When Jim and Darby Sorenson decided to grind their own feed for their Black Angus herd about 12 years ago, they started small, with only vague ideas of what they were doing.
Now the rural Washington County family's Buxton Feed Co. has taken off with a new marketing strategy — healthy feed for farm animals that contains no genetically modified organisms.
Buxton Feed has received GMO-free certification for four of its poultry feed products and its rabbit feed. The company is supplying Portland and Seattle retail outlets and getting daily inquiries from around the nation.
"GMO-free is all the rage," says Heather Havens of Concentrate Inc., an agricultural supply store in Milwaukie that sells Buxton Feed Co. products.
The Sorensons' path to success began in 2000, when their son, Spencer, saw an ad in the Capital Press for a mill to make their own cattle feed. The family decided to buy and assemble it, hoping to fulfill Jim's dreams of owning a home business and
Darby's dreams of an agriculture occupation.
Word soon spread, and, in addition to producing their own cattle feed, the Sorensons were filling orders for neighbors.
By 2008, they were producing feed for chickens, rabbits, goats, swine, cattle and horses at the mill on their Buxton farm. But demand shriveled when the economy soured and many customers were forced to sell their horses and cattle.
Then the backyard chicken craze came to the rescue.
That opened up the market for GMO-free layer pellets and brought the Sorensons out of their slump. In the last two years, chicken-feed sales have exploded, says Spencer, who earned an agribusiness degree from Oregon State University. And their buyers are no longer just farmers.
Ninety percent of the ingredients they use come from Washington County, Spencer says. They buy some organic or non-GMO corn from Iowa, and vitamins and minerals from Fertrell, an East Coast company. They use only whole grains in their feed, and never add hormones or fillers, Spencer says.
Buxton Feed's non-GMO products are certified by Green Star Certified, an independent verifier endorsed by the U.S. Energy Council.
"The GMO-free certified label is powerful, and we're grateful to have it," Jim says. "We've recently seen demand for such product skyrocket. Yet without certification it's been challenging to promote our product as GMO-free."
About 85 to 90 percent of all corn and soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, says James Hermes, an Oregon State University poultry extension specialist. GMO-free corn and soy is more expensive and often hard to find, he says.
There's no evidence to support the claim that GMO-free feed is healthier for poultry, Hermes says.
Some Buxton customers say otherwise.
"People come back and say, 'My chickens are so much healthier and they've doubled in egg production,' " Spencer says.