It was July. The tomatoes I planted early were late. Drizzle that does not burn off causes mold problems. The tomato future was not bright with a cold, wet summer like this.
After almost a decade of farming, I was burned out on selling to wholesalers. Small checks dribbled out over a three-month period didn’t work when there were such high production costs. I didn’t like packing my produce into someone else’s label, or using so much packaging.
So I made the liberating decision to stop selling to wholesalers.
My Carmel-area farm, Serendipity, happily downsized from 40 to 15 acres and now only supplies the community directly via farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, restaurant partnerships, dinners in the field and trade.
Farmers always have a plan B or C in mind (especially in a cruddy tomato year), so I checked out an opportunity to run a certified-organic, pasture-raised egg operation. The chickens were happy and laid eggs every color of the rainbow. All 700 were free to run in and out of their mobile coops, eating bugs and taking dust baths, 24/7. Their poo fell through the slats in the coop to fertilize the ground, and the coops were moved every few weeks into new pasture.
I’ve kept 50 or so chickens over the past five years, so I thought I knew what was involved. When chickens are hungry they are savage little dinosaurs. It didn’t freak me out. Just keep them fed, I figured, and everything would be fine.
I had a trial month to make a go of it. After factoring in the costs of feed and labor, the eggs would sell at $8 per dozen – the most expensive eggs I’d ever heard of, but I was willing to try to sell them.
PEOPLE WERE HOOKED; VEGANS CHANGED THEIR WAYS JUST TO EAT THESE EGGS.
I knew delicious eggs from chickens treated with respect are worth the price, but I needed to convince my farmers market regulars. Luckily, San Francisco foodies didn’t take much convincing, especially after tasting them. The sign we carved in the shape of a blue Aracana egg with the bright orange wording “Fabulous Eggs Here” helped too. Put into perspective, it wasn’t such a hard sell: At $0.67 per egg, a three-egg breakfast would cost the same as a $2 cup of coffee.
Soon the eggs were selling outs at all of the markets – 250 dozen per week. People were hooked; vegans changed their ways just to eat these eggs. Week two of the chicken farm trial, Michael Pollan wrote a piece in support of the $8 dozen in The San Francisco Chronicle, and egg sales increased. Then the news about the nasty salmonella outbreak came out, and customers were even happier to support pricey California eggs from pasture-raised chickens. The stars were in serendipitous alignment.
It felt good; money was flowing. Washing and hand-packing eggs became a Zen-like experience every Friday with the Serendipity crew. Plan B was working.
Like a good farmer, I kept track of all my costs: the labor needed to harvest the eggs, our Friday night egg-washing party, maintenance of the coops and fencing, $2,000 per month for certified-organic feed. Surprise! There wasn’t enough left to pay a lease on the chicken farm. The $8 dozen is not worth it, my friends.
It turned out the price would actually need to be $15 for a farming couple to net $600 per week, or $7.50 per hour for full-time work. That’s just a little over $15,000 a year per person, before taxes.
Chickens still need to be fed when their egg production declines during the winter months. Each year you must also to buy baby chicks if you want to keep your production constant. The brooding rooms need to be heated with lights to keep the chicks warm for three to four months. And while they grow, the feed costs do too: Chicks need to mature for about five months before egg production kicks in. There’s also the cost of chickens that are past their prime: Egg production drops after two to three years, but the hens still eat the same amount. So there’s a need to deal with the birds that are no longer bringing in revenue.
The honeymoon was over. I couldn’t find enough reasons to continue to be an egg farmer, even with the offer of a free lease. I turned it down. Once the egg operation was returned to its rightful owner, I felt a calm wash over me.
The farm may have downsized and we gave up the laying hens, but we are as committed as ever to the healthy food revolution and more direct partnerships on the Monterey Peninsula. Look for Serendipity’s new line of prepared food, coming soon to a CSA box near you.