WALTERBORO -- Annie Filion squints in the hot sun as she walks the chicken field.
Her organic, grass-fed poultry is served at Charleston-area "locavore" restaurants, prized at farmers markets. It's premium meat at a premium price, so the Filions try to hold the line on that price.
They won't be able to do it much longer.
Get used to higher prices at restaurants and markets for poultry, beef, pork and other foods. The hot, dry summer killed corn nationwide as well as in the Lowcountry. That drove up the price, which will start driving up other prices, because meat is raised on corn and corn is an ingredient in everything from to cereal to soft drinks.
When it comes to poultry and any number of other foods, corn is chicken feed. Even for the organic Keegan-Filon Farm outside Walterboro.
"No chicken will live on just grass. They have feed in front of them 24 hours per day," said Marc Filion, Filion's husband. For the 10,000 broiler chickens raised this year, that's 3 tons of feed per week.
"Our feed prices have been climbing since the end of last year, the beginning of this year," Annie Filion said. "We end up eating (the price hike) for a period of time until we can't eat it any more."
It takes about six months for corn prices to show up on the price tags of products at the grocery store, and the price hike has just started to trickle into retail outlets. Walter Smith, regional manager for Prestige Farms, a poultry distributor that supplies more than 100 high-end restaurants and other retail outlets in Charleston, said it's impacted his business.
Slightly North of Broad restaurant, which buys from both Keegan-Filion and Prestige, hasn't had to raise its prices yet, Chef Frank Lee said. But he's watching for it. Christopher Ibsen, Piggly Wiggly marketing director, said poultry costs have been rising, but so far the supermarket chain has held the line on the price charged.
This spring, farmers nationwide planted the second-largest crop since World War II. But the yield is down by half, and more than half the corn raised now goes to produce ethanol fuels, so the cost of feed is going up. In fact, it started going up last winter, when the commodities futures market began betting the summer would be bad.
As feed prices climbed, larger operations such as Prestige began losing money on each bird raised, so they scaled back, producing less chicken and driving up retail prices.
"All the poultry companies are cutting back," Smith said.
Local farmers raise corn for their own livestock, too, and it's considered one of their money crops. This year even the early planting wilted in unirrigated fields and farmers were leaving it to die on the stalk.
"The corn is just burned up, top to bottom. There's very little left," said family farmer Wig Weathers, of the Cow Tail community in upper Dorchester County, in June.
"It's been a tough year this year. There may be some pockets that have decent yields, but it's been a poor year," said Jonathan Croft, Dorchester County Clemson Extension agent earlier this week.
The Filions have raised their price only once since the beginning of the year, Annie Filon said. But no, she shakes her head, they won't be able to hold off much longer. On top of dealing with feed prices, they have had to put off seeding the fall grass. "With no rain right now there's no sense in trying," she said. "Without rain it's not going to come up."
If their costs get too unworkable, the Filons have an option the bigger companies don't; they can just suspend operations until costs come back in line. They run their small farm on family land their grandfather cleared in rural Colleton County; Marc Filion works another job.
"They still have that payment to make to the bank. We don't," Annie Filion said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bopete.