Feeling grateful yet? Teenage poultry farmer dishes straight talk
By Shelby Grebenc
Special to The Denver Post
Shelby Grebenc has been raising chickens for both eggs and meat at her family’s Adams County farm. In this 2011 photo, she holds Chipmunk, one of her Americana hens. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Over the past year I have been trying to earn money. I have been doing this by helping plant a big garden and then selling lettuce and other vegetables that I raise at farmers markets.
I also have chickens and I sell eggs at a local dairy, farmers market, and from roadside signs telling people how to get to my house. I also sell live chickens and broilers.
People around me use words like “organic,” “farm fresh,” “local-food movement,” “free range” and “sustainability,” and I thought farming might be a good idea since we sort of do this for our family anyway. My dad raises our own cows because he does not want my brother or me exposed to growth hormones and antibiotics that are used to raise commercial meat. Dad
Shelby Grebenc, 13, collects eggs at her family’s farn in unincorporated Adams County. She’ll get as many as nine dozen in a winter afternoon from her 100-plus hens. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
thinks this is one of the reasons that my brother and I are thinner and smaller than our friends. I think it could just be that we work our tails off.
I charge $4.25 for a dozen of my eggs and $20 per broiler chicken based on my costs. Baby chickens cost me around $2 each. I lose around 10 percent of them because they just die for no reason when they are little.
An egg-layer chicken takes around 28 to 32 weeks to lay its first egg. A broiler chicken takes six to 20 weeks before it is ready to eat. All during this time, I have to feed, water and keep them warm. The layers are not laying eggs to sell yet. Heat lamps use electricity, and an electric bill can be around $200 per month.
A pound of chicken feed costs me 23 cents a pound if I order it in 6-ton batches. Each chicken eats around 2 pounds of food each week and produces around seven to 12 eggs per week. Egg cartons cost me a nickel each. I have to clean the chicken coop, gather, wash and package eggs, and then I have to have sawdust for bedding and nesting boxes. I pay $5 for each broiler chicken to be slaughtered, USDA inspected, packaged and flash frozen.
I also have to pay my dad for diesel to drive the chickens to the only USDA-inspected chicken processor in this state, which is in Nunn, close to 100 miles from my house, and a day or two later we have to drive back and pick them up.
I had to buy fencing for a pen because the foxes and the coyotes eat a lot of my birds because they are free-range and run around in the pasture. You can see there is not a lot of profit for me, but I don’t do too bad for being 13 years old.
Thing No. 1 that I have learned about farming: People talk a lot, but it does not mean much. I have people who want lots of eggs tell me to deliver a certain amount every week. I have to save up the eggs to do this, and then they change their minds and don’t want them.
Thing No. 2: People all say words like “farm fresh,” “sustainability,” but they don’t want to actually pay for what it actually costs me to make it. Almost everyone tries to talk me into lowering my price or asks me to give my eggs away for free.
Thing No. 3: Perception is everything. I have chickens that lay both white and brown eggs. The chickens are raised side by side. They all get the same feed, and they all run around in the same pasture together. People perceive the brown eggs are better, so I have trouble selling white eggs.
When we are at the farmers markets, if Dad is sitting with me, I don’t sell very many eggs or vegetables. If Dad is not sitting with me, I sell like crazy. Just how do the people shopping at the farmers market think that I got the great big F-350 truck that I am selling the eggs and vegetables out of down to the farmers market?
Thing No. 4: Farming takes a lot of time. I have to get up early so that I can feed and water everyone and be on the school bus by 7:50 a.m. When I get home I have to collect eggs, feed and water everyone again, and then package eggs. Then I get to do my homework.
Thing No. 5: Marketing. I collect my eggs in a 5-gallon bucket. This is practical, because it holds them all in one trip. If I have customers coming over when I am gathering eggs, I put my hair in pigtails, and I use a small straw basket and make lots of trips. People like to buy eggs from little kids skipping through the pasture with a basket of eggs.
Last thing: Farming is very hard work. I don’t make a lot of money doing it, and people do not support what you are doing. I live out in the country. As new folks move in, they complain about the name of your farm, smells, mooing cows, bleating sheep and crowing roosters, even though these things were there before they built a million-dollar house and moved in. I do not plan on farming in the future.
If you want sustainable, wholesome, pasture-raised organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free food, you have to support it. You can not get these things by talking about it and not paying for it.
The next time you shop at a farmers market, think about what it cost me to grow it. Don’t ask me to take less and then tell me you can get it cheaper at a big-box store. I know you can — but it will not be as fresh or as good as what I have, and you won’t make me cry.