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Ranch in Hand, Two Budding Ag Entrepreneurs Seek to Grow Pastured Poultry Business

February 20, 2013 |

It’s quiet right now at the Greenhorn Ranch, but come Friday, after the first batch of chicks is delivered, Terry Gentry and Joan Hurst will be busy for the next eight months nurturing and processing chickens. As owners of G & H Pastured Poultry LLC, their mission is to raise healthy poultry.

When the women purchased 20 acres outside of McCleary, Wash., in 1997, their vision of the property didn’t include a poultry business. They thought of themselves as “gentleman ranchers,” Joan says, and the vision for the property evolved over time. With Joan retired and Terry working part-time as an operating room nurse, they realized that they needed more income. After taking a Washington State University-extension class in 2010 on how to start a small business, Terry and Joan settled on a poultry business. “Weather-related stuff [like gardening] is out the window,” because of the intemperate weather in the area, Joan says, and the partners “didn’t want full-time animals.” So as pastured poultry requires working March through October they decided to investigate.

Before formally starting their business, the pair invested time in developing the infrastructure and business model. “Do it once, and you do it right,” Joan says. Deciding to follow the Joel Salatin method of chicken farming was an easy decision, says Joan. They experimented to see whether the Cornish cross or the freedom rangers would be the better breed and settled on the freedom rangers. According to Joan, this heritage breed “loves the pasture” and is a “naturally proportioned chicken.” But it was the slaughtering part that made the women hesitant about their choice of business. “That was the part I wasn’t sure if we could do it,” Joan says. Terry agrees, saying that even with her experience as a nurse, it took a bit of getting used to.

The capital costs ran about $40,000 to build the chicken tractors, the chicken processing unit (CPU) building, and the peeps’ house, along with the purchase of equipment that includes sinks, refrigerators, and an ice machine. G&H cut costs by purchasing nearly all the equipment off of Craigslist, Joan says.

With the infrastructure in place, G & H Pastured Poultry LLC officially opened for business in 2010.

By having a 2nd Tier License from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, G&H is able to sell poultry at farmers’ markets and restaurants, says Joan. Clients found their business by word of mouth, and in their second year, they branched out into having a booth at the Tumwater and West Oly Farmers’ Markets. But even with their fresh poultry selling out during the season, that doesn’t relieve the worry of whether there will be unsold product in the freezer at the year’s end.

Now in their third year of operation, Terry and Joan learned all the tricks to make their business efficient while raising the chickens in a wholesome environment. Every two weeks, 50 peeps are flown in from the Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Pennsylvania and kept in the peeps’ house until old enough to be moved outside. Once outside, the growing chickens are kept in one of six chicken tractors that are rotated to fresh grass each morning. The field is expansive enough that we “never go over the same area in that season,” Joan says, and she adds with a laugh that the many mole hills show the moles enjoy the work of the chickens. At the end of 10 weeks, the chickens are slaughtered and prepared for market. Joan says she thanks the chickens before they are slaughtered, and the women are proud of the organization and cleanliness of their CPU. “I do the chickens like I would eat them,” Terry says. “When the inspector was here recently, he was pretty impressed with our setup,” Joan adds, and “we encourage people to come to the ranch” to see the operation.

What attracts customers to their chickens is the Scratch and Peck feed that , which is produced locally in Bellingham, Wash and is soy, GMO, and antibiotic free. Terry notes that many customers have found the company by doing a search for soy-free chickens on the Internet.

Their customer base stretches as far south as South Bend to new customers up north in Olympia and Tumwater thanks to a booth at the local farmer’s market there.

This year G & H is looking to make some changes to the business to diversify revenue streams and move closer to achieving profitability. They now sell eggs, which has been greeted positively by customers. “People go crazy at the market for eggs,” says Joan. G & H also offers the option of just purchasing chicken breasts or thighs instead of the whole chicken. Prices are also being raised to match other sellers in the area.

Yet Joan and Terry have found that selling a quality product can unfortunately contribute to a lower profit margin. As there are no freedom ranger hatcheries in Washington State,  additional cost is incurred flying the chicks in from Pennsylvania. Additionally, the Scratch and Peck feed costs fluctuate and G & H also cleans the slaughtered poultry in a lactic acid dip to reduce the bacteria count (most poultry processers use a less expensive chlorine dip instead). “We go that extra bit,” says Joan, to keep the product healthy at every step.

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