The cardboard box vibrates with the hollow patter of feet. Through small holes there are glimpses of skittering balls of yellow, brown and black fluff.
Forget Omaha steaks; for many fresh food lovers, this is a special delivery.
Meyer Hatchery in Ashland County ships these mail-order chickens when they are just a day old. And to keep up with demand, the company has to break more than a few eggs. In fact, it hatches about 900,000 chicks each year.
“Some people buy them just for fun, some people buy them because it helps to sustain their income for their family or put food on their table,” said Karen Meyer in a recent segment from the Our Ohio television program.
Business begins to pick up for Meyer Hatchery as spring moves in, allowing customers to keep the fragile chicks warm. The birds make it through the mail just fine thanks to boldly-marked boxes and the egg yolks that naturally provide newborns nourishment for up to 72 hours. The company also sells older chickens for those who don’t want to wait 18 weeks for their birds to start laying eggs.
Even in a tough economy, business has continued to grow over the last three years, Meyer said, and the hatchery has expanded to include a retail store and drive-through where local customers can purchase feed.
“People are conscientious more and more about where their food comes from and that’s one thing they can control if they have their own chickens. They know exactly what they’re eating,” Meyer said. “People feel good about having their own animals and taking care of them and getting some return out of them.”
Farm Bureau Member Jack Jurin of Washington County hopes to help pay for his 40-acre farm by raising a flock of chickens as well as a few cattle and sheep. He has ordered birds through the mail from several hatcheries, including Meyer, and others as far away as Iowa.
“You know, I don’t know what actually got me interested in it. It just kind of happened,” he said.
Jurin describes his farm as an experiment in self-sufficiency.
“I started with a few hens, had too many eggs. I started selling a few eggs to the neighbor ladies. Still had too many eggs. I started taking the excess to the farmers market on Saturday mornings and got a better price for them,” he said.
Jurin said a growing interest in local foods helps him earn a premium for his eggs at the farmers market. Although, with all he puts into his chickens, “some days I think eggs should sell for about $1 a piece,” he laughs.
In Union County, Farm Bureau member Michael Martig raises about 300 meat chickens on two acres at LittleFoot Family Farms.
“Other people enjoy supporting local agriculture,” Martig said. “They really like the fact we’re able to purchase our chicks from a hatchery up the road. We get our grain from a local feed mill just down the road.”
But even if Ohioans get their eggs from a grocery store, there is a good chance they’re also buying local. Ohio is home to 27 million laying hens and is the second largest egg producer in the nation. It is a huge boost to the state’s economy that is amplified by the thousands of Ohio farmers who grow feed for livestock and poultry.
“We’re all in the same business. We’re all feeding people,” said Jim Chakeres, executive director of the Ohio Poultry Association, which represents more than 600 Ohio egg, turkey and chicken producers. “It’s the same values, but on a different scale.”
Chakeres said farmers are very much in favor of consumer choice, whether that means paying a little more to buy from a neighbor or enjoying the convenience and affordability of the eggs at their grocer.
“It all gets back to personal preference and families,” he said about large- and small-scale poultry production. “You’re feeding your family; my farmers (Ohio Poultry Association members) are feeding their families plus a lot of other families.”
But for many of the state’s poultry producers, a few birds in the back yard is all they’re interested in.
“I think one thing that I’ve done intelligently, and accidentally also, I didn’t get into anything too big all at once. Wade into it slowly. If you think you want 50 or a hundred hens, start with maybe 25,” Jurin said.
In fact, he sees a trend toward farming on a very small scale.
“A lot of people have maybe five acres and they’re trying to do something with it, make it self sufficient, productive,” he said. “Sheep are a good project for that.”
But good luck getting your mailman to lead one of those to your doorstep.
- A rooster is required for a hen to lay eggs. Actually, hens lay eggs on their own. The rooster is only needed to fertilize the eggs.
- Brown eggs are healthier than white eggs. The color of the egg simply depends on the breed of chicken. Some breeds even produce a variety of pastel colored eggs. Color is an aesthetic preference.
TIPS FROM FARMERS
Our Ohio asked backyard chicken farmers on the Our Ohio Facebook fan page for photos or tips on raising poultry.
- Turn a light on in the coop just before dark and leave it on the necessary amount of time for a consistent amount of light each day. It seems to improve egg production. – Matt Reese
- We have 8 laying hens and usually raise 25 broilers each summer. Great to have farm-fresh chicken in your freezer and fresh eggs each morning! – Kim Krieger
- Don’t forget to feed them their own crushed up egg shells for calcium! Just rinse them, dry them, and crush them. It will lead to strong eggshells. And it doesn’t hurt to leave a “nitelite” on all night to allow them to see in their coop, move around, and eat/drink without flying into a wall or hurting themselves on a perch. – Amy Dillon
- Composted chicken manure is one of the best fertilizers for squash, melons and pumpkins. Predator control is very important! Raccoons are very strong and will probe any weaknesses in the wire or doors. Also, be alert to dogs. Electric fences are the best protection for outside chicken pens. – Robert Stonerock
Watch a video about Meyer Hatchery on Our Ohio’s YouTube channel.