By Daniel DeMay
It turns out, chickens are particular about what they eat—or at least that’s what Diana Ambauen-Meade said she believes and is one of the motivations behind her feed mill in Irongate.
Scratch and Peck Feeds is a small-scale feed mill, located at 3883 Hammer Drive in Bellingham, that uses only locally sourced grains and soy-free products to produce chicken, hog, turkey and goat feed. It is the first feed company in the U.S. to receive non-GMO status and will soon also receive official organic status.
Though the feed business is dominated by behemoth companies, Ambauen-Meade said she has cornered a growing niche market for feed made from whole grains and high-quality ingredients. Her company sold more than $1 million worth of feed last year.
A growing list of retailers around the Northwest and beyond are carrying Scratch and Peck products. Ambauen-Meade said that her company is now the number one seller of chicken feed on Amazon.com.
Beyond the roughly 175 tons of feed Scratch and Peck is currently shipping out each month, the company also sells garden hoop kits – called “Hooplas” – which consist of hoops, clamps and plastic for setting up a 4-foot-by-8-foot greenhouse garden plot.
Neil Montacre, co-owner of Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply in Portland, Ore., said he began carrying Scratch and Peck’s mash-style feed because his customers loved that type of feed, and Scratch and Peck was able to deliver where another supplier couldn’t.
“We had a lot of demand for that mash-style feed because it smelled better and the chickens got really excited about it,” Montacre said. “We’re really happy to have it.”
Ambauen-Meade said she plans to build a silo at her current location as well as seek property for a larger feed mill. She said building to suit her business’ specific needs will streamline production and allow her to meet her goal of being the largest producer of locally sourced feed by 2018.
And it all started in her own backyard.
From backyard to barnstorm
When Ambauen-Meade first started raising her own chickens in California during the late 1990s, neither her nor her chickens cared for the standard pellet-style feed available on the market, she said.
“You can’t really tell what’s in a pellet,” Ambauen-Meade said.
As an alternative, she chose to mix her own feed and continued to do so when raising chickens later in Washington. Her friends began asking for her feed and soon she decided to see if there was market for it.
“I bagged it up, I got a business license and I advertised it on Craigslist,” she said.
After six months of hand-delivering feed around the Seattle and Tacoma areas, Ambauen-Meade realized that she couldn’t handle the demand milling feed in her backyard and she contracted with a mill to do the work.
The mill, however, was in Oregon, and there were high shipping costs with so much movement of the product. So she decided if she was going to continue, she would need her own mill.
“I decided that building a mill can’t be that difficult, people have done it for generations so it’s not rocket science,” Ambauen-Meade said. “So I just kind of started my own little feasibility study to figure out the cost and figuring out what to do … it was months of doing the discovery process on my own.”
Once she made up her mind that it could work, her husband Dennis Meade and son Bryon Meade—who had just finished a degree in business management from Western Washington University in March 2010—got on board with the project. Together, they decided to move from Bremerton to Bellingham to build the mill.
The trio found a building, bought some old equipment and began to set up the mill in May 2010. But it didn’t happen overnight.
“We were totally naive, we had no idea what went into it,” Ambauen-Meade said. “We thought we could just do it. It was a major learning process.”
However, once things got going, they went quickly, Ambauen-Meade said. The person they hired to do the fabrication work in the mill arrived by coincidence and helped bring the project together.
“He just randomly showed up in our lives. It was like he fell from the sky,” Ambauen-Meade said. “Then it was like: ‘We can’t not do this.’”
Ambauen-Meade said her motivation for producing a natural feed product stems from her understanding that people are affected by what their animals eat. Soy, in particular, has become a major allergen and its prevalence in most feeds can cause people to be allergic to eggs due to the high levels of soy the chickens ingest, she said.
Ambauen-Meade said she maintains the quality of her product by making connections with the local farms she buys from and visiting them to view their operations.
Her son, Bryon Meade, said he also believes in producing a high-quality, natural product, and the experience with Scratch and Peck has been fun, to say the least.
“My mom came to me with this idea and we just went for it,” Meade said. “We had no idea what we were in for, but it’s been quite a ride.”
Though he initially did most of the production process, Meade has now backed off to mainly administrative and planning tasks as the business has grown.
“I left Alex (Ekins, the mill production manager) to do that,” Meade said. “I like to think that I’m the all-around guy.”
Meade is currently looking at building the silo so they can store grain more efficiently and move it less. It is currently stored in large bags on shelves in the feed mill which require more work when unloading 30-ton trucks of grain and when moving it into the milling process.
Meade said he is looking at other ways to maximize the space they have for at least the next three years—the length of time they expect to stay in the Hammer Drive location.
“I’m kind of just trying to plan our future demand and meet that with what we’ve got,” Meade said.
Meade, a full partner in the business, said he plans to carry on once his parents retire.
“I’ve always wanted to run my own business and this has a lot of potential,” Meade said. “And I don’t think my parents are going to want to run this 10 years down the road.”
Meade said he expects Scratch and Peck to continue to grow in the backyard chicken feed market in those 10 years.
“I see us here in Whatcom County still,” Meade said. “I see us at the lead of this market … at the national level, but still maintaining our core values. The top dogs, or chickens.”
Daniel DeMay is a student at Western Washington University in Bellingham planning to major in journalism. While he has aspirations to eventually cover international affairs, DeMay is also interested in community-based reporting.