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News Articles

01
Wisconsin Weekend Package

JIM LEUTE

Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE, Wis. - Bill MacFarlane sometimes wonders just what kind of business it is he's running.

"For me, the dynamic is really whether you're self-employed or whether you're a business owner," said MacFarlane, owner of MacFarlane Pheasants on Janesville's south side.

"A lot of farmers think of themselves as farmers, and I started as a farmer who loved working with birds. But as things modernize, I'm in the mode - I guess it's a lifestyle choice - where I'm moving more to being an agribusiness owner."

While MacFarlane might not think of himself as a business owner in the traditional sense, the fact that his company has grown to be the largest pheasant farm in North America and among the largest in the world tells a different story.

Last year, MacFarlane Pheasants produced 1.5 million pheasants, about as many as the next few largest North American producers combined.

Given his farm's position, MacFarlane wants to become more of an advocate for the industry. Producing game birds is a niche market, one that MacFarlane said could be a soft target for animal rights activists.

"There is always the possibility that - for whatever reason - some people might not like what we do," he said. "We need people in our industry to step up, and because we are the largest, I think people look to me to do that."

As he becomes more involved on the national stage, the typically hands-on MacFarlane is becoming less involved on his local stage. For that, he credits his staff.

"In some of the reading I've been doing, one key question keeps coming up: 'Can you walk away for six months and come back to the same business?'" he said. "I'm trying to set up that structure, although I don't think I'll ever walk away for six months.

"When I'm here, my staff will seek my input on decisions. But when I'm gone, they make decisions. Whether they're making the right decisions or wrong decisions isn't the issue. It's that they're making decisions."

Those decisions involve operations at several production facilities. On the east side of Highway 51, MacFarlane has 140 acres that serve as the main production area where birds are raised. A 60-acre breeder farm sits about a mile to the west, while farther west a 10-acre facility holds birds. MacFarlane also has a hatching facility just off Center Avenue.

The company, which has 32 full-time employees and 10 to 20 others who prefer to work part-time, posted gross sales in 2004 that were nearly double what they were 10 years ago and about nine times more than those generated in 1984.

"We'll do more this year," MacFarlane said. "I'm proud of our growth, although it hasn't been meteoric. But you don't really want that because it's so easy to lose control.

"I measure our success by our ability to move forward as a company while showing respect for our employees, our birds, the land, our customers, suppliers and ourselves."

In North America, commercial game birds are generally thought of as pheasants. But MacFarlane said there are actually six birds typically raised: pheasants, quail, chukars, Hungarian partridge, wild turkeys and mallard ducks.

MacFarlane Pheasants, which dates to 1929, raises pheasants, chukars and partridges. It has four profit centers.

The most profitable, but not the largest in terms of product or sales, is the sale of day-old chicks.

The largest producer - about half of the company's annual sales - is the sale of adult game birds, primarily pheasants.

The business is also involved in wholesale and retail/online food products.

"When you breed pheasants, you can't hold the eggs indefinitely," MacFarlane said. "You can only hold them 10 days to two weeks."

Once hatched, many of MacFarlane's chicks make their way to worldwide customers who raise the birds for sale to hunting preserves.

"In a way, they become a competitor of ours," MacFarlane said.

"Those customers are like many farmers who grow things but don't produce their own seeds. They're buying our genetics, which is what we're known for and what is a pretty big deal for people in the pheasant business."

MacFarlane said he's fortunate to be within 100 miles of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where flights can deliver the young chicks safely around the world.

Most of MacFarlane's adult birds go to hunting preserves, some of which also buy the company's day-old chicks.

"At three out of four hunting preserves we deliver to, we drive in and go right past their raising facilities, which are not being used," he said. "Between April and August, that's the time when most of them are dealing with crops and hunting cover and are not worrying about raising birds."

In other cases, MacFarlane sends his young birds to eight area growers who raise the birds and then return them as adults to the Janesville farm.

"With the different kinds of weather and the threat of disease, sending to those growers - most who have been with me for 10 years - helps spread the risk," MacFarlane said.

MacFarlane's storefront on Highway 51 and his Web site make up the smallest segment of the business, about 1.5 percent of gross sales.

"The online end of it is growing, and we're putting resources into it," he said.

And if you don't believe the potential in that, type "pheasant" into most leading search engines and notice where MacFarlane's site - www.pheasant.com - shows up. Right near the top.

But it's the sale of wholesale food products that MacFarlane believes will drive his business into the future.

"My dad produced jumbo pheasant chicks that he sold to people who raised them for wholesale," MacFarlane said. "In the 1980s, I got a call from someone on the West Coast who asked me why we just didn't do it ourselves, given our proximity to Chicago."

MacFarlane knew his company had the genetics that produced superior dressed pheasants.

But knowing what you have and knowing how to get it to new markets are two different things.

So MacFarlane hooked up with trade associations that represent venison and Angus beef sellers. Both provided lists of distributors.

"We called those distributors and told them that we'd been in business since 1929 and could ship fresh dressed pheasants on a weekly basis," MacFarlane said.

The company now has distributors in just about every major urban market in the United States. Pheasants are processed locally and are on restaurant tables from coast to coast on the weekend.

"The wholesale food business is so dependent on how close we are to Chicago," he said. "Chicago has absolutely no bearing on our live bird business, but it does on the wholesale side. Not only is it our largest distribution center for local restaurants, it also has the airport that takes the fresh birds to other markets.

"It's kind of strange. Two trucks leave our place, and one turns left and ends up going down a muddy, dead-end road to some farm in South Dakota to deliver live birds. The other turns right and ends up at restaurants in Chicago.

"They are completely different markets for us."

Last year, MacFarlane Pheasants processed about 125,000 birds, about 35 percent of which were delivered fresh to distributors. Later this year, MacFarlane's frozen pheasants will start appearing in a large grocery chain that stretches across the South.

Of the 1,500 members in the North American Gamebird Association, MacFarlane knows of only three or four that are in the processing business.

"It's very price-competitive," he said. "But it gives us some diversification and lets us use our work force differently at different times of the year."

MacFarlane still sees wholesale food products as the future, a future he once expected to see in the late 1980s after predicting that by then his food product sales would surpass his live bird sales.

"The market has been and still is flat," he said. "But I really think that in the long run, this is where we should be."

That's in part because of the risks associated with avian influenza, which makes the future sale of MacFarlane's chicks tenuous, he said, adding that the future of the adult bird business depends in large part on the future of hunting.

"The face of hunting is changing," he said. "There just aren't as many young people getting into it."

Whatever the future holds, MacFarlane said it isn't likely he'll ever completely abandon the family business. He's got three daughters in their 20s, but he's not sure what, if any, role they may want to play in the business.

"I'm still young at heart," the 50-year-old said. "I still feel pheasants are a viable business. Since we've established ourselves so well, it would be a shame not to keep going."

These days, however, MacFarlane said he looks forward more to his volunteer work with nearby Jackson Elementary School's Lighted School House program than he does his work at MacFarlane Pheasants.

After pondering that, he decided to have his college transcripts from the University of Houston, where he graduated with an economics degree, sent to UW-Whitewater.

"I enjoy the volunteer work at Jackson so much that I'm thinking about taking some elementary education courses at Whitewater," he said.

"But if I did that, I'm sure I'd still be involved with pheasants."

And most likely as some combination of a farmer, business owner, industry advocate and teacher.

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