When high school senior Ryan Kelsey has nothing to do, he just goes to the hen house and “talks” with his chickens. Lots of them. At age 12, Ryan started Valley Farms Hatchery in Spring Valley, Alabama. In 2012, he built his first hatchery, and now hatches between 300 and 500 eggs per week.
“From an early age, our son was fascinated by chickens,” his mother, Kim Kelsey, says. “Our family had always had a few chickens on our country place. When he was about 12 years old, he wanted to start his own business. His father and I supported him, but explained this was his project. We would help if needed, such as feed the chickens if he’s involved in school projects or other activities, but I would say he does 99 percent of the work.”
With the help of his father, Anthony Kelsey, they built a chicken pen and purchased an incubator. The operation started slowly but grew quickly — from hatching about 200 chicks each week to now hatching 500 per week. To be sure he isn’t inundated with chicks, he waits until orders arrive before he places the eggs in an incubator. Twenty-one days later, a peeping batch of chicks is ready for delivery.
When Ryan placed his first order from a hatchery, he had no idea chickens were so expensive. “They asked $3 each with a minimum order of 25,” he said. “You could say I was very proud of those first Rhode Island Reds of twenty hens and five roosters!”
“I wanted to sell chicks at a lower price and build my business,” Ryan says.
Advertising on social media, as well as traditional means, he built a booming trade. The young entrepreneur believes the Valley Farms Hatchery website has expanded his visibility. Several times a week, his email contacts receive a notice of available chicks, ducks, and guineas. Selling healthy chicks, he soon had customers returning and telling others.
“Word of mouth can be your best form of advertising. Delivering a good product, while being fair and honest with people, is the only way to do business.” Another thing that Ryan is proud of is his no-kill hatchery. After dividing the male and female chicks, other businesses usually kill the roosters. At Valley Farms, the roosters are sold.
Day-old chicks are shipped throughout the year, except during the summer. “Babies can take the cold better than the heat,” says Ryan. Using the U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail, he ships the chicks, and they arrive in about two days. Customers are asked to be ready for the shipment at this time. The guarantee lasts for 24 hours after delivery. He’s got a good track record — he’s only lost five chicks in the past year.
“He’s very conscious about any state and federal regulations,” says Ryan’s mom. With the bird flu in other regions, Ryan has additional safety measures in place where no visitors come into his hatchery until the threat of disease is over. The National Poultry Improvement Program requires two visits annually to test for disease among his flocks. As expected, he receives a high score on the annual inspections from state officials. With his hatchery bird-flu clear, he has been able to ship into restricted states denied to other hatcheries.
With the growth in business and in order to keep up with demands, he has expanded from two to three incubators, each with a 300-egg capacity. He also added a hatchery that holds 500 eggs. His three chicken houses are sufficient for the time being, and shipping takes place October through April.
A typical day begins early for Ryan. He rises with the chickens, about 5 a.m., and the feeding and watering are done quickly. Filling orders, the chicks are ready to mail by 7 a.m. This schedule gives him time to dress and drive to school. After school each day, he returns home and goes immediately to work with his flock. He checks the Valley Farms Hatchery website, fills orders, and returns phone calls.
With feed and other essentials of the hatchery, Ryan is still able to keep the hatching costs low per baby chick. Valley Farms Hatchery being a private business, he hires no outside help. “I pay for everything out of pocket,” he says. “I don’t need a lot of help. And when I’m running late to school, my mom often takes the chicks to the post office.” Aleia, his sister, helps with online work and enters orders on the computer.
As with many young entrepreneurs like Ryan, this spirit carries over into academics. Vickie Gasque, who teaches business education at Colbert County High School, has known Ryan for about four years. “Ryan is my student assistant,” says Gasque. “He is amazing. He can do anything. I have several students with special needs, and Ryan helps them with the computer. He is prompt to class, and never questions when I give him a task.”
Serving as president of the Future Business Leaders of America, he enjoys competition in state tests and projects. He applies leadership and organizational skills in the March of Dimes and the Student Council at Colbert County High School. “He is just an exceptional young man,” said Gasque. “And did I mention he is an honor roll student?”
Part of his success is due to “country know-how.” With family, his business, and school, Ryan is an example to other teens.
How long will he stay in the hatchery business? “As long as the demand dictates,” he says. “I’ll find ways to expand and to deliver chicks to customers for both eggs and to resell.”
But with a strong work ethic and his ability to juggle multiple responsibilities, Ryan has other goals. “I’ll always have a hatchery business,” he says. “But I also want a career as a mortician.” Working at a funeral home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, he puts in about 20 to 30 hours per week. After graduation from high school, he plans to attend Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham for Mortuary Science.
“Dreams do come true,” says Ryan. “If you have a passion for what you do, and you work hard, anything is possible.”
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