Profiting from the Web and Thirsty Chickens

This story by our partners at Appalshop's Making Connections project was also posted on the Daily Yonder.

With ingenuity and smart application of Internet-marketing, a couple in rural Virginia has managed to stay on the farm, and get away from it occasionally too.

By Willie Davis

The Miser has been a generous boost to a farming couple who dreamed it up, designed it and are marketing it from home.

The chickens on Mark Hamilton and Anna Hess’s farm in Scott County, Virginia, don’t fear humans.  “We’ve spoiled them,” Hess says, with an almost maternal headshake.  Not long after Hamilton and Hess first bought their 58-acre farm, a friend gave them chickens hoping for a share of fresh eggs.  What followed—thanks to innovative thinking and high-speed Internet access—are an invention that has sold all over the world, a model for rural economic development, and a self-sustaining farm where the chickens feel spoiled.

Scott County was once a hub for big tobacco farms, and its location—nestled between two coal-rich areas—provided an opportunity for residents to work in the mines.  Once income from the tobacco industry and the coal companies dried up, however, the county suffered.  The population has been shrinking since 1990, and over twenty percent of the residents live below the poverty line.  Filling the void these tobacco farms left are small self-sustaining farms.  With small farms come small-farm problems.

For instance,  Hamilton and Hess needed to provide water for their chickens.  Leave too much water and it becomes dirty and unsanitary. Leave too little and you can never get away from the farm; the chickens would go thirsty.
 
Mark Hamilton artfully solved this problem with an invention he calls The Avian Aqua Miser: a nipple on a plastic container that allows chickens to drink the water only as they need it, a drop at a time.

“At first, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Hamilton says, referring to an aborted prototype of his invention.  He then noticed that larger commercial farms had been doing something similar.  But “big industrial farms overlooked the small guys, the people who only had one, two, three chickens,” he says.  “It didn’t seem right that people had dirty chicken water.  We wanted to help them out.”
 
Hess and Hamilton knew they had a winning idea. But how could thy sell it?  “People told Mark, ‘Go down to the Farmer’s Market, sell it that way,’” Hess said.  “That means you have to haul it down there, set up a booth, and stay there constantly,” almost are stifling as never being able to leave the farm.

“But the Internet is at the booth all day,” Hess laughs, as she’s making a serious point.  By selling the “Miser” on the Internet, “We were able to pay ourselves a living wage, not just minimum wage.  That’s hard for a lot of people around here to do.”

High-speed Internet service became available in their part of Scott County three years ago, and Hamilton and Hess signed up right away; they pay $29.95 per month through Scott County Telephone Cooperative. And because Hess and Hamilton have high-speed Internet access, they have been able to sell the Avian Aqua Miser to all fifty states and as far away as Greece, Australia, and Japan. In today’s economy, having a good commercial idea isn’t enough—you need to market it.  That means finding your customers, even if they’re on the other side of the world. 

“We thought it was only going to sell to farmers,” Hess says.  She was pleasantly surprised to find that all sorts of people wanted to buy it, even city-dwellers, thanks to the urban homesteading movement. 

Most everyone agrees that high-speed Internet access is advantageous to rural areas, but how should it get here?  Many Internet providers don’t think it’s profitable to cover remote areas where the houses are spread apart and the people don’t have much money.  In response, Hess tells of two friends, a married couple from Colorado.  “These were just the sort of people the Chamber of Commerce would want to move here.  Well-educated, good money.  But there’s no way they’d relocate to a place without high speed Internet. …We had broadband, so they came.”

"We think it's paradise here," Hess says of southwest Virginia.

Now, Hess says, her friends go out of their way to support local businesses and the community at large.  The point, she implies, is that investing in rural communities eventually pays for itself.  By using broadband, Appalachians can sell their ideas, their products, and their work. “We can move from being an extractive economy to a productive one,” she says. “We can have more ways of making money than by chopping down our mountains for coal.”

Hess emphasizes that high-speed Internet access allowed them to start a business with almost no resources.  “When we started we were on a shoestring budget.  Less than a shoestring.”  The couple had only five hundred dollars in the beginning.  They hope to serve as models for Appalachian youths with ideas and to show those who think they have to leave home to be successful that’s not true.  “Work for a summer, you can make five hundred dollars.” Hamilton says.  “If you have enough desire, that’s all the money you need to get started.”

“We’re not looking to get rich,” Hess says, “but we wanted to make enough money to keep body and soul together.”  Their invention has offered them economic freedom to devote their time to what they really love—their farm. 

Hess grew up on the outskirts of Bristol, and she felt connected to the Appalachian land from a young age.  “We moved away from a farm when I was too young to do the hard work.  The farm to me was eating great tomatoes, playing in the woods.  We moved to the city, and all I could say was ‘Mom, where are the great tomatoes?’”  The biological diversity of the area kept her close.  “Here we are land-rich even when we’re money-poor.”

Mark Hamilton took a more circuitous route to Scott County.  From Ohio originally, he moved around the country, setting up camp as far away as Albuquerque and Boston.  “I was kind of a drifter,” he says. Hamilton speaks slowly, careful with his words.  “I was looking for something, and I guess I found it.”

“We think it’s paradise here,” Hess says, waving her arm around to indicate either the farm, Appalachia, or both.  “The people who leave the mountains, they still think it’s paradise, but they don’t think there’re any jobs or opportunities.”

With innovative ideas, and the right tools in place, maybe locals won’t have to decide between paradise and their daily bread.

Willie Davis is a writer and teacher from Whitesburg, Kentucky, whose work been featured in The Guardian, The Kenyon Review and on WMMT radio.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.