As is so often true where there is history to be appreciated, you could drive right by Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Mo., just off Interstate 44, and miss your chance entirely. Cackle is a third generation business, and among the top "hobby" hatcheries in the country, founded in 1936.
The same with Estes Hatchery in Springfield, just north of Chestnut Expressway, founded 90 years ago in Everton, Mo. when Charles Marion Estes began raising turkeys. Estes moved its operations to Springfield when train service to Everton ceased. His son, Marvin, and his wife, Rowena, come in most days, but their daughter Judy and grandson, Sean Richardson, handle much of the heavy lifting.
Venture on to the information highway, where you can order chicks one day and you can expect delivery within a couple of days by U.S. Mail – and by long-standing federal law.
Both family businesses have a strong presence, as well as taking orders by phone.
These are friendly rivals, each one cut from the cloth of hard times when the promise of "a chicken in every pot" could win you some votes.
Estes and Cackle are near the very heart and soul of agriculture-based commerce in the Ozarks, and not surprisingly, their allies include Amish farmers who operate under contract to product fertilized eggs, which in turn hatch into chicks and are shipped nationwide.
You’ll get the message; this is big business. Big enough that any day now, about 75 employees gleaned from a "hiring fair" will begin the annual process of hatching 4.5 million chicks who will, collectively, wind up in virtually every state in the union and some islands in the sun, there to live out their lives doing what chickens do. And that is truly a story of one of the most popular items in the American icebox (okay, refrigerator). Chicken and eggs.
Poultry consumption is expected to set historic highs, reaching 106.9 pounds per person annually in the next decade. Beef and pork, on the other hand, will new hit lows in 2013. Poultry has several advantages over other meat in the current environment of skyrocketing grain prices, including greater efficiency in converting feed to meat and shorter periods to slaughter.
Egg consumption is in decline as well.
According to statistics from which is based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American in 2011 consumed to 246.3 eggs, down from 258.1 eggs in 2006. That’s almost a dozen fewer eggs per person."
There’s a history lesson behind the sturdy building fronts on West Commercial Street in Lebanon. You can almost turn back the pages of how three generations so far, with more perhaps to come, have nestled a quiet living amidst four to five million chicks hatched here in incubators annually, for shipment to every corner of the country and offshore.
The action is inside the walls of one downtown storefront after another, nearly all equipped with incubators, is as laborious as any other industry. Much of it is loading and reloading, collecting, inspecting and "sexing" the chicks (it takes an informed eye to tell the difference).
Some incubators are new, improved and automated by computers; others date back to the 1950s and even before.You can tell which ones Jeff Smith likes as he guides a visitor through the maze of rooms awaiting another generation of chicks. Just inside one of many back doors, you are likely to find shipments coming and going. On one recent day, having arrived from a breeding farm near Seymour, a young Black-Breasted Red Old English Game rooster contemplated his future in a specially crafted cardboard box, complete with a hole and feeding cup.
By mid-February, the incubators will be cranking out baby chicks and cackling with both birds and their human interlopers, who will be packing them into – what else – chicken crates.
Historically, Cackle and Estes might have been where your grandparents ordered chicks. Once, they might have arrived on the evening train, but once nearly every town had its own hatchery. At the town hatchery, you could purchase everything from chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese to guineas – perhaps even a peacock. These days, you still can, and you can do it online. You can even order game birds and rare birds, bantams and Naked Neck Turkens (originally bred in Hungary).
Jeff Smith and his parents, Clifton and Nancy, are second and third generations behind Clifford Smith, who started it all with a name that hasn’t changed in more than 75 years. In fact, Cackle just celebrated its 75th year in 2011.
In 2013, more than 4.5 million eggs will hatch between February and September, and most of them will come from surrounding farms, many of them Amish. The eggs arrive daily and are loaded into vertically rotating incubators to be nurtured at just the right temperature and humidity, for just the right time, until on average, three out of four on average hatch.
Heaven help they should all get loose, but that doesn’t seem to happen.
Shopping at Cackle Hatchery may just crack you up
In fact, Nancy Smith is quite certain she has the answer to the obvious question that must surely have been on your mind: Which came first, the chicken or the egg.
"Well, it’s got to be the chicken," she replies. "It’s biblical."
So there you have it, enough chickens so that you can pick up the phone, talk to one of 25 or so operators, tell them what and how many you want according to a very complete mail order catalog or after much research at CackleHatchery.com.
Sixty percent of the business is now mail order, and about 40 percent wholesale.
What’s different even in a very few years is that while the popularity of raising chickens at home has soared, the time it takes to sort out the details of what the customer actually wants usually takes longer. "We may spend 25-30 minutes on the phone taking one order for just a few birds," says Jeff.
Another issue is that chickens aren’t pets. Nor do they come in pastel colors compliments of the Easter Bunny. They are more akin to livestock than tame pets, capable of inflicting injuries (not serious, we hope) and even diseases, including salmonella.
Estes Hatchery survived the nightmare every hatchery dreads when cases of salmonella were traced to chickens bred by Estes, even though it had been regularly inspected.
Eventually, Estes was cleared of violations. Indeed, hatcheries are inspected as often as state and federal budgets allow. And lest there be any confusion, salmonella can be passed along from an infected family dog or box turtle. It’s everywhere, and requires vigilance.
"You’ve got to use common sense," advises Jeff, who worked in "insurance and investment for 20 years while still keeping my nose in the family business here in Lebanon. In 2004 I was back full time with the family business and have not looked back."
Shopping at the Cackle Hatchery
For a special trip involving a younger generation (and their elders), shopping at the Cackle Hatchery may crack you up a bit. For starters, there is Chicken Poop Lip Balm in five flavors (none actually containing the aforementioned poop, but use your imagination if you still have one). But there are also dozens of other useful items, provided you are planning to have more eggs than you need. Then you may need an "Eggs for Sale sign."