NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
When pandemic panic-shopping included chickens, suppliers across the nation couldn’t keep up with demand. And we’re not talking about chickens in the grocer’s meat department. People wanted living, clucking, egg-laying hens.
EICHER: Melinda Conner raises and sells hens in southeast Texas. She’s grateful and overwhelmed by the upticked interest in backyard birds. She believes her new customers will soon realize what her regulars already know—chickens aren’t just for breakfast and dinner anymore.
WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett visited Conner at her chicken yard in San Leon, Texas.
CONNER: The other chicks we got, we got some from Missouri yesterday, some from Ohio, some from…
REPORTER BONNIE PRITCHETT: The 3-day-old chicks protest inside the cardboard shipping crates as Conner hauls them from the post office loading dock.
CONNER: I have five different places that raise them for me here in Houston. Then I get from about six different places over the nation…
With the 500 chicks secured in the back seat of her Mazda 3 sedan, Conner drives to SeaBreeze Hens where life at the chicken yard is almost back to normal.
CONNER: How had we been describing it? Like Black Friday. Solid. For a month…March 19th…
AUDIO: [Mad chicken clucking]
That March weekend things got Henny Penny crazy. About 100 people lined the chicken yard fence hoping to buy egg-laying hens. Once those ran out, customers settled for chicks and pullets that were weeks away from producing eggs.
CONNER: Everyone’s like, “Oh, so good for you Melinda. Your business is doing so good. But I told I told my husband the other day that if my business had always been like this, I wouldn’t be doing it to this day…
She didn’t make more money. She just moved four months of inventory in six weeks. As a rule, the longer she keeps the birds the more she can charge for them. And that nest egg helps pay for the next batch of chicks.
CONNER: [chicks are peeping] These are Crele Penedesencas, these are Buff Brahmas, Splash Blue Lace Red Wynadottes, and these are Golden Lace Wynadottes…
Her husband, John, hatched the idea of a chicken business in 2009.
CONNER: The chickens just started out, kind of, as a hobby. Then one day my husband says, “Melinda maybe you should buy a few pullets and raise them and try and sell them. Do you think that this is what he was thinking [LAUGHTER]…
AUDIO: [CHICKENS, ROOSTERS AND TURKEYS TALKING]
Conner gestured with outstretched arms. “This” is about one acre of dirt yard. Cropping up where grass once grew are tidy chicken coops that John built for Melinda’s 70—that’s 7-zero—breeds of chickens in all different colors, shapes and ages, including pullets, the juvenile hens. Roosters mingle among the hens, as do turkeys. The big toms help keep ravenous hawks at bay.
AUDIO: [ROOSTER CROWING]
Up by 5 a.m., daily chores keep Conner outdoors, which she prefers. Before marrying John and moving to Texas, Conner worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire manager in the Blue Mountains of Washington—where she grew up. Her tan face and strong hands testify to life working and living outdoors. The tint of red in her cheeks tell of an afternoon at the beach with her grandkids.
One day a friend, who thinks Conner is livin’ the dream, asked to hang out with her as she worked.
CONNER: So, she came for a couple of hours yesterday. The last thing we did right before she left was unload a truck of feed – a ton of feed out of the truck. She said, “You just, you always have something going. There’s always something. Isn’t there?” [LAUGHTER…]
Scheduling blocks of time for chores is sometimes useless. Customers see her in the yard, lean on the gate and call out about getting hens or eggs. They don’t realize they’re covering the “Sorry, we’re closed” sign.
Conner doesn’t mind much and admits she probably encourages the behavior by not turning folks away. Since March, curbside pick-up has left customers on one side of the fence and Conner on the other. She misses catching up with long-time customers who’ve become friends—or giving advice to those buying their first yard birds.
CONNER: They’ll have exactly in mind what they want when they come. They’ll have a list. And, on the weekends…when we get busy and people have to wait an hour or something to get help, they’ll walk around and go, “I had it all figured out. Now I don’t …”
But give Conner a prioritized list of four characteristics—egg production, egg color, the look of the chicken, and its temperament—and she’ll select just the right bird.
The pragmatic customer also wants a “dual purpose” hen. But, Conner said even they eventually see more than drumsticks running around the yard.
CONNER: I gotta tell ya a story…I’ll have these big tough guys bring their wives. “We want chickens. We need chickens that are dual purpose cuz when they’re done layin,’ we’re gonna eat ‘em.”
And I’ll go, “No, sir, you probably aren’t. I bet you aren’t.”
“Oh, yes, we’re gonna eat those chickens when we’re done with ‘em.
A couple of weeks go by – “Miss Melinda? This is Joe. Betsy got killed by a hawk and I need another one that looks just like her [CONNER LAUGHING].
“Joe. I thought you were going to eat those birds when they were done?
“No! I would never do that. You were right!”
Not everything pandemic related has been stressful. The situation has brought to Conner’s yard a new breed of customer—cooped up families.
CONNER: They’ve been planning on getting chickens. But now, all of a sudden, they had time and they needed something to do. Which is kinda cool.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in San Leon, Texas.