The road leading into Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury is surrounded by hay fields and on Friday afternoon the late-day sun brushed their tops in shades of gold.
In one hand, Doug Brush, 26, held a cold beer — it was 5 p.m., after all. In the other he held a hammer. With him was his business partner, Jeff Munroe, 28. Together, they were finishing a self-designed movable pen for their 226 rock cornish-cross baby chicks, which arrived in the Vineyard Haven post office the day before.
The pen is the third the two have built together since February and by now they seem to have gotten the hang of it. “Our first attempt was something of a failure,” said Mr. Munroe, who is also the manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Hostel. “It was too heavy to move and it took almost 40 hours to build. Now, I’d say we’re down to about 15 hours.”
The two rose that morning with the sun. Before heading to work each day (Mr. Brush is a teaching assistant at the Oak Bluffs school and also teaches private guitar lessons) they check on the chicks and on 210 five-week-old birds which graze in movable pens outside.
After work, they return to the farm to move the pens, clean the brooder where the baby chicks live and change their water. They are joined by Mr. Brush’s wife, Emily Fisher, who keeps five goats at the farm, which she milks for cheese and handmade soaps. Ms. Fisher grew up on this farm, which was first worked by her grandfather, the late Arnold Fisher Sr., and is now run by her father Arnold Jr. Ms. Fisher and Mr. Brush are the next generation of farmers in this family.
But Mr. Brush and Mr. Munroe call themselves the chicken men.
“You are a farmer when it is your profession,” said Mr. Brush.
This winter, they began a business venture which is a version of community supported agriculture with poultry. At the start of the season, they took cash deposits from customers who will later receive a slaughtered and clean whole chicken. Suddenly later is now — slaughter day is June 21 for the first batch of chicks which are five weeks old. The second batch will be ready in early August; a third batch is planned for the fall.
“Winter on the Vineyard makes you think stupid ideas,” said Mr. Brush, who last summer tried his first small-scale chicken operation on the farm. With only a post-college summer internship at a goat dairy and a love of Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma to guide him, Mr. Brush bought two batches of 50 birds. The experience was a learning process. Raccoons killed more than half the flock and a northeast storm destroyed the moveable pen he built for them. But, by fall, he had slaughtered about 75 birds, which he sold.
“It went well enough last year that I wanted to grow it, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” Mr. Brush said. Enter Mr. Munroe. The two met in May of 2007 over a chicken pen Mr. Brush was building outside a Living Local festival at the West Tisbury Agricultural Hall. Mr. Munroe, who had moved to the Island only a month before, walked over. They bonded over a love of sustainable agriculture and their inexperience with it.
“I had always lived in big cities,” said Mr. Munroe, who had also been an intern on a farm. “This was the first place I had lived where keeping chickens wasn’t illegal.”
They began to throw around some ideas — health regulations make it difficult to sell meat at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, and selling on the farm would require more time than either one had. Then they hit on the idea of a Community Supported Agriculture for chickens. In February they launched a blog to chronicle the endeavor. “We want it to be as transparent as possible,” Mr. Munroe said. Also over the winter they attended a poultry day event sponsored by the Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit which advocates locally grown food and small farming. There they signed up their first customers and hatched the idea to design their moveable pens, A-frame structures they call chicken tractors.
The operation has not been inexpensive, although a $680 grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society covered the cost of building three chicken pens. But the cost of grain is going up — a 50-pound bag of feed which last year cost $12, this year costs $14. The pens, which they move every day, allow each bird two square feet of room. The industry standard is 1.3. The birds eat 75 pounds of feed a day.
“Commercial birds turn two pounds of corn and soy into one pound of meat. These birds will turn three to four pounds of feed,” Mr. Munroe began. “Closer to four, when you consider they are also eating the grass,” Mr. Brush chimed in.
“Four pounds of feed into one pound of meat. And we’re not giving them antibiotics, which make them grow faster,” Mr. Munroe added. The decision not to inoculate the birds is an experiment; the idea came from a book by the sustainable Vermont farmer Joel Salatin. So far it is working, they said.
The rising cost of feed will affect the price of the birds. Last year, Mr. Brush sold chicken for $4 per pound; this year the price is $5 per pound, the same price that Cronig’s Market charges for Bell & Evans organic chicken.
“You get what you pay for, which is non-medicated, extremely local birds,” Mr. Brush said. “The person putting the chicken in your hand is the same guy who raised them. The place where you pick them up is where they lived and were processed.”
Slaughtering the birds will also be somewhat of an experiment. “We will do one run at seven weeks, one at eight and one at nine to see what is most cost effective,” Mr. Brush said. The whole operation is made possible because of new slaughtering equipment the Island Grown Initiative purchased last spring. Professional operators bring a modern contraption called a mobile poultry processing unit directly to the farm. Chickens are slaughtered and cleaned on-site, making a trip off-Island to a New Bedford slaughterhouse unnecessary and bringing more efficiency to the operation. A number of farms used the slaughtering device last year. The Flat Point Farm job on June 21 will be the largest to date.
“The mobile processing unit is what makes it possible,” Mr. Brush said. “Slaughtering can be a big stumbling block.”
Still, the two have yet to declare their operation a business success.
“So far, the majority of sales, people want two to three birds,” Mr. Munroe said. They sell the birds whole, because of health regulations. “We can’t chop them up, so storage becomes a problem,” Mr. Brush said. Two weeks before slaughter day, roughly 160 of the birds from the first batch have been pre-ordered. They hope to sell at least 20 more and keep some for themselves.
But they seem to be on the right track. They have lost slightly more than five per cent of their first batch of birds. “A five per cent mortality rate is considered good,” Mr. Brush said. And the deaths were a result of inclement weather, not raccoon attacks or disease.
“We have to have the first run go through before we can know if it’s successful,” Mr. Munroe said. “June 21 will give us an idea of what we will make. We already know what work is involved. We will need to figure out, with feed costs, if we haven’t lost money.”
He continued: “If we get all the birds out, we’ll at least be breaking even, if not better. In that way we’ll be successful. But, at the end of the day, if you realize you’re making three dollars an hour raising chickens . . .” he trailed off. “Well, it will be successful if we look back in October and think, that’d be cool to do again next season.”
If they do decide to continue, they hope to grow their operation and serve as a resource for other Island growers. “We are interested in helping other people get going,” Mr. Brush said. “It’s not easy, but no one should be scared to try this.”
For more information or to order a bird call 508-939-1140 or visit online at flatpointpoultry.blogspot.com.
In other farm news, the Sowing Circle, a group of female Island farmers, on Sunday awarded $100 to Sadie and Ruby Dix and their friend Kendra Mills. Last year the three girls grew pumpkins from seed and sold them to benefit an orphanage in India. The girls last week sent a second box to the orphanage filled with art supplies. “We thought it was very important to reward a young, inspiring group of ladies who wanted to do something with the earth for kids on the earth,” said Sowing Circle founding member Heidi Feldman. The gift is the first from the group, which formed in March.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission will host a meeting to discuss a draft proposal to create an agricultural commission on the Vineyard at noon tomorrow at the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs. All interested farmers are invited to attend.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.