Free-range chicken farmers

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a story in our occasional series on “Entrepreneurs.”

Over the past decade, economic forces have hit farms hard: rising agricultural expenses and falling revenues.

The trend makes it especially difficult for small family operations to stay on land that’s been in families for generations.

REICHARD: So, many farmers are looking for ways to generate additional dollars. And sometimes it’s the children of farmers who are thinking outside the box. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited a 175-year-old family farm in Missouri. That’s where two young brothers started a business that’s giving them a future on the land.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: For 26-year-old Dustin Stanton, it’s another unpredictable day on the farm. This morning the cattle got out, and he’s behind on taking care of his main responsibility. He jumps in a small truck and heads across the farmyard.

DUSTIN: Austin actually got this little truck. It’s good just to get around with, but we don’t do much with it.

Twenty-two-year-old Austin is Dustin’s younger brother. He doubles as a business partner.

Dustin pulls up to where that business lives in a simple metal-sheet sided barn.

AUDIO: [Sound of chickens]

Inside the barn, 7,000 brown, free-range chickens roam. They scratch the dirt floor and bob their heads into red feeders. Each day these chickens lay nearly 6,000 eggs.

Every day, with the help of their parents, Dustin and Austin collect, process and package the thousands of eggs. The process starts with collecting the eggs.

Dustin points to a row of what look like small red houses with doors. These are the nests. They stretch the 100-foot length of the barn.

DUSTIN: So they go inside these community nests to give them more room and they lay the eggs in there and ideally they roll to the back on the belts, which then we’re bringing them up to the front for us.

The brothers still end up gathering nearly 2,000 eggs by hand.

Dustin and Austin started their egg business when they were just 14 and 10. Austin says they raised hobby chickens and eggs for allowance money.

AUSTIN: It’s kind of been always there. So Getting pecked by chickens, and learning how to take your cap and shove it in their face so they wouldn’t peck you.

In 2007, when older brother Dustin was a freshman in high school, he joined Future Farmers of America. He needed a farm project for the year, so he recruited Austin to help.

DUSTIN: Austin and I worked together, so we would buy 500 chickens and start selling eggs at the Columbia farmer’s market here about 30 minutes south of here.

That first market day, they only sold a half-dozen eggs, but they kept going back. Eventually, they started to sell more eggs, and they used the money to buy more chickens. By 2015, they’d grown to 20,000 free-range birds. They’d become the nation’s largest independent free range egg operation.

Dustin says running an operation that large at a young age was challenging. The brothers ran the business while attending high school and then college.

DUSTIN: When I was in high school, you know, being involved in extracurricular activities, schoolwork, egg processing, things like that, I mean that takes up a lot of time. I was up until midnight several nights trying to get all that done.

The brothers lacked business experience. They had to learn how to price and market the eggs—and about the best chicken breeds and feed.

Another challenge was changing regulations. At first the Stantons let their chickens roam outside, but then the FDA said egg-laying chickens can’t have muddy feet. That forced the brothers to cut their flock by two-thirds, so all the birds could fit in their barn.

DUSTIN: We actually are cage free now with 7,200 birds.

But by switching from older chickens to younger ones, Dustin says they were able to maintain similar egg production.

DUSTIN: We’re still able to produce 90ish percent, so one of the like 7,200 birds times 90 percent is what we get in eggs per day.

After collecting all of the eggs, they place them onto another conveyor belt. That belt takes the eggs through a washer.  

DUSTIN: We’re trying to get a new egg washer as well. Ideally, this will be connected to the belt and it will take them on through.

Then, it’s time to hand-package the eggs into baby-blue cartons. Dustin quickly grabs brown eggs from a bucket and places them in a carton. He sorts out cracked or undersized eggs without even looking at them.

DUSTIN: As we grab the egg, you could actually feel if the eggs cracked or not, believe it or not…. and you can even feel the size of them as you put them in, depending on how much of your palm they take up. It’s like, like our sixth sense, you could say.

Finally, the guys place the filled cartons on pallets and into a large walk-in refrigerator. They will deliver and sell their product at more than 60 local restaurants and grocery stores.

The brothers’ unexpected success even caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visited the farm two years ago.

DUSTIN: He wanted to come and reached out to us to come here because two reasons. He wanted to meet millennials, and he wanted to meet entrepreneurs, which is what we are — millennial entrepreneurs.

Dustin says the Stanton egg operation is allowing him and Austin to stay on the farm and is providing more revenue.

DUSTIN: I’ve always had the desire to stay on the farm. Without the chickens, the financials behind it did not support it. So we knew we needed something. And the chickens kind of filled that niche over time.

The business has also given the brothers a platform to educate the public about agriculture. Dustin says one of his favorite opportunities is to visit local schools to talk with students about ag and about entrepreneurship.

Dustin says he also hopes the story of Stanton Brothers Eggs teaches young people they’re never too young to work hard and take a chance.  

DUSTIN: To teach students that you can do more than just use a degree or get a job. And if you do fall, you know, so what, like you’re still in high school, you still got time.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Centralia, Missouri.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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