Young couple slowly, carefully build chicken operation
By WES SANDER
YOLO COUNTY, Calif. -- Alexis and Gillies Robertson have heard their share of negative comments on the subject of profit in agriculture.
But the newly married couple -- Alexis, 26, and Gillies, 32 -- describe two factors that have pushed them past all the discouraging talk and into a small, diversified ranching operation.
They feel called to it, for one. Secondly, they feel good about the growth of markets for small-production farms.
"I think it's a really great time to get into the niche markets," Alexis said. "It's starting to gain some speed, it's getting popular, people are starting to look for it."
Ranching is new to the Robertsons. Aside from growing up in farming areas -- Alexis in California, Gillies in Scotland --neither claims an agricultural background.
The pair met while working and studying in Tasmania. Four years ago, Gillies joined Alexis in California, and before long the couple's personal and professional interests led to the ranching decision.
Alexis worked for the Butte County Resource Conservation District, coordinating with valley ranchers to manage field projects. Gillies meanwhile worked for a diversified farm with a local customer base.
Working with ranchers "was a great experience for me," Alexis said. "It sort of led me into livestock."
They were soon running a small chicken farm, their first venture together. To help cover costs, they charged down payments on chickens that had yet to be raised. Balances were paid once chickens were grown, processed and delivered. Customers lined up through word of mouth.
Alexis and Gillies said their market has grown significantly in the two years since and continues to grow. More consumers are paying premiums for food produced on a scale that they feel familiar and comfortable with, the couple said.
"When we did it back then, it was kind of a novelty," Gillies said.
Alexis is now a graduate student, studying soil and rangeland management at the University of California-Davis. Gillies works for the resource conservation district of Yolo County.
That's where the couple's 60-acre spread covers a retired almond orchard and a small hilltop that overlooks a section of the Capay Valley, about an hour's drive from Sacramento. The valley in recent years has grown a reputation as a small-farm hub, its name used to market products in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas.
The Robertsons were helped through the deal by California FarmLink, a nonprofit that connects beginners with retiring farmers and available land. They said the landowner shares the passion for small-scale agriculture and is allowing leeway on lease payments for the first year.
They recently acquired an Airstream trailer, expecting to move in by January and produce the first batch of chickens by spring. The Airstream, in need of interior work, currently sits on an access road in the old orchard.
They want to start at a manageable pace for beginners, using word of mouth to draw customers from among friends and family. They plan to ease into lamb and beef after starting with chickens, employing the down-payment system they used before.
Marketing through the Internet and farmers' markets will help expand their base. Larger customers, like retailers or restaurants, could eventually follow, if the Robertsons become comfortable managing a steady supply at a larger scale.
"We're starting really slowly, so we don't have a lot of upfront costs," Alexis said. "We do have a little bit of savings to get us going."
The ultimate goal, Alexis said, is to derive 75 percent of the couple's income from the farm.
"Everyone I talk to is really down about the possibility of making money from farming," Alexis said. "But it's important for us to be outside and connected to the land, and to raise really great food that is respectful of the land.
"Without getting too hippie about it, there's a lifestyle aspect that is really appealing to us," she said.