WHAT'S THE LATEST?
Updated March 24, 2023
Blackbird’s inaugural year kicked off in February with arrival of the first broilers. The group is preparing for their first harvest on April 3 and distribution on April 11, while addressing some early challenges with the quality of birds arriving from their shared hatchery. If the first few months go well, GrowMore and/or Bellair may take on some of Sylvanaqua’s share of broiler production so the latter can focus more on documenting governance, logistics, and siting for the future processing facility.
Blackbird is a pastured poultry and egg collaboration between Bellair Farm CSA (Charlottesville, VA), GrowMore Farms (Palmyra, VA), and Sylvanaqua Farms (Montross, VA) conceived in 2022. The operation is in its first year, growing 12,000 broiler chickens and raising 2,000 hens.
Project Overview and Progress
Blackbird’s conception was a common-sense solution to the following problems:
Bellair Farm has a thriving CSA with a high demand for poultry, but a shortage of time, manpower, and capital to process their own chickens
GrowMore Farm is a newer operation, and was facing a similar challenge (finding the money for a good poultry processing setup as well as egg processing equipment). Unlike Bellair and Sylvanaqua, however, GrowMore is a new farm without an existing market, and would need to build it from scratch
Sylvanaqua Farms was sitting on a well-appointed poultry processing facility, and a large land base to be converted largely into cattle production. This farm wanted to get full utilization of the processing facilities while leveling off poultry production on its own farms
Note: Yardbirds Farm of Scottsville, VA, a new farm facing the same inception issues as GrowMore, was slated to be Blackbird’s third partner. They grew about half the poultry processed by Sylvanaqua Farms in 2022 as a test-run of Blackbird’s inaugural year. Unfortunately the farm’s proprietor had to take a leave of absence to deal with some lingering health issues. Blackbird is looking forward to welcoming Yardbirds into the cooperative if they elect to resume operations in the future.
The potential synergies here were glaring, and were proposed to the group by Sylvanaqua Farms in late summer of 2022. Once they’d reached an agreement in principle to work together, Dan Sweet of GrowMore was able to shift focus from marketing and facility development toward land tenure and production (now slated to produce 5X the number of eggs and 10X+ the number of broilers in 2023 than initially planned, while working less than half the hours).
Bellair and Sylvanaqua each have lots of commercial poultry production expertise, and each boasts a large, multi-hundred-member CSA with almost no overlap. GrowMore was able to cite this operational and marketing support to secure over a hundred acres of leases from nearby landowners with less than three weeks lead time. In just two years, GrowMore will be able to reach an egg and broiler production level that took e.g. Sylvanaqua nearly a decade operating alone and growing organically.
Each farm has a land base that, at maximum, would allow each partner farm to raise over 20K broiler chickens and 3,000 laying hens each, laying a strategic foundation for processing and distributing chicken and eggs under federal inspection and operating in a regional collaboration extending from Norfolk to Baltimore. To that end, Sylvanaqua’s winding-down of its own field broiler program will enable development of a collectively-owned enterprise(s) functioning as:
Mid-sized processing facility and cold warehouse
Distributed land trust (eliminates the need for new farmers to secure land)
CDFI (funding source for farmers and food entrepreneurs in the system, serves as alternative for divestment from extractive economics)
Regional market-maker / distributor (establishes a universal bid price for regional producers; no one will have to market if they don’t want to)
Importantly, this model also gives a turnkey production blueprint to anyone wishing to grow between 2,000 and 20,000 broilers (or 500 - 3,000 laying hens) without the difficulty of operating the supply chain beyond the farm gate, or securing land, funding, and technical expertise to get started.
In the trial year, the farms are operating entirely under their own banners, though Sylvanaqua is beginning to co-brand its product as “Blackbird” to ease the customer base into the new name and cooperative method of operating. The three operations are in constant contact around growing methods (e.g. how to arrange broiler pens in the field under different topographies), addressing challenges with production (e.g. extreme variability in chicks’ arrival condition from the hatchery), sharing ideas (e.g. watering and heating systems in the brooders), and identifying pain points and areas of improvement (e.g. the clear need for the collective to eventually hatch its own CX eggs). Each farm manages its own production methods and expenses under a common set of growing standards and P&L; Sylvanaqua purchases live harvest-ready broilers from Bellair and GrowMore, processing them at their facility in Colonial Beach, VA. Most birds are sold through the Sylvanaqua CSA, with some sold back to Bellair for its own CSA.