by Gina Simmons and Ryan Wilson
Ryan Wilson and Gina Simmons, owners of Common Wealth Farm, in Unity, Maine, were surprised with their level of first year success. Finding an instant niche market and being established as a family farm gave way to a lot of progress in a short amount of time.
Before starting Common Wealth Farm, Ryan Wilson had worked for a number of vegetable farms. Having met chefs during deliveries, he began asking what they thought was missing from Maine’s agriculture, and ‘duck’ was the most popular response. Gina Simmons, Ryan’s partner, had also been working for vegetable farmers. Their mutual enthusiasm and a vision for starting their own farming venture began to grow. Both in their twenties, they make up part of the larger community of young people returning to Maine to farm.
The Wilson family was on board and purchased the property in the fall of 2010. Ryan had graduated from Evergreen State College with a degree in Ecological Farm Design and Business Planning. His father, Charles Wilson, had just retired from thirty years as an engineer. Both at a crossroads, they realized the team they could make. Jackie, Ryan’s mother, was thrilled to have the whole family together again and in a rural setting. Tim, Ryan’s brother, had always dreamed of farming. Tori, Tim’s twelve year old daughter, was skeptical but with hundreds of new “pets” she decided to stay.
Starting out, Ryan and Gina quickly established a relationship with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, also in Unity, becoming “Journey Persons” in a program that provides mentorship and help getting established. With John Barnstein of Maine-ly Poultry as a mentor, they taught themselves the tools of the trade, both raising and processing the birds. As to be expected, the pastured poultry production was developed through much trial and error.
All birds are purchased as day old chicks and arrive in the mail. They are kept in brooders until able to withstand outdoor temperatures, at two weeks in favorable weather. They are then moved to pasture and kept in a variation of the currently popular ‘chicken tractor’. These tractors are eight by sixteen feet long and are framed with rebar that has been cut, bent and welded together. The result is lightweight and easily moved by two people. Chicken wire is zip-tied around the tractor. The roof is pitched and covered with tarp, one side fastened down, the other secured with bungee cords and able to be opened for maintenance. A ten foot long PVC pipe is used for watering. It is capped on one side and elbowed on the other. About thirty holes are drilled across its length. The current pasture is sloped and the pipe is leveled on one side with adjustable straps. Hoses are adjoined and run the length of the field, each tractor needing to be hand watered. Birds are fed once a day, in the morning.
The 2011 season utilized fourteen tractors, eight for meat ducks and six for meat chickens. A four acre plot close to the house is currently accessible for tractors and they were moved twice a day, slowly making their way down the field and back up. The pasture is able to regenerate itself during its period of rest. With eighty acres, and fifty in fields, the plan is to extend the pasture used for the poultry tractors. Different solutions for handling predation problems are being discussed.
The family built a processing facility in the corner of the previously existing barn for under eight-thousand dollars. The facility is licensed to process up to twenty-thousand birds annually, without an inspector present, under exemption PL 40-492. While current production is nowhere near this figure, the facility is more than capable of handling the farm’s current production and is economical when considering the three to five dollar slaughter fee, per bird, charged by a USDA licensed butcher. Ryan and Gina processed birds three days a week and will increase to four in the coming season.
On top of processing poultry for meat, both ducks and chickens were kept as layers. Despite having many other local egg producers, the market proved to be welcoming and plans include doubling both flocks this year after the previous flocks finish their laying cycle and are culled.
In total, the farm raised three-thousand birds in the first year; two-thousand meat ducks and the other thousand consisting of meat chickens, holiday geese and layers.
“At first, no one had really heard of us and I had to call ten new restaurants a week just to get steady wholesale orders. Then, the phone calls for ducks started coming and we sold out every week for about twenty weeks straight,” Ryan recalls. The market for duck exists primarily in Portland and the Midcoast, where they are delivered to restaurants committed to sourcing their food locally. Ryan and Gina attended a farmers market twice a week in Camden and are considering joining more.
For Common Wealth Farm, a first year of success means the business can grow, which means more infrastructure. For the 2012 season, projects on the ‘To Do’ list include: building a walk-in cooler, creating a more efficient watering system that utilizes other water sources, building movable housing for the new layers and putting up a one-hundred foot greenhouse to brood birds in….and it continues. They have applied for grants available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS addresses projects that help to maintain ecological balance on the working farm.
During their “off” season, Ryan and Gina spend their Saturdays at the Portland Indoor Farmers’ Market with their handmade bread and bagels and eggs for sale. Running a little bakery out of the home kitchen, they produce about forty loaves and ten dozen bagels for winter market. While not close to a vacation, the winter months provide much needed time to reflect back on the first season and gear up for the second.
For more information, please contact Ryan Wilson at TheCommonWealthFarm@gmail.com or (207) 568-9068.
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