The Ground Floor: Ely farmer seeks to raise awareness of local food

Regulations for farm to table keep man's business small

George Ford
Published: October 8 2013 | 6:00 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:31 pm in
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Jerry Regan wants you to know where your food comes from.

Regan said his new venture, Jerry’s Chickens, is not a money-making proposition. Rather, the Ely man is raising and selling chickens for meat as a way to increase awareness of the local food movement.

“The idea behind it was for people to have an alternative to the grocery store,” Regan said.

Regan grew up in Cedar Rapids and spent the summers on his grandparents’ dairy farm, learning where food came from and to appreciate what it takes to produce it. He and his wife, Linda, bought their own farm in 1993 and added chickens about three years ago.

“I started raising chickens because I wanted to,” he said. “I had the space and missed the taste of good, farm-raised chicken. It’s so much better than the mushy chicken you get from the grocery store.”

In building a flock, Regan had to order a minimum of 25 chicks at a time from the hatchery, which gave him plenty of extras to share with friends and family. When he received 50 chicks by mistake earlier this year, Jerry’s Chickens was born.

Regan created a website and began advertising his chickens for sale.

Regan raises White Plymouth Rock chickens, an American heritage breed like those found on Iowa farmsteads of old. He feeds them organic corn that he buys from a farmer in Solon and grinds himself.

“I know my chickens are getting good food because I know what they are eating,” he said.

The lack of a nearby poultry processing facility limited the scope of Regan’s new business. He had plans to process the chickens at a facility in Urbana but it recently closed.

Rather than incurring the expense of transporting the chickens to one of the two remaining processors in the state, he butchers them himself. He also must contend with regulations regarding the number of chickens he can sell and the manner in which he sells them.

“It’s a fun business to be in, but I can’t butcher enough chickens to make any money,” he said.

Sonia Kendrick, founder of local food advocacy group Feed Iowa First, said the challenges Regan faces are typical of family farmers in Iowa who would like to bring their food to market.

“Our food infrastructure is broken,” Kendrick said. “Farmers don’t have anywhere to take the food.”

Kendrick would like to see what she calls agricultural resource community centers across Iowa for processing the food raised by small family farmers, from butchering poultry and meat to canning and freezing produce.

“It would allow farmers to keep the dollars in their pocket and cut out the corporate middleman,” she maintains.

Regan said that he would like to be able to operate on a larger scale, but does not believe it is possible without a nearby processing facility. Even so, Regan is happy to spread the word about the benefits of local food.

"I like doing this," he said. "I’m sharing my hobby."

At a Glance

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