Ask any farmer to list his or her major challenges and the issue of who will take over the farm when it’s time to retire will no doubt feature in the top 10. According to government statistics about 40% of U.S. farmers are 55 years old and up, raising real concerns about exactly who is going to fill their shoes. The sad fact is that there are fewer young people getting involved in farming than ever, and many young people see no future in the family farm. As a result, countless family farms are being bought up and absorbed by larger industrial operations. In my opinion this is one of the greatest tragedies of our generation.
This is why Shelby Grebenc of Broomfield, CO, is such an inspiration. Shelby is founder of “Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm,” located about 20 miles outside of Denver. And at just 12 years-old, Shelby is also the youngest Animal Welfare Approved farmer to date. Shelby represents a beacon of hope for the future. Her dedication to high-welfare farming is an inspiration to all of us – regardless of age.
Although she’s only 12, Shelby has a maturity and determination well beyond her years. When she was 10, an age at which most children are asking their parents for allowance money and still assume that eggs come from grocery stores, Shelby approached her grandmother for a $1,000 loan to launch her own pasture-raised egg business. Shelby’s mother Nancy, who has multiple sclerosis, was in a nursing home at the time and Shelby wanted to start selling eggs to expand the family’s income.
Shelby first started learning to raise laying hens when she was just six years old, looking after the family’s small flock of chickens on their four acres. Her father gave her specific chores to carry out, such as watering, feeding, and letting out the hens. She clearly learned a great deal from this experience because now Shelby manages a flock of around 130 pasture-raised hens, which produce between 28–56 dozen eggs a week. It takes her about an hour each day to feed the hens, put out fresh water, and collect and clean the eggs. She sells most of her eggs to neighbors in Broomfield. Customers can call her or look for the big yellow sign she places at the end of the driveway when she is available to make sales, although she and her dad can also deliver eggs within one mile of their home.
Shelby first learned about the Animal Welfare Approved program from a neighbor and decided she would like her hens to have the distinction of being raised with the highest animal welfare standards. Supporting young farmers who aspire to provide us with the healthiest, safest and most sustainable food for future generations is something that I passionately believe in. In fact, we specifically amended our policies to allow Shelby to sign the forms and become the named farmer. As we require an enforceable agreement with our farmers, Shelby’s father had to co-sign the agreement, although we work directly with her. Following the on-farm audit last September, Shelby’s flock was officially certified as Animal Welfare Approved, a certification and food label that lets consumers know that the chickens on Shelby’s farm were raised in accordance with the highest animal welfare standards in the U.S., using sustainable agriculture methods on an independent family farm.
So what do her school friends think about Shelby’s entrepreneurship? She says that some are astonished that she goes to the bank and, using her Colorado state-issued ID, withdraws money to buy chicken feed. But while some friends think it is pretty cool, many just don't understand farming. “Some kids don't even realize the leather on their shoes came from a cow somewhere,” she recently explained. “As my dad says, it’s a part of life, but it is our job to make sure animals have the best, most enjoyable life possible while we have them. I love my animals and I make sure they are happy but I also understand the outcome.”
We know that the industrialization of farming has had a devastating impact on the environment and animal welfare. But it has had a devastating impact on our U.S. family farming heritage, too. According to the National Commission on Small Farms, “Independent farm families are being forced out of business to make room for further corporate consolidation. As a consequence, rural communities in agricultural areas have suffered decades of economic and social decline and decay.” Hardly the kind of future career we’d want for our children. However research from the United Kingdom shows that pasture-based sustainable farming systems not only provide more job opportunities on the farm, but they are also attracting more young people into farming. If we can encourage more kids like Shelby to explore sustainable farming as a real career choice we could help regenerate agriculture as a major employer once again, with a major role in the rural economy – and a rightful place in our hearts.
Commenting on the intensive farming of caged hens, Shelby recently said,“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.” Wise words from a 12-year-old – and I couldn’t agree more.
I wish Shelby all the luck in the world for her Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm business and I am proud that she chose our program. If Shelby is representative of our farmers of the future then I think we are all in pretty safe hands, wouldn’t you agree? And if you are in Broomfield, CO, and you see the yellow sign outside her drive, please try some of Shelby’s eggs. You won’t find a tastier, more healthful egg in town.