Joel Salatin (aka Chicken Man) is a familiar name among chicken keepers, small poultry business owners, and homestead rebels. We asked Joel to share with our readers how he got started with broiler chickens and what keeps him going.
On Sept. 24, 1982, I was a married 25-year-old with a 1-year-old son, doing the town job gig while living on the family farm where I’d grown up. There had never been a time in my life when I wanted to do anything but farm.
But how could I farm full time and keep shoes on our feet? My dad and mom both worked off the farm all their lives, and that income paid for the land. But with the town jobs consuming emotional and physical equity, the farm never became a going concern.
Early Chicken Keeping
We had a glorified homestead: A couple of milk cows, a 15-cow beef herd, a handful of pigs, my chickens, and my brother’s rabbits. Although we had 100 open acres of pasture, they were rocks and gullies; it was the armpit of the neighborhood.
I started raising egg-laying chickens (layers) at the age of 10, when I received my first group of as-hatched heavy-breed specials in the mail. After some time, my laying hens outgrew their dirt chicken yard and stationary coop.
A failed experiment with portable rabbit shelters left two 8-by-12-foot runs suspended in the rafters of the equipment shed. Dad suggested I try those for the layers. We eased them down, put the layers in them, and birthed pastured poultry Polyface style. I built more shelters and raised layers in them, moving them every day throughout my teen years.
When I went to college, nobody was left to take over the laying project. So before leaving for college, I liquidated the birds and loaded my three shelters up into the rafters of the equipment shed. During the eight years of raising layers, I had to process the spent hens and became skilled at the job. I acquired a 1950s-era tabletop picker to help with the process and heated scald water in a big tub over a wood fire.
After graduation, I returned home and got hired back on at the local newspaper as a reporter, where I had worked part time during high school. But my heart was on the farm, and I schemed every day how to farm full time. In college, I decided I’d be a reporter in the mold of Woodward and Bernstein, find my Deep Throat, bring down my Richard Nixon, write my best-seller, and retire to the farm, hopefully before I was 40.
Funny how things work out. Since I was the only one on the newsroom staff who enjoyed farming, I was given all the agriculture assignments. In 1981, Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri expanded walnut procurement operations to Virginia, and one of the buying stations was located in our city of Staunton at the Southern States (SS) dealer. While in the process of writing a story about the new endeavor, I learned that the two Future Farmers of America boys running the station were overwhelmed, and the SS dealer was looking for someone to run the station the following year.
The station included a hulling machine Hammons provided. People would bring in walnuts and run them through the huller. The operator would bag the dehulled nuts, weigh them, and pay the person who brought them in. We shipped the nuts to Missouri for cracking and processing. The hulls were a huge problem for the operation, but I knew they were good organic matter. I parked the dump truck under the hull conveyor and brought home a couple truckloads of hulls. Wherever I spread those hulls, the grass grew like gangbusters.
With the commission I earned from running the station, plus the hulls, I thought I was bringing in enough to finally get back to the farm full time. My wife, Teresa, and I had saved up enough money to survive for a year. I gave my two weeks’ notice and on Sept. 24, 1982, walked out of the newspaper office a bona fide full-time farmer with a river of organic fertilizer coming my way.
Nobody told me that a bumper crop only occurs about every seven years. That first year was a bumper year. The following year, my first year, wasn’t, and the income was about a quarter of what I had expected. Oops. We tightened our belts, stretched the pennies, and hoped for a better walnut harvest in 1983. More bad news came, however, when Hammons called and said they wouldn’t return to Virginia that year. Now difficulty turned to desperation.
Dad was a private accountant who worked primarily with farmers and small businesses. One of his clients was a Mennonite couple who raised about 400 broiler chickens a year and sold about 300 live broilers to some 20 customers, making enough margin to keep around 100 broilers for their own use. At that time, another business at the SS complex was a custom slaughterhouse that also had a poultry room. The Mennonite family’s customers took their broilers to that outfit for slaughter.
The elderly couple began looking for someone to take over their little backyard operation, not wanting to leave their loyal patrons without a supply of broilers. Dad knew that I was desperate for some income, so he asked me if I’d be interested in raising those chickens. I jumped at it, figuring it would help Teresa and I make ends meet. We had enough time in the season to order the chicks and grow them before the weather got too cold.
