Staying on the sunny side

Chick hatchery reinvents itself after 80 years

Beaver Dam — Peep. Peep. Peep. Peep.
When they hear that sound, folks at the Beaver Dam post office know spring is on its way.
“There are some days we take them over the counter when there are so many containers the whole building is singing,” said April Forman, Beaver Dam postmistress.
The boxes contain newly hatched chicks from Sunnyside Hatchery being mailed first class.
“We don’t ship any further than next-day delivery,” said Mark Wilke, owner of Sunnyside, one of a handful of Wisconsin hatcheries.
He maintains a network established by his father of more than 300 Wisconsin feed mills that take chick orders. Sunnyside fills the orders and sends chicks to feed mills to be delivered to the owners.

No spring chicken

Mr. Wilke, 57, is the third generation in the hatchery business.
His father, uncles, an aunt and grandfather were entrepreneurs in the business with hatcheries in Watertown, Beaver Dam, Portage, Oregon and Reedsburg.
All operated under the Sunnyside name, he said.
“Always in the back of my mind I felt this was what I wanted to do in serving feed mill dealers and supplying the smaller producers,” Mr. Wilke said.
When his grandfather Oscar launched the Wilke family hatchery business more than 80 years ago, the name Sunnyside wasn’t a description of a fried egg. It was given that name because the farm near Waunakee had a sunny slope.

Crossing the road

At one time Sunnyside was one of the larger independent hatcheries in Wisconsin and served large egg farms.
“I sold that part of the business in 1996 just to concentrate on smaller flocks, niche markets, because I could see those trends continuing,” Mr. Wilke said.
“I cater to the small farmer who is not operating huge egg farms, but the specialized or organic or niche market producer,” he said. “They may be raising pasture poultry to sell to farmers markets. Our business has been holding very strong,” he said.
He said organic growers and those selling to niche markets drive the growth in the poultry-hatching business.
That segment of the market is growing because some consumers believe quality is higher from producers with smaller operations, he said.
The market for organic eggs is growing, said Nick Levendoski, agricultural pool coordinator for Organic Valley in La Farge.
“Our egg program has about doubled in the last two to three years along with more interest in the hobby folks and backyard flocks,” Mr. Levendoski said. “The interest is out there. There certainly is an interest in producing their own organic eggs for themselves and their neighbors.”
He said a dozen organic eggs could sell from $3 to $3.50 a dozen depending on size.

Not all in one basket

Hatching began in mid-February and will continue through fall with Sunnyside offering layers and broiler chicks. Broadbreasted bronze and white turkeys, and common duck and geese breeds.
“Our biggest part of the business is producing chicks for broilers or meat birds,” he said.
Another growing segment is hatching a special black bird chicken desired by Hmong people, he said.
“We supply them throughout the state,” he said.
Mr. Wilke has breeding flocks in Green Lake County managed by Amish farmers. Fertile eggs are delivered to the hatchery on the south side of Beaver Dam.
Besides traditional White Leghorns, the Wilkes also offer brown dual-purpose chicks that lay brown eggs and are similar to Rhode Island Reds. The product list also includes Mallard, White Pekins and Rouens ducks and White Embdens and Gray Toulouse geese.

Building a better bird

Even with advances in technology and equipment, Mr. Wilke said the hatching business is science and also part art.
“There’s a lot of art involved in it,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to take care of poultry and put out a quality product. A lot of it is manual work and based on experience. When you are dealing with live products you have to stay on top of things.”
He purchases breeding stock from Centurion Poultry, a Georgia company that was formerly associated with the DeKalb poultry breeding business in northern Illinois.
“Breeders have gotten better,” he said. “Chickens lay more eggs and broilers and turkeys get bigger faster.”
He said poultry genetic lines also exhibit greater livability and improved rates of gain.

Taking flight

The Beaver Dam post office usually transports containers of chicks from Sunnyside to the Madison post office.
That live animals get from point A to Point B still amazes many, Mrs. Forman said.
“It’s quite remarkable, actually,” she said. “I’ve had people come in and say are those actually baby chicks?”
For rural mail deliveries, she said postal employees call first “Because you don’t want to be driving around all day with baby chicks in your car. And you never leave them outside,” she said.
“Not only do you not want to endanger the chicks, but you don’t want to hear them chirping all day,” she said. “I think it’s pretty amazing that we can get them delivered and they’re fine.”

— Story by Judy Brown in the newspaper “The Country Today” on March 2, 2005.