On December 14th, the Livestock track of our Field School took a look at the ups, downs, and intricacies of farming poultry on a small scale. A farmer panel consisting of Elizabeth Malayter (JEM Farm, Rogersville), David Banks (Free Reign Farm, Elizabethton), and Tony Slaughter (Tony Slaughter Farms, Kingsport) fielded student questions and offered discussion and advice from their years of experience raising chickens for eggs and/or meat. Adam Hopkins of the UT Extension and Hal Pepper of the Center for Profitable Ag gave amusing and enlightening presentations about planning for poultry and financial considerations.

Although chicken meat and eggs can be some of the most inexpensive sources of dietary protein that the grocery store has to offer, considerable planning, care, and expense go into raising poultry on a small scale. As with any business endeavor, farmers must take into consideration costs and labor when setting prices for their eggs or chicken meat, and many farmers find they must set prices a good bit higher than what consumers are used to. The demand for poultry at farmers’ markets is high, but so is the pressure to keep prices low.

What does this mean for small farms who have or are interested in adding poultry to their offerings?

On small, diverse farms, it might help if we think of the crops and livestock we chose as characters in a play: some have lead roles, and some are supporting actors. For example, if you love growing tomatoes, have a knack for it, and your customers come to know and revere your tomato-growing prowess, tomatoes might become your Leading Ladies. People start taking selfies with your tomatoes because they’re just that pretty.  They draw the crowds and make the big bucks. However, most market farmers find they benefit from a substantial supporting cast—the onions, dollar garlic bulb, and dozen eggs(!) that your customers pick up along with your glamorous tomatoes can mean more sales and customer loyalty.

Our panel and presenters agreed that while raising chickens may not be the most profitable farming endeavor, it can be “worth it,” but only if you enjoy raising chickens. For complete newbies, hatching a chicken experiment is relatively simple and inexpensive to get started. Here are some resources for getting started with your poultry plans: