Go ahead, farmer Wade Sutter says, let Belleville residents have their hens. Let them get a taste of fresh eggs, then they'll come running to his farm in Millstadt for more if the backyard flock doesn't produce.
"Once you've had fresh eggs, you'll understand why," Sutter said. Fresh Pasture Farms already has customers coming from Edwardsville, O'Fallon and Belleville to stock up. One Edwardsville customer makes a regular "egg run" -- buying 23 dozen for friends and family at the farm about two miles south of Millstadt.
On Wednesday night, a committee of the Belleville City Council will vote on an initial proposal to allow up to three hens per household in city limits. The meeting is at 6 p.m. in the second-floor conference room of City Hall, 101 S. Illinois St. If the committee approves the initial proposal, then the Ordinance and Legal Review Committee will work on a more detailed ordinance before it goes to the full City Council for a vote.
Cynthia Rush, of Rural King in Swansea, is excited about the prospect of backyard flocks but realistic in the economic impact on the area's small farmers.
"I don't think the average backyard flock would have any kind of significant impact on taking any kind of business away from the organic farmers," she said.
The Sutters are not worried that the proposed three-hen limit in Belleville would impact their business. "On a small flock (of three hens), you'll lose money," Wade Sutter said.
The state requires licenses for any eggs sold off-site; but any eggs given from one neighbor to another would not draw state attention.
"There is very little regulation on farmers markets in Illinois; they aren't necessarily required to register anywhere," says Kendra Buchanan of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Price-setting is also up to the individual vendor; there are no state or federal requirements.
"We get customers out all they time who say they want to raise their own," said Sandy Sutter, of Fresh Pasture Farms. The Sutters don't make a large profit from the egg part of their business, selling a dozen for $4.50, but use the fresh eggs to draw customers in for fresh, farm-raised chickens, turkeys and pigs. On Monday, a 28-pound turkey was ready for sale in the freezer. "People just can't believe they get so big naturally," Sandy Sutter said. "But they just do." The Sutters are modeling their farm after PolyFace Farms in Virginia. Sandy's daughter lives in that area, and the Sutters have visited the farm several times, as well as keeping up with the practices by Joel Salatin.
Laying hens can lay up to one egg a day, per hen. "Can" is the crucial word, because Wade Sutter says about the best one can get is a 70 percent laying rate, and that's in the summer. In the winter months, when hens are not seeing 16 hours of sunlight a day, it drops to 10 percent Fresh Pasture Farms.
Hens can have about a 70 percent laying rate, but in the colder months that drops significantly, to 10 percent at best, Wade Sutter said. Egg production ramps up in mid-February, peaking in May. At best, one hen will lay one egg each day. Hens start laying at about 20 weeks old, and the rate drops below profitability for the farm at about 2 years.
Rush at Rural King says a well-cared for chicken can live 15 years; and that is the one thing that concerns the Sutters.
They don't want to adopt any birds that an owner later finds unsuitable. "No," Sandy Sutter said, slowly drawing out the word. "We do not want them."
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