Poultry Sales and the Farmer's Living Wage

I find it fascinating to understand the true cost of food – both the process of discovering the true cost (because our food system has made it quite complicated) as well as the findings themselves. After finalizing some new details regarding raising meat birds for our customers, I found the per-bird cost Bakers’ Acres would have to charge would be too high to make it a marketable product. Thus, we will not be selling our pasture-raised poultry. With the intention to be as transparent as possible to help people understand the impact of their food dollar, here is why.

Raising food for ourselves, we hardly notice the on-average 30 minutes spent each day choring chickens. But, when raising food for sale as a living, those minutes become a line item on a ledger. They have value, and can be spent as part of one enterprise or another, contributing to the P&L of whatever product they’re invested into. In beginning farmer programs, we are taught to plan for our profit when building a farm business, rather than wait until the end of the year or tax season to see if we made any money. When I added labor into the surprisingly long list of chicken expenses, the cost grew to $30.07 per bird. I had known the per-bird cost would be high, but I didn’t think it would be THAT high.

Why is each bird so expensive? Here’s a run-down of the costs for 25 birds (50 or even 100 would cut the cost, but not by much):

25 chicks = $56.25
Shipping = $12
Feed – 8 weeks certified organic chick starter ($20/bag) = $160
Feed – 4 weeks transitional organic corn (~$7/bag) = $30
Processing – 25 birds @ $3/bird = $75
Transport to processing (130 miles x $0.565) = $73.45
Electric for heat lamp, water, coop door, etc. – 30 days @$1/day = $30

Total: $436.70 / 25 = $17.47 per bird

But that doesn’t include labor. If I were to pay myself or someone for caring for the birds, say even close to minimum wage, here’s the new price:

Farmer’s labor = 30 minutes/day x 12 weeks = 2,520 minutes = 42 hours, x $7.50/hr = $315

Total: $751.70 / 25 = $30.07 per bird

And guess what. That’s not even a living wage. A living wage in Minnesota is currently $9.69 for one adult, no children. To earn enough raising chickens (the way we raise them) in Minnesota so that you could live without being in poverty, each bird would have to be priced at a jaw-dropping $33.74.

My calculations might be a bit low or high, but regardless, that’s some expensive chicken noodle soup I just made…

For you smart shoppers comparing prices at the grocery store, a whole bird can weigh 6-7 pounds at its 12th week, and then the processed weight can be 4-5 lbs of meat. At $30/bird, that’s $6 to $7.50 per pound! A certified organic chicken breast might cost that much per pound, but rarely will you find a “whole bird” priced that high.

I understand how other farms can make poultry a profitable enterprise. They can raise their own chicks, not order and ship them from elsewhere. They can do the processing themselves or cut costs on transportation, not process them in small batches like we do at a facility far from the farm. They can buy feed in bulk.

But for Bakers’ Acres, poultry is not where I want to focus energy to win the economies of scale game. We’ll continue to primarily focus on growing fresh produce for our customers.

For those of you who expressed interest in buying poultry from us, there are several nearby certified organic farms raising birds for meat. Please check them out and consider giving them your business! On the Minnesota Grown website, you can search by zip code and buy directly from their farm or at the farmers’ market.

My thoughts on all this? First, I would like to encourage everyone to cherish the meat you eat. Now that I am raising livestock again to feed my family, whenever I eat beef, chicken or eggs, that simple choice and action becomes more precious and less simple with every day I spend caring for our animals – they work pretty dang hard just to grow, just so we can eat them. Truth.

Secondly, please acknowledge the miniscule wage the farmer – any farmer – is earning for producing the meat you eat. Even non-organic meat – and dairy and produce. Conventional farmers might incur less expensive inputs because they’re not feeding organic, but they also likely get paid less for their conventional product. In this sense, we’re all in the same boat when it comes to supplying our food system. Yes, there are certain subsidies and beneficial tax breaks involved in being a farmer, but you can bet the average small farmer is hardly scraping up a living wage. If you want to do something about it, buy from farms that focus on raising these types of products and do so profitably. Use that Minnesota Grown website.

Lastly, I want readers to know I appreciate having the opportunity to share what I learn about our food system as I dive deeper into truly knowing it. I hope this transparency might help you be a more aware consumer. Thanks for reading.

- Lisa (unedited and on the go, please excuse typos or grammatical laziness..) :)

I am responsive!