Charlotte Mercer lives a whole new life at The Farm at Juniper Bay.
If somebody had told a college-aged Charlotte Mercer that she would end up becoming a chicken farmer at the age of 56, she would have thought them to be crazy at best.
For a woman with more than 30 years of business world experience and a degree in international studies, Mercer’s wildest dreams never included working with eggs and poultry. The various professional careers on Mercer’s resume may have taken her on the scenic route to becoming owner and operator of The Farm at Juniper Bay, but she is now certain that her path in life brought her right to where she’s meant to be.
For the first 35 years of her life, Mercer was a true city girl. She grew up in New Orleans, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and met her husband, Steve, while living in Charlotte. Steve was born and raised on a hog farm in Bolivia, so in 1995 the couple decided to move with their two children to his hometown.
“We moved onto a large tract of farmable land owned by Steve’s parents,” Mercer says. “Up until that point, I had no experience with farm animals.”
Having spent a decade as a paralegal in Charlotte, Mercer’s next several years in the Port City region were spent working as an executive assistant, and from there she moved into the financial services industry. It wasn’t until her husband purchased the family’s first group of chickens that the idea of sustainable living crossed Mercer’s mind.
“My husband decided he wanted to make sure that our kids knew how to feed themselves if it ever became necessary,” she says. “So in 2009 he ordered 300 chickens. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t realize they were meat birds, and we spent a long time waiting for those birds to lay eggs!”
In 2013 Mercer’s husband suffered a heart attack, an unforgettable experience that ultimately caused the family to revisit the idea of raising egg-laying chickens.
“When you have something like that happen to someone in your family, one of the things the doctors talk to you about is having a better diet,” Mercer says.
Mercer purchased some hens and soon found that they were producing more farm-fresh eggs than the family could consume, so she began selling them to her friends and coworkers. At the same time she was in between jobs, and the idea of turning her new hobby into a career began taking root.
“I knew that I loved working with my chickens,” she says. “I enjoyed selling eggs to people, and there seemed to certainly be a demand for it.”
Mercer decided to conduct her own market survey with restaurants in Wilmington. She found that many of the eateries really understood the importance of supporting local farmers, and they were quick to express interest in her eggs. However, the two biggest concerns Mercer encountered were consistency and price. There just wasn’t anybody in the area capable yet of producing local, farm-fresh eggs on a large enough scale to provide continuous product.
Determined to fill that void, Mercer attended the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s annual conference in November of 2015. Searching for guidance in a field she knew little about, she also enlisted the help of SCORE, a nonprofit organization offering budding entrepreneurs mentorship and education from retired executives.
“They helped me come up with a business plan and figure out how many birds I would need based on what I was looking to do,” Mercer says.
January of 2016 marked the official incorporation of The Farm at Juniper Bay, and Mercer ordered her first group of 600 chickens in March of that same year. Word of mouth quickly increased her number of home delivery customers, and she decided to also reach out to local farm-to-table restaurants. By stopping by each restaurant and leaving behind a dozen eggs with a marketing pamphlet, Mercer’s phone began to ring.
With orders pouring in and egg production increasing, Mercer set out to improve upon the farm’s facilities. On the property sits a brood house, a transition area for the chicks to stay out of the rain, a small coop made from a repurposed children’s playhouse, and even a 30-foot long mobile coop that allows Mercer to move the adult hens to new pasture throughout the farm.
Chickens aren’t the only non-human residents of The Farm at Juniper Bay; five beehives and two livestock guard dogs call the farm home as well.
Last fall saw the height of the farm’s egg production, with Mercer’s hens averaging between 20 to26 dozen eggs each day. As for the daily upkeep and the demanding workload of keeping the farm running smoothly, all responsibilities lie squarely on Mercer’s slight shoulders.
“This is a one-woman operation at the moment,” she says. “My husband helps me when he can with the construction projects, but as far as the daily feeding, watering, collecting and washing of the eggs, it’s all me.”
Even with her initial success, Mercer continues to shed blood, sweat and dirty tears over some seemingly unbeatable challenges. Predatory problems and inclement weather have cut her initial hen population in half, and egg production is at an all-time low during the hot summer months.
“What I’m trying to do is find the best cycle of bringing new birds in,” she says. “The new chicks that I have should start laying this September. As far as the demand, though, and people being pleased with my eggs, that hasn’t been a problem at all. “
The Farm at Juniper Bay recently partnered with UNCW to offer internship opportunities. Mercer is excited to share her experience and encouragement with students interested in farming and agriculture.
“Anything that I can pass along to support people in sustainable farming, I am delighted to do so,” she says.
As for future endeavors, Mercer sees herself expanding her offerings and exploring other opportunities to provide farm-fresh products to the people of this area. The increase in Port City breweries has inspired her to begin thinking about growing hops on the farm. Mercer is eager to explore this possibility, since the double benefit of hops is that chickens love to eat the spent grains after they’ve been used to brew and ferment.
“It’s like candy to the chickens!” she says with a chuckle.
Right now, however, Mercer’s main goal is to figure out ways to combat the unpredictability of her production level.
“When I started all this, most everyone I spoke to said not to try to do multiple things,” she says. “Just get good at one thing first and then add to it. So I’m trying to get good at the chickens, and then I plan to work on my bees and begin making honey.”
Next year, 2018, will mark Mercer’s 40th high school reunion year, and she is fairly confident that she will be the only chicken farmer in attendance. At age 57, Mercer feels she has finally found her calling, albeit not the calling she could have ever imagined in her younger years.
“I’ve sweat more and done more manual labor in the past year and a half than I’ve ever done in my life, and yet I’ve never felt more alive,” she says. “There are stresses, but nothing nearly as stressful to me as being in the corporate world or working for somebody else. I’m very happy with my choice.”
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