Shelby Grebenc runs an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) egg operation in Broomfield, Colorado. Every morning, she gets up at dawn to take care of her 130 pasture-raised Leghorns, Ameraucanas, Rhode Island Reds, and Plymouth Rocks—plus some “strays” that people have dropped on her doorstep... which, incidentally, is how the farm came by its colorful name: Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm.
“You can see my hens from the road, so people sometimes drive by at night and leave me chickens they no longer want,” Shelby explains. “I wake up and find an empty box and some chickens running around. One time the hens had lost all their tail feathers and looked pretty sore. I helped them back to health and happiness, so Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm seemed right.”
The laying hens at the farm produce around 28–56 dozen eggs a week, and it takes Shelby about an hour each morning to feed them and put out fresh water, then collect, clean and box the eggs. After her budding egg business is squared away, she goes to her “second job” at Rocky Top Middle School. Shelby isn’t a teacher, however. She’s a student. Currently in seventh grade, Shelby—at 12 years of age—is far and away the youngest farmer in the United States to have gained AWA certification.
Youth notwithstanding, Shelby is actually a veteran when it comes to raising chickens, having tended the family’s chickens since she was six. What began as a child’s desire to hang out with the flock and be useful to her parents turned into a more serious endeavor when her mother developed multiple sclerosis a few years ago. Though “just a kid,” Shelby started thinking about what she could do to help out with expenses. Her solution: Start an egg business.
Her first step was to get financing. Seeing as a bank might balk at lending money to an entrepreneur not yet out of elementary school, Shelby appealed to a source with a more relaxed lending policy; at the age of 10, she secured a $1,000 loan from her grandmother. With that, she was on her way and Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm was born. (Her grandmother has since been repaid.) Today, the business is going strong. If on rare occasions her father covers for her, it is still Shelby who runs the show. She sells her eggs from home, to neighbors, and at area farmers’ markets.
Shelby first learned about AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved program from a neighbor and decided she wanted her hens to have the distinction of being raised with the highest animal welfare standards. “I wanted people to know my animals are being treated properly,”
“I get lots of questions from my customers,” she explains. “They don't always understand the difference between caged and pastured chickens. I think it is important that chickens get to be chickens. They have to be able to fly, scratch, peck, take dirt baths and react with one another. If chickens don't get a chance to do these things they are not going to be happy.” Both compassionate and wise beyond her years, AWA farmer Shelby Grebenc works hard to keep her birds content—even those who come to her missing the occasional tail feather.
When last we caught up with Carole Morison (see Summer 2010 AWI Quarterly), she and husband Frank were out of the chicken business. Famously, they had walked away after more than two decades raising birds under (increasingly burdensome) contracts for Perdue on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Her mounting awareness of the absurdity of it all and efforts to buck the system earned her a starring role in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Food, Inc., in which she gave viewers an inside look at the industrial system and what it does to both chickens and farmers.
On their decision to break free, Carole now says, “We had reached a point where we didn’t feel like farmers anymore. We were completely at the mercy of the company in terms of every decision on the farm. Industrial systems are not set up for the benefit of the animals or the farmer—the company is the only one that thrives.” After her appearance in Food, Inc., Carole toured the country warning others of the pitfalls of industrial contract farming. Meanwhile, the big barns on her property where 27,000 chickens once crowded together in lethargy and darkness lay empty.
Now, Carole and Frank are back in business on their own terms—with an Animal Welfare Approved egg operation. With the first flock of laying hens currently in production, their new Bird’s Eye View Farm serves as a model for other farmers seeking to take wing from an oppressive, inhumane system. Demand for high-welfare, pasture-raised eggs is growing rapidly, and the Morisons already have interested buyers lined up.
The Morisons’ transition from an industrial indoor system to pasture-based management was actually made easier by using the farm’s existing infrastructure. They adapted one of the houses that once held thousands upon thousands of birds to create something spacious and comfortable—removing the company-mandated black-out curtains, installing perches and nest boxes, and cutting pop holes to allow the chickens to range onto surrounding pasture at their leisure. Moveable mesh fencing surrounding the house allows the flock of 500 Rhode Island Reds continuous access to fresh range, as they roam and forage as chickens are meant to do.
Carole says AWA certification was “a natural fit,” as “the only food label that guarantees high-welfare production, outdoors on independent family farms.” AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther was equally pleased. “We are delighted that Carole and her husband, Frank, have chosen to certify their new pastured poultry operation with Animal Welfare Approved,” he says. “The innovative adaptation of their existing poultry housing is truly resourceful, and provides an exciting new model for other farmers to move to high-welfare, pasture-based systems without a huge capital outlay.”