SPRING VALLEY — Ryan Kelsey's been called an old soul. The 18-year-old entrepreneur wouldn't disagree with that.
"People find out I'm 18, especially people I'm doing business with, and they're like, 'No way, are you serious?'"
The owner and operator of Valley Farms Hatchery in Spring Valley, Kelsey said the business has grown so much since 2012, when he started it at age 14, that he's having to more than double the production this year.
He is a rising senior at Colbert County High School.
His family always has raised chickens. At 14, his interest in that business had grown, so he placed his first order from a hatchery. He doesn't remember all the details, but he'll never forget how shocked he was at how expensive the chicks were.
"They wanted $3 per chicken with a minimum of 25 in the order," he said. "That first batch of Rhode Island Reds, 20 hens and four or five roosters, I was proud of."
He and his father built his first chicken pen and bought an incubator. Ryan started his small hatching operation, but it began to grow quickly. He's now hatching about 200 chickens per week. To keep up with demand, he'll increase that next year to about 500 per week.
His business is good — booming in fact. Word traveled early on that his prices were fair. That was his goal. At $1.65 per chick, his customers kept coming back. Soon, he was shipping all over the country.
"I was being fair with people and making money," he said. "It costs me about 42 cents per baby chick to hatch."
He follows all state and federal regulations. With a hatchery permit from the state, Kelsey also participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan program, whereby he is required to have two visits per year by state officials to test for disease. He also pursued additional safety measures each year in having specific checks for bird flu.
"I was one of the few hatcheries last year that could ship into Kentucky because we were bird-flu clean. Needless to say, I got a lot of business out of Kentucky. I know I'm making it harder on other hatcheries, but I'm just being fair. These people are just trying to make a living."
To accommodate the impending growth in his business, Ryan will expand from two to three 300-egg incubators and a hatcher that holds 500 eggs. He has three miniature-size chicken houses, enough for now.
His days during the school year are long. He wakes, literally, before the chickens, about 5 a.m.
Managing school and business requires meticulous scheduling. He comes home from school and goes straight to work with his chickens, returning calls and filling orders he gets over his newly launched website.
He says the Valley Farms Hatchery website has been a big hit, and his business has increased because of it. He uses the U.S. Postal Service's priority mail to ship the chicks. They arrive in about two days.
He has the chicks boxed and ready to mail by 7 a.m., allowing him time to clean up for school.
"My mom sometimes has to take them to mail if I'm running late," he said. "I don't need a lot of help, and I pay for everything myself, out of pocket. When I'm not here, they help me out."
He's a natural
Kelsey's mother, Kim, said her son's natural business acumen has amazed her.
"He's never asked for any real help," she said. "He understood from the beginning that this was his venture, his responsibility and not ours. We're supportive, but he does it all. He really makes us proud with his work ethic and his ability to juggle everything."
Kelsey said he'll continue to expand as long as the demand dictates.
"People are leaning more toward backyard-raised chickens now because they know they're safer," he said. "Most people I sell them to are getting them to lay eggs, and others are reselling the chicks."
He also takes pride in the fact that he's a no-kill hatchery, selling the birds as they hatch and never killing the roosters.
Colbert County High School business education teacher Matthew Osborn said Kelsey's level of self motivation is impressive.
"He has entrepreneurship motivation and it's hard to see that kind of drive in kids these days," Osborn said. "I knew immediately I needed to get him involved in our Future Business Leaders of America organization. He's driven, extremely motivated for success, yet he's humble. And with everything he has going on, he keeps his grades up. He's impressive."
Even with his passion for the business, Kelsey is motivated beyond hatching chickens, saying though he'll always operate the hatchery on some level, he wants a career as a mortician.
He has a plan for that, too. He hopes to attend mortician's school at Jefferson State.
"If my business keeps growing, I'll probably have to do this early on in my career because I truly do have a passion for it, but I'm not giving up on being a mortician," he said. "If you just have the drive, you can do a lot of things in life."