The chicken business is big. No one knows how big it is and no one can find out. The reason it is hard to find out is that so many people are engaged in it and because the chicken crop is sold, not once a year, but a hundred times a year. Statistics are guesses. True statistics are the sum of little guesses, but often figures published as statistics are big guesses by a guesser who is big enough to have his guests accepted.
A Big Business; Growing Bigger
The only real statistics for the poultry crop of the United States are those of the Federal Census. At this writing, these statistics are nine years old and somewhat out of date. The value of poultry and eggs in 1899, according to the census figures, was $291,000,000. Is this too big or too little? I don’t know. If the reader wishes to know let him imagine the census enumerator asking a farmer the value of the poultry and eggs which he has produced the previous year. Would the farmer’s guess be too big or too small?
From these census figures as a base, estimates have been made for later years. The Secretary of Agriculture, or, speaking more accurately, a clerk in the Statistical Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, says the poultry and egg crop for 1907 was over $600,000,000.
The best two sources of information known to the writer by which this estimate may be checked are the receipts of the New York market and the annual “Value of Poultry and Eggs Sold,” as given by the Kansas State Board of Agriculture.
[Illustration: Plate I. Page 14. Graph—Is There Money in Poultry?]
In plate I the top curve a-a gives the average spring price of Western first eggs in the New York market. The curve b-b gives the annual receipts of eggs at New York in millions of cases. Now, since value equals quantity multiplied by price, and since the quantity and values of poultry are closely correlated to those of eggs, the product of these two figures is a fair means of showing the rate of increase in the value of the poultry crop. Starting with the census value of $291,000,000 for the year 1899, we thus find that by 1907 the amount is very close to $700,000,000. This is represented by the lower line.
The value of the poultry and eggs sold in Kansas have increased as follows:
1903 $ 6,498,856
The dotted line e-e represents the increase in the national poultry and egg crop estimated from the Kansas figures. Evidently, the estimate given in Secretary Wilson’s report was not excessive.
Now, I want to call the reader’s attention to some relations about which there can be no doubt and which is even more significant. The straight line c-c in Plate 1 represents the rate of increase of population in this country. The line b-b represents the rate of increase in egg receipts at New York. As the country data backs up the New York figures, the conclusion is inevitable that the production of poultry and eggs is increasing much more rapidly than is our population.
“Over-production,” I hear the pessimist cry, but unfortunately for Friend Pessimist, we have a gauge on the over-production idea that lays all fears to rest. When the supply of any commodity increases faster than the demand, we have overproduction and falling prices. Vice-versa, under-production is shown by a rising price. That prices of poultry and eggs have risen and risen rapidly, has already been shown.
“But prices of all products have risen,” says one. Very true, but by statistics with which I will not burden the reader, I find that prices of poultry products have risen more rapidly than the average rise in values of all commodities. This shows that poultry products are really more in demand and more valuable, not apparently so. Moreover, the rise in the price of poultry products has been much more pronounced than the average rise in the price of all food products, which proves the growing demand for poultry and eggs to be a real growing demand, not a turning to poultry products because of the high price of other foods, as is sometimes stated.
Less Ham and More Eggs.
Certainly we, as a nation, are rapidly becoming eaters of hens and of hen fruit. Reasons are not hard to find. Poultry and eggs are the most palatable, most wholesome, most convenient of foods. Our demands for the products of the poultry yard grows because we are learning to like them and because our prosperity has grown and we can afford them.
Another reason that the consumption of eggs is growing is that the condition in which they reach the consumer is improving. The writer may say some pretty hard things in this work about the condition of poultry and eggs as they are now marketed, but any old-timer in the business will tell you stories of things as they used to be that will easily explain why our fathers ate more ham and fewer eggs.
Yet another reason why the per capita consumption of hens as measured in pounds or dollars increases, is that the hen herself has increased in size; whereas John, when he was Johnnie, ate a two-ounce drumstick, now Johnnie eats an analogous piece that weighs three ounces. Perhaps, also, we have a growing respect for the law of Moses, or may be vegetarians who think that eggs grow on eggplants are becoming more numerous.
Our consumption of pork per capita has, in the last half century, diminished by half, our consumption of beef has remained stationary, but our consumption of poultry and eggs has doubled itself, we know not how many times, for a half century ago the ancestor of the industrious hen of this age serenely scratched up grandmother’s geraniums and was unmolested by the statisticians.
Who Gets the Hen Money?
Seven hundred millions of dollars is a lot of money. Who gets it? There are no Rockefellers or Armours in the hen business. It is the people’s business. Why? Because the nature of the business is such that it cannot be centralized. Land and intelligent labor, prompted by the spirit of ownership, is necessary to succeed in the hen business. Land the captains of industry have not monopolized, and labor imbued with the spirit of ownership they cannot monopolize. The chicken business is, in dollars, one of the biggest industries in the country. In numbers of those engaged in it, the chicken business is the biggest industry in the world—I bar none. Why is this true? Primarily because the hen is a natural part of the equipment of every farm and of many village homes as well. It is these millions of small flocks that count up in dollars and men and give such an immense aggregate.
More than ninety-eight per cent. of the poultry and eggs of the country are produced on the general farm. The remaining one or two percent. are produced on farms or plants where chicken culture is the cash crop or chief business of the farmer. It is this business, relatively small, though actually a matter of millions, that is commonly spoken of as the poultry business, and about which our chief interest centers. A farmer can disregard all knowledge and all progress and still keep chickens, but the man who has no other means of a livelihood must produce chicken products efficiently, or fail altogether—hence the greater interest in this portion of the industry.
The poultry business as a business to occupy a man’s time and earn him a livelihood is a thing of recent origin and was little heard of before 1890. Since that time it has undergone a somewhat painful, though steady growth. Many people have lost money in the business and have given it up in disgust, but on a whole, the business has progressed wonderfully, and now shows features of development that are clearly beyond the experimental stage and are undoubtedly here to stay.
The suggestion has been made by those who have failed or have seen others fail in the poultry business, that success was impossible because of the destructive competition of the farmer, whose expense of production is small. Herein lie a great truth and a great error. The farmer’s cost of production is small, much smaller than that on most of the book made poultry farms—but the inference that the poultryman’s cost of production cannot be lowered below that of the farmer is a different statement.
The farm of our grandfather was a very diversified institution. It contained in miniature a woolen mill, a packing house, a cheese factory, perhaps a shoe factory and a blacksmith shop. One by one these industries have been withdrawn from general farm-life and established as independent businesses. Likewise, our dairy farms, our fruit farms, and our market gardens have been segregated from the general farm. This simply means that manufacturing cloth, or cheese, or producing milk, or tomatoes can be done at less cost in separate establishments than upon a general farm.
The general farm will always grow poultry for home consumption, and will always have some surplus to sell. With the surplus, the poultryman must compete. His only hope of successful competition is production at lower cost. Can this be done? It is being done, and the numbers of people who are doing it are increasing, but they spend a little money at poultry shows, or with the advertisers of poultry papers, and hence are little heard of in the poultry world.
The people whose names and faces are in the poultry papers are frequently there only while their money lasts. They write long articles and show pictures of many houses and yards to prove that there is money in the poultry business, but if one should keep their names and put the question to them five years hence, a great many could say, “Yes, there is money in the poultry business; mine is in it.”
Such people and such plants do not get the cost of production down below the farmer’s level. Between these two classes of poultry plants, the writer hopes in this work to show the distinction.