Full Season Farm
Satisfied customers help boost market for farm-raised
and -processed poultry.
By Keith Richards
UMBARGER, Texas -- Chris and Sara Weick figure they've developed a base of about 100 customers who drive out to their farm regularly, with another 300 to 400 who come by occasionally. Located on the Texas High Plains 10 miles out of the town of Canyon and almost an hour from Amarillo, the Weicks realize how precious their customers are and treat them accordingly.
Chris says, "There ain't nothing worth losing a customer over. We just never lose anybody unless they move away or something."
What their customers come for is "farm-raised" chicken -- as opposed to a "factory-raised" bird -- with taste and quality they can't find in the meat department of their local supermarket. "Most people buy from us because they want a chicken that tastes like when they used to raise them," observes Chris.
Keep Production Simple
By the late 1980s the Weicks were farming 3,000 acres of wheat and forage crops when they set a goal of making a living on a half section of land. In 1990, they decided to try a test batch of chickens as an alternate source of income. "We always raised our own chickens," Chris recalls. "People would come over for barbecue, or we'd give a few away, and they'd love it."
The Weicks bought 500 chicks, raised them, and had them butchered at a processing facility 100 miles away. After selling the birds to friends and getting praised for the quality, they decided it was time to go into the poultry business. Now Chris and Sara, along with their teenage children, Salem and Seth, farm 500 acres of feed crops and rent a little more land for pasture.
In addition to raising about 8,000 chickens per year, and turkeys seasonally, the Weicks also raise cattle and a few hogs. "The production end is really pretty simple," says Chris. They buy day-old chicks from area hatcheries in batches of 600 to 800 every three to four weeks.
The Weick's feed the chicks grain from their farm supplemented by feed from a local mill. Never fed antibiotics or additives, the birds move freely in the yard during the day and stay in a simple tin coop at night.
When the first chickens reach about 2.5 pounds dressed out, Chris will start processing them. With the help of two neighbor ladies, he butchers a batch every two weeks until the last are about 4.5 pounds dressed out. This ensures a steady supply of meat for his customers. If sales slack off, he can delay starting another batch, so all meat is sold within one week of processing.
The Weicks sell whole chickens, halves, quarters, ground meat, thighs, breasts, mixed parts with no breast, and a mesquite-smoked and seasoned brisket. All meat is sealed in vacuum packaging and frozen immediately after processing. Chris says frozen chicken has a stigma because it is abused by stores. But theirs will keep for at least six months with no change in flavor.
What makes Full Season Farm unique from other farms raising chickens is their state-inspected processing plant. Chris is pretty sure theirs is the first farm-size poultry plant to be built in Texas. The small building has two processing rooms, a sales room, and a walk-in freezer.
"Putting a plant in is like buying a small farm," says Chris. The Weicks took out a five-year $75,000 loan to finance the building and equipment. Since this type of structure was new to him, Chris sub-contracted the construction to others. Now he says he could do it cheaper himself.
For about six weeks, he went back and forth with the state health department to get the plant's plans and specifications approved. Chris says working with the state health department turned out to be easier than he expected.
State and Federal regulations allow farmers to process up to 20,000 birds per year without a USDA inspector on hand as long as the birds are sold within the state. The state inspector comes out and checks their operation every six months. He recently praised their plant for its cleanliness.
"You've got to have the guts -- the processing plant -- to do this. But marketing is the really interesting part," Chris says. After the success of selling 500 chickens to their friends, he remembers, "We just opened our doors and thought people would beat a path in."
Instead, for about six to eight months, no new customers came along. The Weicks kept selling to the same friends, worried that their sales would never expand.
They tried marketing at a few farmers markets before deciding this wasn't the right place for their product. Chris feels shoppers at the farmers markets in his area want a bargain. But his premium chickens were out of their price range.
Next they tried newspaper advertising. But Chris says, "It doesn't pay. I think advertising is way overrated."
By focusing on producing a top-quality product and really servicing those customers who did come out, their business slowly grew. "If you start small, keep your quality high, and set your goals realistically, you'll grow," says Chris.