Down came the layer shelters from their hibernation in the rafters of the equipment shed. Out came the mothballed tabletop chicken picker. For the first time since leaving for college six years before, I was back in the chicken business. Since I wasn’t afraid to process chickens, we told all the customers that we’d process the birds, saving them the hassle of going to the slaughterhouse.
You would think all those folks would be delighted with the convenience, but as people in such situations are wont to do, only about half the customers transitioned from the Mennonite couple to us. Suddenly, I had a bunch of extra chickens. It never occurred to me that there might be a limited demand. I got on the phone and made a few calls, barely finding a home for the extra birds by butcher day.
Building the Business
We got through that first batch, but it wasn’t profitable. Our wood-fired scalding tub and tabletop picker left much to be desired. Our process was inefficient. So the following year, we rented the custom processing room and processed all the broilers in a few hours. It was fantastic, but hauling them in there was a bother. Instead of going through that again, we wanted the customers to come to the farm.
The next year, we invested in a scalder and a picker, set them up in the yard behind the backdoor, and processed them efficiently at home. With this setup, we processed and sold twice as many broilers we had in the first two years. We were off and running and have never looked back. What can we learn from this story?
1. Benefits of Broilers
Because broilers are a fast grow-out, we were able to complete the project on time even though we were midway through the season. Most agricultural enterprises have a long planning and production time from start to finish, but broilers are about as fast as a radish.
Furthermore, pastured broilers require low capital investment. Had we needed expensive infrastructure or equipment, we wouldn’t have had the money to get into the market. This democratized entry door is truly special.
Next, pastured broilers yield a short window from initial cash investment to final cash sale. In business, we call this turnaround. One of the biggest drawbacks to farming enterprises is the long lag time between initial expenses and the income that can cover them. With broilers, you can almost defer all your upfront costs until harvest.
Another wonderful part of chickens: their size. They’re small enough to squeeze into tiny spaces. You can throw out the dog and cat and put a couple chickens in a box not much larger than a litter box. And chickens are way more utilitarian than a snake, gerbil, or tank of fish. Come on.
Finally, chickens are everyman food. America’s per capita consumption of chicken now exceeds beef. Chicken enjoys, for better or worse, the darling position of mainline dietary experts. It doesn’t have the health stigmas of other meats, and it’s the cheapest and easiest to scrounge up enough money to buy.
2. Be Judicious About What Is Trash
Had we thrown away those initial rabbit shelters, rather than pulling them up in the rafters of the equipment shed, who knows what my laying hen expansion infrastructure would’ve been? Because those shelters were available, repurposing was by far the simplest and cheapest way to proceed. And then when I went off to college, what if I had discarded those layer shelters, rather than pulling them up into the rafters of the equipment shed?
Perhaps the biggest lesson here is to build your equipment shed with enough height to store all your discarded experiments. Ha! Had those shelters not been there, that might’ve been just enough extra work to deter me from jumping on that late-season broiler project.
3. Success is Incremental, Not Spontaneous
People always ask me what they should do to start. My answer is always “anything.” Just do something. Don’t worry if it’s the right thing or if it works. You can’t gain experience by using Google. Movement creates movement. Do something, anything, where you are, right now, with what you’ve got.
The fact that I had already made the leap – I was here at the farm; I was doing stuff, searching, moving – all that created a place where a perfect intersection could occur. You can’t get it all figured out before you start. Just start and it’ll fall into place step by step as you learn, refine, and gain mastery. All mastery requires repetition, and you can’t repeat until you start.
4. Hunger Drives Creativity
Teresa and I were hungry that fall of 1983. Perhaps the biggest curse for any beginning farmer is wealth. To be sure, I don’t consider wealth evil, but a large nest egg or a substantial alternative income stream hampers innovation. The hungrier you are, the more you’re open to new ideas.
Never apologize for being financially desperate. If you have character, you’ll figure out how to solve your problem, and that’s ultimately life-affirming. That’s why I started growing broilers.
Joel Salatin took over his parents’ 550-acre farm in 1982 and now runs Polyface Farm. He regularly writes and speaks about nitty-gritty how-to for profitable regenerative farming, as well as cultural philosophy on farming and life. You can follow Joel on his blog.