This Couple is Raising Three Daughters, Two Dogs — and 2,000 Chickens
Last December, Tim and Chelsea Clarkson moved into a yellow 1988 Airstream trailer on a 10-acre pasture in rural Southwest Florida.
The trailer had no air conditioning or plumbing. The only other structure on the land was a 30-by-50-foot garage that had been used to store vintage Mustang cars.
Chelsea, 29, had given birth to her third daughter in March of that year. Tim, also 29, quit a steady job he’d held for six years. They sold their old house in town in July.
The couple took a huge gamble to expand their organic, pasture-based livestock business Grove Ladder Farm, and it looks like it’s finally starting to pay off.
A Family of Five — and Thousands of Birds
The pastured poultry haven is tucked into a large pocket of dwindling agricultural land in east Sarasota County. Theirs is the only land zoned for a poultry farm in a county that has 1,100 agricultural properties.
The family now lives in a 900-square-foot home with 12-foot ceilings that was completed earlier this year. From there, Chelsea looks out her kitchen window at where the trailer — which she describes as a “stick of butter” or “giant Twinkie” — used to be.
This summer, on a sweltering July afternoon, Tim slips on his boots, and Chelsea scoops up their daughter, Guinevere, who is now 1. They venture out onto the property, trailed by Bianca and Freddy, the young couple’s two white Great Pyrenees.
It’s quiet. The offseason in a very seasonal town.
In Tim and Chelsea’s backyard, however, a cacophony of thousands of clucks, quacks and cock-a-doodle-dos echo across the knee-high pasture.
The couple is currently raising more than 900 chickens and 400 Grimaud Pekin ducks. The number of birds can swell to more than 2,000 every fall, when part-time residents return to local restaurants.
Grove Ladder Farm’s specialty is free-range, pasture-raised animals — no concrete chicken coops here. By eating real grass, they absorb nutrients like chlorophyll. They also consume worms and grubs out of the soil.
It’s a labor of love for the young couple, who only have the help of a farmhand a few days a week this summer. It’s not glamorous.
“What I really like is to look outside my bedroom window on Thursdays and see Tim cutting the heads off of chickens,” Chelsea says sarcastically. That’s not totally accurate; he actually cuts their carotid artery because it’s important for the heart to continue to pump all of the blood out of the chicken.
After checking on the 400 1-month-old Rhode Island Red-Leghorn crossed chickens in the only traditional brooder on the property, Tim stops and looks around.
“Look at this place,” Tim says, shaking his head.
It’s hard for him to believe that, six years ago, they had just four backyard chickens on a half-acre plot of land in town.
Since then, they’ve twice outgrown their land. But the hobby-turned-side gig-turned-business has only knitted the family of five closer together.
‘It Became Clear That Our Growth Was Based on Our Partnership’
Tim and Chelsea dated in middle school. They reconnected in 2010, after Chelsea graduated from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Tim was working as a heavy equipment operator (a fantastic trade) at a landfill in Manatee County, just north of Sarasota.
Chelsea is the brainchild behind pretty much every agricultural undertaking the pair has tackled since their marriage. She proposes an idea, then Tim does the hard labor (not that raising three wild little girls is a walk in the park.)
Tim has the green thumb that helped sustain their sprawling garden when they were in full-on homesteading mode in the early 2010s. During that time, they mostly subsisted off of that half-acre they owned.
Why did they take to homesteading? “We were financially strapped, and we cared about food, and we lived in Florida where there was eternal sunshine,” Chelsea says.
Tim and Chelsea are both avid readers of books preaching sustainability, quick to rattle off titles that inspired them. Tim recommends “You Can Farm” by pastured-poultry godfather Joel Salatin and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by journalist Michael Pollan, which offers a critique of the industrial food business.
“And I was really into ‘Possum Living’,” Chelsea says referring to a Dolly Freed book about living off of the land. “I couldn’t afford to put the kids in daycare, and the only way to make it work was to cut all of the corners we could.”
On the half-acre, there were eggs and plenty of chicken meat, of course, along with kale and other greens. Two of their 5-year-old daughter Celeste’s first words were “bok choy.”
Thanks to a group of mothers Chelsea met through a Facebook group who started buying eggs from Tim and her at a neighborhood park each week, the demand for their products grew.
