Bill MacFarlane grew up working on his family’s pheasant farm on the south side of Janesville.
He did not enjoy it.
And well before he graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in economics, he had his heart set on becoming a lawyer.
But his father’s entreaties — and the persuasion of the late Paul Ryan Sr. — convinced MacFarlane to give the family business a try.
“I came home in 1979 after college kind of reluctantly,” MacFarlane said during a recent interview. “But I’m glad I did.”
During the ensuing years, he built MacFarlane Pheasants into the largest bird operation of its kind in the United States. And after a two-year slump during the recession, the farm is now producing more birds (pheasants and partridges) than ever.
Annual sales last year were just over $9 million, he said. The company’s revenues should top $10 million this year.
The majority of the MacFarlane birds are raised to be hunted on preserves, while others are processed and sold as food to high-end restaurants and specialty stores. A third part of the business is day-old chicks sold to others to raise.
MacFarlane said his company was particularly susceptible to the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009.
“People who hunt at a preserve or eat at a white-tablecloth restaurant — either one of those demographics — are spending discretionary dollars,” he said.
MacFarlane said the company was started by his uncle Kenneth MacFarlane in 1929 to raise and sell birds for hunting. Don MacFarlane, Bill’s dad, joined the operation in the 1930s and then took over in 1940 after his brother died in the Armistice Day Storm that killed several dozen duck hunters who perished when a ferocious, two-day blizzard trapped the ill-prepared men on islands in the Mississippi River.
Don MacFarlane expanded the company to sell day-old chicks to members of 4H and FFA clubs, as well as other farmers who did not want to breed and hatch pheasants. He also began selling the birds for food to restaurants and grocery stores.
This year, Bill MacFarlane predicted the company will have sold more than 400,000 adult pheasants and another 100,000 adult partridges for hunting.
He figures the next largest operation sold between 150,000 and 200,000 pheasants. He’ll also sell around 140,000 pheasants for food. As for chicks, more than 1 million went out the door this year.
“The chicks that we sell are ring-necked pheasants for release to propagate areas or to be released with the idea of being hunted,” he said, noting that he believes nearly all the birds shot for hunting are eaten.
South Dakota is the top state for pheasant hunting and it has the largest wild bird population in the country, he said. It’s also the top state for sales for MacFarlane’s company.
He noted that wild pheasant populations have been in decline for many years, in spite of efforts by groups like Pheasants Forever to create more habitat.
“With modern farming practices that go road to road, taking out the fences, there isn’t as much habitat around,” he said. “And what habitat is left can be more actively hunted by predators, so the wild pheasant populations have not done particularly well.”
He said the reduction of interest in the Conservation Reserve Program, a USDA effort that pays farmers to take marginal land out of production, does not bode well for wild pheasants.
“CRP was a godsend for pheasants,” he said. “Because corn prices are so high, it appears there is a lot of land that is going to be returned to production.”
Other farming practices have cut populations of wild pheasants, which were introduced into the United States from their native China in the 1880s.
“If you were farming 50 years ago, you had weeds with seeds and you had more insects,” he said. “But with modern farming, you don’t have weeds and you have Roundup Ready corn and they spray Roundup and it kills everything but the corn.
“I’m not faulting it, that’s just the way corn production is done now. There are no insects. There is corn, but the birds don’t have anything to eat until the harvest in the fall. A brushy, grassland habitat is better.”
MacFarlane said 60 percent of the company’s revenue is from the sale of adult pheasants and partridges to preserves. Another 20 percent are food products and 20 percent are day-old chicks.
And as much as he’d like pheasant to be a year-round food, it is still primarily a holiday, seasonal bird. Most sales coming from October through December to restaurants and stores that sell them in gift packs.
“We’re doing what we can to promote year-round sales, but we are a niche business. We are not like the pork industry, which started the phrase ‘Pork, the other white meat.’ I wonder how many tens of millions of dollars they’ve spent on advertising?”
MacFarlane said the image of “pheasant under glass” works against the fowl becoming more popular year round.
“People view it as being really pricey,” he said. “They might be willing to spend a lot of money on lobster or filet mignon. But when it’s a bird, well, people think of turkey and chicken, which are pretty cheap. So they think pheasant is too expensive.”
He said pheasant in his retail store runs around $4 a pound. Chicken is about $1.50 a pound and turkey slightly higher.
“So pheasant is 2.5 times higher than chicken, which I think is reasonable for what you get. But we are low in numbers,” he said.
Though MacFarlane has been involved in all aspects of the business, he said he now focuses on marketing, delegating other duties to employees and consultants.
He currently has two “people management” consultants on the payroll, he noted.
“Raising birds is relatively easy,” he said. “With right feed, right number of waterers, the right number in a pen, you can raise really good pheasants.
“But getting the best out of people takes a lot more skill. You can hire the best person, pay ’em well, check ’em out and it still all blows up in your face. People management is more of a challenge than pheasant management.”
He also said he believes his economics degree has served him well.
“I can hire people who know biology, genetics and physiology,” he said. “I’d rather set prices and make those kinds of decisions.”
This past year, for example, he saved nearly $700,000 by booking feed prices in the spring instead of paying for his inputs when spot prices rose in the summer.
“That would have been the difference making a profit — or not,” he said.
For more information on MacFarlane Pheasants, go to http://www.pheasant.com.
— By Brian E. Clark