Wesley Davis, a Point Pleasant High School senior, holds a small portion of the eggs he collects every day produced by his free-ranging hens.
POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. -- In Wesley Davis's case, the chicken came first.It all started six years ago. He was 11 years old and purchased a little black chicken at the county fair. In middle school, he joined the Mason County Vocational
Future Farmers of America. He soon started raising more hens for egg production.The national Future Farmers of America organization recently chose Davis and the free-range egg business he developed as a national top 10 Agri-Entrepreneur. Davis, a senior at Point Pleasant High School, will receive a $1,000 award at an Oct. 23 ceremony in Indianapolis.Judges selected Davis' project from 150 FFA entries in which students created a business plan for a supervised agricultural business. The 2011 award is the fourth national FFA award Davis has received.
"For me it was chickens. I decided to create a business plan and see where it took me. My plan was to produce fresh, free-range eggs for local consumers. I looked for opportunities to sell eggs and found a lot of niches," Davis said.His plan succeeded. He started with 30 hens in a small storage shed and expanded to 350 free-range hens that produce 280 eggs a day. Davis supplies all nine Mason County schools with eggs and delivers eggs by the dozens to nearby homes twice a week. The eggs cost $2 a dozen and produce a profit of $1.25 to $1.35 per dozen and are regulated by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. After he subtracts the cost of feed, Davis makes about $150 a week from his self-sustaining business.His father is an industrial maintenance specialist and his mother a secretary. They don't farm. Their son's interest in chickens and hens baffled them, but they supported his efforts and let him build a neat, efficient coop and compost facility on a corner of the two acres surrounding their home. They live on a county road, but are only two miles outside the Point Pleasant city limits.Davis credits the FFA with some of his success. He's the president of the state FFA, the first high school student to hold the office since 1929. A college student usually serves as president.A $5,000 business loan that Davis secured himself covered initial start-up costs in 2008. Two years ago, he received a $14,000 grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and added a concrete pad and composting facility.The "girls," as Davis calls them, roost in the protection of a large, open-air coop, but peck their way around a fenced portion the family's yard during the day. Davis supplements the food they forage with carefully researched and selected feed.Free-range eggs taste different from commercially produced eggs. They contain three times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids and 15 times the iron, Davis discovered from his extensive research online and from agriculture classes he took through the Mason County Career Center."I read all the time. I always have a book in my hands," Davis said.The Red Sex-Link hens arrive as chicks after Davis orders them in the spring. He keeps them in a warm, sanitized brooder house, then gradually moves them outside to adapt to cooler temperatures. Mature laying hens require 16 hours of sleep. As the length of the day shortens, an automatic lighting system in the coop compensates, so the hens continue to lay eggs throughout the winter.The science of lighting, feed, exercise and laying practices interests Davis, as do fun chicken facts. No matter where they are in the yard, the chickens' homing instinct brings them into the coop to roost for the evening. No herding required. Chickens have good hearing and respond quickly to sound, Davis said. Right on cue, the clucking in the coop died down and all the chickens' heads swiveled in the same direction toward a sound obvious only to them.They also lay more eggs during warm weather when they hear birdsong and insect noise. Davis plays the radio for them when nature's noise quiets down in the cooler weather.
"When I first started, I just knew they needed food and water," he said.He rises at 6 a.m., checks on and feeds the hens. They stay in the coop while he's at school, and he releases them to forage when he returns home. A wave of russet-feathered chickens hasten to Davis when he approaches the coop. Their clucking increases in volume. "They think I'm going to feed them," he said. While they're in the yard, he collects, cleans and packages the day's eggs that the hens lay in hay-filled cubbies.The daily commitment would prevent him from traveling, but he has assistants. His parents and brother help when he's out of town for FFA meetings and presentations. When his family travels together, his grandmother and cousins take over.A layer of wood chips and chicken feces cover the floor of the odor-free coop. He scoops the floor clean once every week or two and adds the waste to a pile in a partitioned section of another building.The bottom half of the building is wood-sided, the top covered with wire. As the season progresses, Davis will fill the building with what develops into valuable and nutrient-rich compost.
Gardeners purchase the compost from him by the bucket. He makes more money selling compost than he does eggs.His coop, yard and composting facility could accommodate 1,300 hens, but his high school honor courses, FFA presidential responsibilities, community service and 4-H activities don't leave enough time to care for that number."I want to get into the wholesale market, but I like the personal relationship I have with my customers," he said.Because the hens' egg production slows down after one year, Davis sells them at that age. So far, he's sold only to people who want to keep them as pets.Davis plans to study poultry science in college and to research free-range egg production. He's hoping his 14-year-old brother, Zak, will take over his business when he leaves for the fall semester.After college, Davis hopes to open a commercial free-range operation. The free-range egg industry has grown 300 percent in recent years, but still commands a small percentage of American egg production. Currently, less than 1 percent of U.S. eggs are free-range. The European free-range egg market commands 80 percent."The perspective is changing here," he said. "I want to be right there when it hits."Davis will hold a back-yard egg production workshop at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Mason County Career Center
. He'll talk about the role FFA played in his business development and will take attendees to tour his egg and compost operation. The event is sponsored by the WVU Extension Service"I want to show people what they can do through FFA. It's a wonderful opportunity," he said.Call 304-675-0888 or 304-586-0217 to register or for more information on the workshop.Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.