By 2014, they were testing the limits of their property with as many as 135 chickens at any given time.
Tim approached one of Manatee County’s original dairymen, Roger Musgrave, about leasing some of his property. Over the next year, Grove Ladder branched out beyond the Clarksons’ immediate property.
An angel investor stepped up to help fund an expansion of Grove Ladder Farm, including the eventual purchase of the 10 acres on which it now sits. And Grove Ladder began selling at the Sarasota Farmers Market.
But long days at the landfill and tending to chickens 20 miles away from home started to take a toll on the couple. Tim didn’t get to spend enough time with the girls, and Chelsea said she felt like she was drowning raising the kids.
“It became clear that our growth was based on our partnership,” Chelsea says. “It became clear we need to be with each other.”
How the Poultry Farm Turned Into a Growing Business
The Clarksons have found the sweet spot, less than 20 miles from the heart of the closest city — agricultural land on the cusp of creeping residential development.
“You’ve got to have three things: the education on the product; the money to afford it; and the demand,” Tim says. “Downtown Sarasota has got all of those.”
Now their pastured-poultry operation, which Tim estimates cost about $100,000 to build, is a lot more advanced than the setup they had those years ago when they were operating on 20,000 square feet of land.
Grove Ladder has two massive, mobile coops — called egg mobiles — that they cycle around the pasture to give their chickens fresh grass. Instead of butchering one chicken at a time over a bucket, Tim has a conveyer belt-esque setup that can support 16 chickens in various legs of the process.
And they’ve automated the watering system for their fowl so Tim doesn’t have to lug around five-gallon buckets filled with water all day. Many of his systems are DIY rigs he designed using videos on the Internet, including dollies made of of shaped rebar he uses to move smaller, domed chicken coops.
“I lived on YouTube,” he says.
The two dogs have helped with predator-chasing on the farm, but Tim, who grew up hunting and fishing in east Sarasota County as a 4-H devotee, has done his fair share himself.
“Bobcats, foxes, possums, raccoons,” Tim says. “I’ve killed them all.”
The turkeys will come in later this year, and the Clarksons might buy a couple of cows to keep the grass in check.
Tim says he’s doubling egg production and pulling back on supplying poultry to restaurants now that he has a better idea of what the local market — and Grove Ladder’s production and budget — can handle. Remember, this will only be their second real season with a full-scale farm.
The Clarksons are also offering a summer community-supported agriculture option, which allows customers to pay $230 up front and receive a steady stream of pasture-raised chickens and other poultry each week for two months. That helps Grove Ladder stay on top of the cash-flow problem that comes from spending so much for high-quality feed.
There are still challenges that come with a business that can be affected by everything from a new hawk near the property to the local climate. Tim said, despite the risks, he’s obligated to keep Grove Ladder chugging along, if only for the customers.
“They’re there every single week,” Tim says. “And I feel I’ve got to keep it going for them.”
It’s still hard to find time for themselves, but Tim and Chelsea hope to get to a point where they’re making enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“I think we can kind of see where it’s going,” Chelsea says. “We believe in it, and we see it’s flourishing.”
‘We’ve Always Been About Doing Things on our Own’
Recently the couple finally got a chance to go out in downtown Sarasota to a couple of restaurants that serve some of their products.
They got some comped drinks, but it was a reminder of how expensive going out can be. Since they can’t afford a babysitter, they were lucky to have a family friend watch the kids.
Even designing their house became an exhibit on the Clarksons’ thriftiness. When the previously mentioned angel investor unveiled plans for a house about double the size of what they have now, Chelsea says she literally whipped out a pair of scissors and cut it in half.
With their permanent home finally finished, they’re settling in for the long haul. And though they’re still admittedly financially strapped, Tim and Chelsea are clearly happy living life on their own terms.
Case in point: the name of their business came from the thatched ladders, decorated with shiny pots and sequined birds, that Chelsea’s mom hung from the rafters in their 19th-century home in Ona, Florida.
A symbol of autonomy, migrant workers would carry their handmade grove ladders on their backs through the orange groves. If they had a ladder, they always had work.
“We’ve always been about doing things on our own,” Chelsea says.
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Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. Don’t tell his wife about this article, because she will really want to buy some backyard chickens.
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