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Feeling grateful yet? Teenage poultry farmer dishes straight talk

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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 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.

By Shelby Grebenc
Special to The Denver Post

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  • comment avatar Alfred November 11, 2012

    A full grown adult couldn’t have spoken better words of wisdom about farming. My favorites are one and the last. Sad though that “I do not plan on farming in the future.” It’s one of the better lifestyles one can live, though it is hard work.

    BTW, Dad’s probably right about the hormone thingy…

  • comment avatar James November 11, 2012

    Bravo. Well said, Shelby. At our indoor, year-round, local farmers’ market we know all too well the lessons Shelby is learning about the rhetoric not matching the reality.

    Now, where can we find a couple dozen 13 year-olds to operate the farmers’ tables?

  • comment avatar Bee November 11, 2012

    I was so very impressed with Shelby’s hard work and even more, her smarts about people. She understands budgeting and marketing and branding as well as anyone. Her comments about wearing pigtails and skipping along with the bucket because that’s what people want made my day. Go Shelby!

  • comment avatar DenverClimber November 11, 2012

    I like this girl’s attitude toward life and business!

    Having been around the organic foods business for many years, I meet very interesting people.

    Shelby has it together a lot younger than most folks I’ve ever met.


  • comment avatar Jack November 11, 2012

    This young lady has stated what is wrong and right in Agriculture in a more meaningful way than I have ever read. It is a joy to produce food for yourself and others but annoying and trying to have to perform actions to get people to buy it or to make a profit. Many folks these days think food comes from stores and that it is always a low price no matter how it is raised. They have to be taught that using hormones and chemicals are the reason food is cheap and how the commercial (large scale) farmer makes a profit.

    Stick to your morals and your beliefs, Shelby. Your clear thinking will carry you far no matter where you decide to go.

  • comment avatar Super J November 11, 2012

    The thing about cheap and easy food is that they don’t really exist, kind of like get rich quick schemes. They are an illusion with hidden costs of externalities – pollution/exploitation. The focus should be on raising the quality of life’s necessities: clean air, clean water, pure food, healthy dwellings, balanced relationships. Everything else is escapism or distraction at best and criminal at worst.

    In my youth I lived a life of escapist oblivion. It is poison. I know better now and fortunately it is not too late to enjoy a better life. I wish Shelby the best as she carves out her way in the world.

  • comment avatar Nowal November 11, 2012

    Shelby, you are awesome and I wish I could buy eggs from your chickens! 🙂 Just a tip: maybe try selling eggs in cartons with brown and white eggs mixed. That’s how they sell them at one of the markets where I shop. And if anyone complains, then just tell them that egg shell color is just a result of the chicken’s color, similar to the way some humans are lighter or darker than others. The eggs on the inside look and taste exactly the same. Best of luck with your business!

  • comment avatar Frenchie November 11, 2012

    Dear Shelby –

    Thank you for taking the time to write one of the most well-written, informative and easily understood articles I have ever read about this subject.

    I admire your determination, smarts, maturity and hard work, and I wish you and your family success, good luck and prosperity in the future.

    Well done. Your family should be very proud of you.
    All the best.

  • comment avatar Susan November 11, 2012

    I think you have written a very honest and truthful article about how much work it is to raise chickens and sell them and their eggs. I applaud you for it.

    Only thing is, I want to know what type of chicken lays up to 12 eggs a week? I’m guessing that’s some sort of mistake since no chicken that I know of lays more than 1 egg every 24-25 hours.

    Keep up the good work!

  • comment avatar Judy November 11, 2012

    I would gladly pay $4.25 or more for Animal Welfare Approved eggs! I’ve been meaning to give Shelby a call and drive down to Broomfield to buy some eggs. She wouldn’t need to put the pig tails in and grab the basket. I know she is a hard working young adult and business person. She can just be herself. I really like how she says she feeds and waters “EVERYONE”. She sees her animals as individuals who need care, not just ‘livestock’. In industrial settings, animals are just disposable things. Shame on anyone who tries to talk her prices down!

  • comment avatar Etoin November 11, 2012

    Go Shelby! You seem too good to be true.

    Hang in there for now, but once you can get a driver’s license you might consider merging with a nearby organic farming operation. That’s because you cannot work by yourself at a scale needed to lower your effort per unit of product delivered. They’ll also be happy to compost your chicken waste products for fertilizer.

    With that base, you’ll learn a lot about organic food production, and perhaps you may change your mind about not pursuing that as a satisfying career. You have tons of time to learn, and there are college programs you may appreciate. Good luck!

  • comment avatar Lori Holden November 12, 2012

    Wow, Shelby. I’ve been educating myself about our food supply, something I’d always taken for granted. You have taught me so much with this one post.

    I especially like your entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic. I would love to buy eggs and meat from you if we are anywhere near each other (or if you sell through a retailer who is nearby in the NW Denver suburb area).


  • comment avatar Chris Bird November 13, 2012

    Love your entrepreneurial spirit, Shelby! And you marketing smarts. Both will take you far in life. Thank you for sharing about the brown and white eggs. I always wondered what the difference was – happy to learn, there is none!

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