protein. With these contradictions in mind, says project coordinator Warshawer, the minimum standards, bolstered with consumer education, may be sufficient.
5. Is a regional label feasible or appropriate for producers within 150 miles of markets?
Boundaries of this nature appear to be soft. In other words, products from southern Colorado are understood to be similar enough to those from northern New Mexico that they could be included in a collaborative pool. The 150-mile radius is a guideline that could be adjusted if it could strengthen the association’s capacity to provide consistent product.
6. What does a label say to consumers or about producers?
The label should say how the producer feeds the chickens; how the producer treats the chickens; whether the producer is local; when the eggs expire (freshness); and whether the eggs are fertile or non-fertile.
7. How important is organic certification?
It is more important to the consumer that the eggs be grown organically than certified organic. When a consumer doesn’t know the producers, organic certification can provide assurance the product was produced naturally. But when the consumer knows the producer and the operation, such certification assurance may not be needed. For that reason, producers in the Beneficial Farm cooperative will communicate their values without depending on certification, which may only serve to add to the product’s cost.
Objective 2. Assess the potential for conducting collaborative marketing using a regional label.
To assess the use of a regional label, producers were asked how they could jointly handle the product and the money as well as how the product would be packaged, distributed, delivered and marketed. A pilot test was then launched among willing producers. The system agreed upon was for the cooperating farms to sell their eggs to Beneficial Farm for $2.25 a dozen. Beneficial then resells the eggs for $3.10 a dozen, the difference covering packaging and distributions costs. The agreement was acceptable to all producers, although not all signed it.
The next phase involves creating a label and buying cartons that will be identified as the “Beneficial Egg,” with a place for each farm to add its own identifying sticker, providing regional and local identity. On the downside, some producers can’t afford to create their own label, nor can they buy new cartons. As a consequence, many appear satisfied to produce under a common label.
The project team is still trying to determine how many producers and how much capacity is needed to create enough cash flow to support the overhead of operating a cooperative. For now, a comprehensive spreadsheet, showing the process from hatching to culling, has been developed to form the basis of a business plan for an Egg Producers Cooperative Association.
“As capacity increases, and greater need arises,” says Warshawer, “the move toward a full-fledged cooperative will, we hope, naturally emerge from the producers who, benefiting from the pooling and sharing process, will want to gain authority and responsibility for its direction.”
Objective 3. Evaluate the creation of a dual-purpose chicken for meat and egg production through breeding, hatching and multiplying by using local resources.
Small producers typically buy hybrid hatchery chicks that arrive by mail and are then raised on feed trucked in from distant locations, a system not conducive to success on farms with widely ranging conditions. Further, it negates preservation and enhancement of genetic diversity.
The project proposed as a strategy localizing the feed source as much as possible to create a balanced, healthy feed regimen, at the same time hatching and multiplying stock raised on local feed.
“Our hypothesis is that over a period of generations, the resulting strain of chickens will be more tolerant to a wider range of conditions, including feed, housing and lighting,” says Warshawer. “Our equation is to ‘nativize’ the chickens down to the individual farm if the farmer wishes, and ‘nativize’ the feed, relying on as great a percentage of locally grown feeds as possible.”
In northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, there is little production capacity for corn and soy, traditional feeds for chickens. As a substitute for corn, the project is focusing on wheat, which has a higher protein content and no genetic modification. Peas, palatable to chickens and requiring no special handling, will substitute for soy. To test these feeds, the project is testing a production ration of 75% wheat, 10% corn, 10% soy and 5% minerals and a breeder ration that is 75% wheat, 20% peas and 5% minerals. The goal is to maintain production on a ration that is 90% or more locally produced.
The Beneficial Farm hatchery at 7,000 feet with low ambient humidity works poorly for hatching. To compensate, the farm has built a simple insulated room with a fan and humidifier, yielding hatching averages in a range of 55 to 75% in 2002. The rate is low by industry standards but acceptable in Beneficial’s climate.
Indeed, Beneficial’s chicks have been raised on farms spread on a 500-mile axis from Loveland, Colo., in the north to Socorro, N.M., in the south, at elevations ranging from 3,500 to 8,500 and a wide range of winter conditions.
“We have heard no complaints, and everyone who received the chicks the first year, and had the capacity to do so, requested chicks the second year,” said Warshawer.
Additional information on the project, including the benefits, farmer adoption, dissemination of findings and producer involvement, will be detailed in the final report, to be submitted at the end of 2003.
Time Warrior Quests
1115 Ocate Rd. Suite 35
Santa Fe, NM 87507
Office Phone: 5054383328