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The economy may be in a downturn, but chick sales are thriving

Saturday, April 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Three chicks fill Nichole DeVorss' cupped hands as she places them in a coop Tuesday in Sedalia. The chicks will grow into egg-laying hens.

SEDALIA — These chicks are hot.

Cages at Orscheln Farm & Home sat empty until a weekly delivery of 200 chirping chicks arrived on a recent Tuesday. About 100 already were spoken for, and the remaining 100 chicks were put out for sale. Those chicks would barely last the week.

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An interest in raising chickens mushroomed this spring, causing hatcheries to scramble to keep up with demand.

A Springfield-based hatchery supplies the store with chicks. Orscheln has received the chicks they pre-ordered, but additional orders have been difficult to fill.

"They (the hatchery) are experiencing a chicken frenzy," said Martie Kearney, Orscheln's assistant manager.

Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon has doubled its office personnel to take orders, and online orders also have more than doubled. The hatchery is producing one-third more chicks than last year.

"People have gone nuts for chickens," said Nancy Smith, who operates the third-generation hatchery with her husband, Clifton.

Smith speculated on the reasons for the chick boom: Chicken owners can control what the birds eat and how they are treated, which is attractive to some people who worry about hormones and antibiotics used on commercial farms.

"The economy has people scared," Smith said. "They want something on their place so they can be self-sufficient."

Smith, who has worked at the hatchery since 1964, has never seen such an exponential increase in business.

"We're still taking orders, but we are having to book them six to eight to 12 weeks down the line," she said. "We thought last year was bad, but this just beats it altogether."

Orscheln receives a FedEx delivery of between 200 and 300 chicks every week, and the store will sell nearly all of the birds before the next delivery. "It seems like as soon as we get them, they sell," Kearney said.

Customers are buying chickens to lay eggs and eat. Daniel and Misty Fox of Sedalia were waiting recently for Orscheln to receive a new shipment of chicks. The couple had been to the store previously when there were a couple of chicks left, but when they returned, the chicks were gone.

The Foxes decided to buy four Rhode Island Red pullets for their children, but Daniel Fox said he'd like to raise the hens for eggs.

"I'd love it," he said. "It would be cheap."

If all goes well, the Foxes said, they may invest in more chicks.

The interest in chicks has fluctuated over Kearney's 12 years with Orscheln.

"I don't know if it has anything to do with the times of today, with people being short on money, or it's just one of the years you sell a lot of chickens," she said.

Kearney has noticed several first-time chicken owners. Orscheln carries how-to books on raising chickens, building coops and producing good laying hens. "I think every year there are people who just decide to try it, and other ones continue to do it," she said of raising chicks.

The Cackle Hatchery, which produces chicks from January to early September, has wholesale customers (such as feed stores) and retail customers who buy several dozen different breeds of chicks. Some 58,000 chicks hatched on a recent Monday.

The chick frenzy will likely continue, Smith said.

"I don't know how long it will stay, but the economy isn't going to recover real soon," she said.


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