Almost all of their sales are from the farm store. A few chickens are sold to a natural food store in Amarillo, but Chris doesn't push that market. It gets their chicken a little more name recognition, but he doesn't like wholesaling because he can't control the quality of his product once it leaves the farm. It also adds the job of collecting on accounts.
Satisfied customers turned out to be their best source of promotion. "My first goal is to have a happy customer," Chris says. "He'll tell 10 to 15 others about your product. But if you tick one off, he'll tell 50 people."
About half of their customers come out to the farm during store hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and about half call ahead to set up special times during the week. "Other farmers always say, 'I can't work with the general public.' Who is this general public?" asks Chris. "I get along with them. They come out to my farm and give me money. You just have to treat 'em like you want to be treated." He thinks other farmers use this excuse because they don't want to be tied down.
The Weicks are beginning to make the farm visit an event for their customers. "We always have coffee and lemonade," Chris says, "and Sara usually makes muffins. People don't usually take any, but it's important to treat them as friends."
They maintain an herb garden near the store for people to sit in or pick herbs for free. And they hope to add a yard in front for lambs and calves so kids can pet them.
"It kind of evolves into something enjoyable," Chris says. "People who come out appreciate what we are doing."
More Products = More Sales
Keeping a steady supply of chickens is imperative for the Weick's business. "You have to create a market and keep it because those customers are yours," emphasizes Chris. "It'd be stupid to give them up by stopping production for awhile."
Now that they have a loyal customer base, they are looking for more products to sell. As they consider new ventures, their criteria are:
Their calves are raised on grass, then finished on farm-raised grain for 15 to 90 days, depending on the animal. The grain finishing "gets the wild grass flavor out, but doesn't get 'em fat," according to Chris. It also allows them to produce a consistent-quality product. They also sell pork sausage made in their plant and a few eggs from laying hens kept at Chris' parents' place. Organic lambs raised by a neighbor are offered by the half, but there's not much of a market for them yet.
About 400 turkeys raised on Full Season Farm are added to their product line at Thanksgiving, mostly to bring new customers in. People will come out before the holidays to buy a turkey and then come back when they see what else the Weicks offer. The turkeys also generate free publicity when local newspapers come by for their seasonal turkey picture and story.
The Weicks tried selling vegetables from their garden until they found market gardening wasn't for them. Chris believes milk would be an ideal addition. If Salem or Seth ever want to take on the milking of 10 cows, he thinks they could sell $3,000-worth of milk per cow yearly. Of course, they would have to purchase additional equipment to go into production.
Adding Even More Value
Chris says none of their customers complain about prices. "Price isn't that big of a consideration for those who come out here," he explains. "They're coming for the best you can get."
To show how you can increase return on a single product, he calculates a few figures in his head. At $1.39 per pound, one three-pound chicken, vacuum packed and frozen, sells for $4.17. If he cuts off the breast, he can get $3.49 just for that part. If he cuts the chicken into parts, it's price goes to $5.07.
Chris believes a farmer can get the gross profit up to $10 to $11 per bird by adding flavoring and other value. Once again, it just depends on what you like to do. He and his family have found what they like to do. Chris says the store will soon make as much as the rest of the farm. "We're breaking even now (after 5 years) and can easily see where we will make more than we did with the full farm."
They paid off their five-year loan, partially with the help of other farm enterprises. "But now farming is kind of crappy and this business is helping to pay for farming," Chris says. He doesn't anticipate ever wanting to produce more than the 20,000 birds yearly allowed by law. If demand gets too high, he'll raise his prices to adjust to the market.
"When you market it yourself, you can raise the price. Other farmers can't do that," says Chris. "And if we have something that doesn't sell, we'll eat it. You can't beat that!"
Making It On The Farm: Increasing Sustainability Through Value-Added Production and Marketing, $12, published by the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. (See their local contacts page for ordering information.)
For more information:
Find out about innovative production practices on our Pastured Poultry Resources page.
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