Goats, Blueberries, and Eggs – Oh My!

(a post by John Patrick)

When Rebecca and I moved to Foggy Hollow, Eric thought it was a good idea to split up responsibilities on the farm.  The result was he would grow the vegetables, and I would manage the livestock, blueberries and the laying hens.  My duties diversified our sustainable farm into fruit and animals that would fit into our farm’s terrain and, hopefully, provide nutrients to our soil, and increase farm income.  The 100-plus 2-year old blueberries were planted last year, will start producing in 2013, and be in full production by 2016 (YUM!!).  As far as livestock, we were advised that our rolling hill on Tennessee’s Highland Rim (reportedly our State’s poorest soil) was more suitable for goats than for sheep or cattle because of that poor soil’s vegetation.  So, we now have 15 goats mowing our pasture on rotational system, taking solar energy and turning into a meat product the farm can sell, stirring up the soil with their hooves, and fertilizing the land.  But, the purpose of this article is to explain the challenges of our chicken and egg production and how will we price our eggs.

We started off disastrously last year when we ordered 275 chicks and now only have 53 laying hens and one proud rooster.  Raising organic chicks to laying hens, we discovered, is a little more difficult than raising them conventionally.  Disease and predation were the main causes of death.  Extra precautions were used this year (after more research and head scratching) with our new batch of 125 chickens, including: using organic peat moss as bedding and starting them out on newspapers for the first couple of weeks, dipping their beaks into warm water for their first drink when we introduced these mail-order 2-day old chicks to the brooder, adding organic molasses and apple cider to their drinking water to build up natural impunities, and having grit available to get their gullet working properly.  And, we also have a polar bear protecting them. Willie, our Great Pyrenees, has been relatively effective keeping critters from eating our chickens, even though he would prefer hanging out with the more social and larger goats (Also he loves eggs, so we have to remove him from the chickens during the day).

Our resident Polar Bear

Our resident Polar Bear

With all these precautions, we have 120 hens that will begin laying (A LOT!!!) of the only known certified organic eggs in Middle Tennessee.

And, we don’t have a market for them, yet.  Including our existing flock of 53 hens, that will be approximately 80 dozen a week!

And, even Eric with his accounting background, has not calculated what we have to sell a dozen certified organic eggs for to make a profit.  That includes the cost of the chicks; organic bedding, feed, and supplements; infrastructure, like the brooder, the small tractor we pull them on pasture as they mature, and the large chicken tractor that we pull around the pasture that includes roosts and nest;  the portable electric fencing we move with them; and feeding their guardian polar bear.  This does not mention my hours feeding, watering, moving the chickens, and gathering and processing the eggs (Oh, and the cartons are about $.30 each once we start purchasing them).

Happy hens

We are currently selling our eggs at the same price as other sustainable producers: $5.00 a dozen.  But when these new ladies start laying, we will increase our price.  To what, we don’t know.  What are these  USDA certified organic eggs worth from hens that are rotated twice weekly on pasture, cage free, sheltered, and local ?  The last time I looked, Whole Foods sold certified organic eggs from North Carolina for $6.00.  We’re not sure if we can make a profit at $6.00 a dozen.  In sum and as always, we are asking for your opinion and looking forward discussing our farming methods with you.

So, this is just a glimpse into our process and how we provide sustainable, local food that is also economically sustainable for the farmer.  Future articles will include our organic feed source and cost, what we do with our 18-month old hens that we need to rotate out because of declining egg production, why seek certification, and the benefits of hens on a rotational pasture system.  Thanks for reading and caring about Middle Tennessee’s sustainable food system.