Wallowa County’s Hawkins sisters fine with fowl

It’s a lovely June day and Nora and Mary Hawkins along with employee Laurie Waters are busy processing 40 Cornish cross chickens in preparation for the upcoming Joseph Saturday Market. Another 20 or so capons are being prepared for Portland customers.

This, says Mary Hawkins, is how they like to spend their weekends in Oregon’s Wallowa County. She’s not joking.

“It’s a good workout, and I love that part of it,” said Mary. “That’s been like ‘all on’ what I wanted to do. Every other job I have is a ton of thinking and responding and communicating. This is ‘how fast can I do the same thing over and over again’— and I like that. Probably wouldn’t like it for 60 hours a week.”

But the sisters don’t spend 60 hours a week as poultry processors. Like many farmers and ranchers, they have day jobs.

Mary is office manager for Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland, host of the Tamkaliks celebration in Wallowa; Nora is a state-licensed midwife. The sisters spend mornings, nights and weekends on the agricultural business with the help of employees Laurie Waters, Landra Scovlin and Michaela Shane. Raising and processing birds is a six-months-of the-year job.

It’s successful in many ways but not necessarily financially, they contend. The Hawkins Sisters Ranch is a snapshot of the real cost of raising quality meat.

It is one of two Oregon Department of Agriculture small poultry licensed processing facilities in Eastern Oregon, taking advantage of new rules that allow small-enterprise farms that process 20,000 or fewer birds per year to meet sanitary and other rules without having to be USDA inspected. The chickens can only be marketed in Oregon.

Their facility is housed in a new 13-by-40-foot “Old Hickory Shed” that has been fitted to meet state sanitation requirements. They’re serious about sanitation. Mary will not even touch a turkey chick if she’s been working with chickens or vice versa. The interior of the facility is spotless, even in the midst of processing birds.

The operation is on their father Merel Hawkins’ 300-acre farm on Bear Creek Road in Wallowa. Merel is retired, and most of the land is leased for cattle grazing, so the sisters are getting the use of the little space required for the chicken business free.

In this facility, on this land, the sisters will butcher approximately 6,000 chickens over the next six months.

Other families who bring in birds from their own flocks for processing will have raised 60 percent of those birds. The sisters charge approximately $5 per bird for processing. They sell their own birds for $5 per pound, predominantly to Wallowa County customers who have spoken for them well in advance. Approximately 400 birds are sold to Portland customers through Carman Ranch Direct.

Yet, even with no mortgage and selling chicken at $5 per pound, raising chickens humanely on naturally sourced custom-designed feed doesn’t pencil out.

“On paper it’s ‘Ah, I shouldn’t be doing this.’” Mary said. “The correct choice, on paper, is ‘do not do this.’”

Mary took a business course a few years ago that required rigorous number-crunching and proved that financial reality.

And yet the Hawkins Sisters are still in the chicken business. Their employees earn wages.

“I’ve analyzed, and I think it’s just me being stubborn,” Mary said. “I think: ‘surely there’s a way to raise chickens on a small scale!’ I think I do it because it’s a puzzle (how to make it pay).”

And it’s hard to quit when you’re successful on so many other levels.

“It’s an amazing product that people really want, and there’s a huge demand,” Mary said. “Flavor and texture are wonderful, people remark on it all the time.”

They’ve already met and bested many challenges. First challenge, growing a healthy bird. The Cornish cross bird is the most economical to grow because it has been developed to grow fast and huge.

Other chicken breeds may take up to six months to reach butcher weight and years to reach maturity — the factory-fed Cornish cross can weigh as much as 10 pounds live weight in 56 days and yield a six pound roaster.

Feeding a fast-growing chicken up to that weight that quickly can lead to a high mortality rate. Birds can die of heart failure, leg deformities from too much weight to leg strength, infections from lying down full-time. The butchered bird can have an enlarged heart and a flaccid pale liver that must be discarded.

The Hawkins Sisters have solved these problems through their growing and feeding philosophy. They feed their own custom blend with no corn or soy, and they don’t confine and overfeed to make what Mary calls a “Frankenstein Bird.”

Their chickens are vigorous, docile and seem happy. The sisters reckon the average weight of their eight- to 10-week old bird, when processed, is about four pounds.

Right now, the third week of June, there are 325 new arrivals in the Hawkins brooder barn. The chick brooder space is a large, clean and roomy shed with both fresh air and six warming lamps. The sisters will order a new batch of chicks every four weeks through September.

A few hundred feet away in the hay pasture are the “outdoor” growing houses; homemade arched chicken structures that allow the growing birds plenty of protected space but provide freedom to come and go into the attached grassy yard. Although not free range, they have access to grass and bugs and are fed the Hawkins locally grown custom blend feed.

The operation will go dormant by Thanksgiving. The turkeys, a new endeavor, are expected to yield a few dollars over the financial break-even point.