By Joseph Robertia
There’s something about the smell of eggs cooking in a skillet first thing in the morning, and if recent sales of chicks are any indication, there are a growing number of people who prefer the taste of farm-fresh eggs versus store-bought.
“We got in 700 today alone, and over the course of the season we’ll go through around 8,000 from March to June,” said Dianna Taplin, owner of Cad-Re Feed and Grandma’s Cupboard in Soldotna.
It’s not just about taste preferences, though. According to Taplin, there are many reasons the chicken-raising business is starting to boom. For some it’s about getting a meat product free of hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. For others it’s part of teaching their kids about raising fowl, and for still others it’s about being prepared for any number of situations that could cause a disruption to the local grocery store food supply.
“It’s really exploded the last five years. We saw a slight dip a few years ago when Soldotna changed its zoning laws, but otherwise it’s been steadily growing. I think when people saw the economy tanking and us living so far north, it really kicked people wanting to become self-sufficient into overdrive,” she said.
There are two divisions of chicken — meat chickens, which are bought to be raised and butchered for food, and laying chickens, which are bought to be raised to produce eggs.
“We have two varieties of meat chickens and we carry about 20 breeds of layers because everyone has their favorite. The top is the Rhode Island Red — that’s the biggest seller each year. We also carry a few varieties of ornamentals and rare-breed chickens for those who just want something cute, or to eat bugs or stir up the garden,” Taplin said.
So many chicks in the store — requiring scratch, water, warmth under a heat lamp and almost constant cleaning — requires a lot of planning and preparation.
“I have three chicken managers, I’ve designed a program to keep up with the customers and the hatcheries, and I keep at least eight books of preorders,” Taplin said.
Transportation of the chicks from the farms to the store is the most nerve-racking aspect. The baby birds can’t survive long without food and warmth, so even an interruption as brief as a plane being delayed in Anchorage for a day can have disastrous results.
“Getting them here safely is the hardest part, and it’s been better since the post office made changes to get them here in two days. Now the hard part is when 700 to 800 come in, and there are still others here that haven’t been picked up,” she said.
Chickens are one of the largest parts of the live-animal business at Cad-Re, but not the only species with which Taplin deals.
“We also carry two types of meat turkeys — broad-breasted white and broad-breasted bronze, both of which get really big in one season. We also carry rare breed and wild heritage turkey breeds, which only get around 25 pounds.
“We carry about eight breeds of ducks, some egg layers and some rare breeds; we carry about five or six species of geese; and pheasants and guineas, too,” Taplin said.
She added that it’s not just selling fowl, but also teaching people who purchase them the necessary skills to thrive with their chicks.
“Our mission is to preserve farming and self care as a way of life,” she said. “So we try to make sure everyone knows what they need and how to raise them when they leave the store.”
Cad-Re isn’t the only area retailer to sell chicks in spring. Kenai Feed and Supply on Kalifornsky Beach Road also sells about 300 per week, as well as steer, sheep, goats and rabbits. But Kenai Feed’s largest seller in recent years has been pigs.
“We’ve sold twice as many as last year,” said store owner Sarah Donchi.
Like Taplin, Donchi said that a big part of her growing business is to people looking to avoid purchasing pork from the store.
“Some of it is people trying to be self-sufficient, for some it’s eating healthier, and for some it’s buying and growing local foods, so people will buy pigs to raise for food or to breed. We have a lot of 4-Hers who get them to raise for Junior Market Livestock, too,” she said.
Like Taplin, Donchi said that it’s challenging to keep so many animals once they come in, but before people pick up their orders.
“We start taking deposits in January, so when they get here, they’re all already pre-sold. We brought in 400 earlier this month, sold 200 in the Valley and another 200 here,” she said.
And they’re still taking orders to bring in more pigs toward the end of the month, as well as orders for cows.
Donchi also sells high-tunnel greenhouses through the feed store and uses one on-site to hold the pigs when they come in. While the area has a thick floor of straw, peeking into the structure is like staring at a sea of swirling pink motion.
“They’re great for holding the pigs,” she said.
The only downside is when it comes time to get hands on one to give it to the new owner. They tend to be pretty quick on the hoof, even in the close quarters.
“It’s just like you’d imagine. When you try to catch them they run and squeal like you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “It’s definitely the hardest part.”