For the past couple years, I’ve made a point of buying a dozen or so eggs from two young farmers who are regulars at the Columbia, Missouri, Farmers’ Market. They look so much alike that I figured they must be brothers, and I used to think they might even be high schoolers, earning a little extra money on their parents’ farm. I was right about their ages — one of them is still in high school. But I was completely wrong about the “little extra money” idea.
It turns out that the young farmers are the owners of Stanton Brothers Eggs, which according to the USDA, makes them one of the largest independent free-range egg producers in the United States. This year, the brothers raised 12,000 chickens that laid upward of 1 million eggs. On good days, the Stantons’ mother, Judy, delivers 600-dozen eggs to local grocery stores, college dining halls and restaurants.
The family farm near Centralia, Missouri, is where their story takes place.
Meet the family
The two brothers — Austin, age 17, and Dustin, age 21 — have accomplished more than most people twice, or even three times, their age. They’ve built a home business by doing what they enjoy, with integrity.
Their business model is based on a sincere concern for the animals under their care and the thousands of people who eat their eggs. It’s also based on sound economic principles.
“We don’t create a supply (of eggs) and then try to find a demand,” Dustin says. “We find the demand and then build the supply. It all depends on who needs eggs and the client’s size.”
Raising 12,000 free-range chickens would be more than a full-time activity for even the most seasoned farmer, but the brothers juggle their work responsibilities with a full schedule of classes and school activities. Dustin is studying agriculture economics at nearby University of Missouri-Columbia, and Austin is in his junior year at Centralia High School. Both are active in local FFA chapters.
Dustin and Austin are quick to point out that their parents, Andrew and Judy, deserve credit for their success. The chickens are sheltered in barns originally used for their family’s cattle. The sons swap their labor in the field for the milo and other grains used in their feed. And the entire family helps with egg gathering, washing and packaging.
“We are the definition of a family farm,” Dustin says.
Andrew Stanton, age 50, was born and raised on a farm. He figured out early on how to combine his responsibilities as a father with farm work. While Judy recovered in the hospital after giving birth to Dustin, Andrew found himself with farm chores to do and a newborn son who needed his constant attention. He did what only a farmer would do: He put Dustin in an infant car seat and tied the seat onto his tractor so he could grind feed and babysit at the same time. Years later, his sons still carry their weight around the farm.
“When they started out, my kids would help me farm my 1,200 acres,” Andrew says. “Now it’s the other way around — more and more of my time is spent helping them keep up with the eggs.”
Dustin and Austin share the same build — tall and thin, straight-backed and broad shouldered. They take their business seriously, but aren’t single-minded. Scott Stone, a teacher at Centralia High School and FFA advisor, has known the Stanton brothers for more than a decade.
“They are both very determined. They’re extremely nice guys, down to earth and honest. It’s nothing for those boys to stay up ‘til 1 o’clock in the morning, gathering and cleaning eggs, then get up at 6 a.m. to do it again before getting ready for school,” Stone says.
Their personalities complement their working arrangement. “We get along and like working together,” Austin says. He doesn’t mind the hard, physical work of gathering eggs for hours at a time, and after he graduates high school, he might go to a technical school where he can learn to repair all the technology on which their business depends — everything from tractors to walk-in refrigerators and their refrigerated delivery truck. Dustin tends toward the business end of things, enjoying selling and meeting new customers. He prides himself in being able to calculate feed rations, adjusting the protein ratio to the weather conditions.
Truly free-range chickens
Stanton raised his sons to be independent, and in turn, the brothers allow their chickens a good measure of independence and freedom. A hen can fare no better in this life than to end up laying eggs on the Stanton Brothers’ farm. One day last spring, I visited the farm to watch the family in action and see how the brothers translated the term “free-range” into daily operation.
“We are 100 percent free range,” Austin says. “A lot of free-range farmers have a chicken yard. We don’t. The chickens go anywhere they want on the farm, the whole place.”
Stanton Brothers Eggs has little in common with the modern industrial egg operations that account for 98 percent of the nation’s egg supply. Their niche — local and free-range eggs – gives them a competitive advantage over the mega-egg operations in their mid-Missouri market. Although the nation’s egg giants, companies with more than 1 million hens laying for them, tower over the Stantons, the brothers don’t mind. Their niche is as satisfying for them as it is for their chickens.
Stanton Brothers chickens are members of a community of happy, healthy hens — mostly Tetra Tints, Hy-Line Browns, Bovans and Rhode Island Reds. They roam wherever they want, whenever they want, doing whatever comes naturally into their chicken minds. They may plop themselves into any of the farm’s four barns, finding a nesting box to get comfortable in. They may congregate near a grain bin, enjoying the weather. Or they may mosey over to a pasture or one of the fields of milo or beans. Some even venture off the farm and onto the gravel road, where not a few have met their end, paying the ultimate price for their freedom.
Walking among 12,000 free-range chickens was an experience worth the trip to the Stanton Brothers’ farm. Curious chickens clustered around me, pecking harmlessly at boot level.
Stepping through the chickens was like wading through a knee-deep stream. Except instead of the peaceful sound of swirling water, I was greeted by a high-decibel chorus of clicking, clucking, clacking birds. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a happier (or louder) sound coming from animals.
And why shouldn’t the chickens be happy? The Stantons let the chickens enjoy a life well beyond their prime egg-laying days. Some of the chickens are 9 years old.
“My kids keep the chickens until they die,” says Stanton. “We’ve had several chickens in the nest laying an egg, and they’ve had heart attacks.”
That’s not to say profits aren’t important. They are, but the Stantons don’t place profits above the well-being of their birds and the quality of their eggs. Dustin’s business plans have earned him one of the FFA’s 10 National Agri-Entrepreneurship Awards, the 2011 National FFA
Proficiency winner in Agricultural Sales, and an assortment of other honors. As they’ve matured, Dustin and Austin have grown their business at a rate they can manage, learning skills and knowledge as the need arises.
Stanton Brothers Eggs may be the only company started before its owners had mastered their multiplication tables or graduated elementary school. Dustin started with 12 chicks while in the first grade.
“I told him, ‘if you want allowance, you’ll have to earn it,’” says Stanton. Dustin, and eventually Austin after he could tie his own shoes, started selling eggs to neighbors and at church. By the time Dustin joined FFA in 2007, their flock had grown to 250 birds. When they had too many eggs to sell off the farm, they started selling eggs at the Columbia Farmers’ Market. When they were approached by local stores that wanted their eggs, they grew their flock and started deliveries. By 2010, they were caring for 7,000 layers. Next year, the brothers will have completed construction on a new 8,000-square-foot temperature-controlled barn. They’ll be able to shelter 5,000 chickens in the space, and move from hand-gathering eggs to a conveyer belt system that will make life easier for all of them.
No easy task
Although Dustin and Austin make it sound like getting into the egg business is as easy as child’s play, it isn’t. Ron Plain, an ag economist with the University of Missouri Extension Service, says there’s a lot to consider before buying your first chick.
“The key thing to keep in mind isn’t so much the challenge of having the birds and producing the eggs, but of marketing the eggs,” Plain says. “If you keep the birds healthy and well-fed, you should get close to an egg per bird per day. Ideally you need a marketing program and a set of very consistent customers who would take them off your hands.”
Another thing would-be egg farmers need to think and learn about is compliance to state and federal laws. Each state has its own licensing requirements for selling eggs. Although all egg producers should know how to keep their chickens healthy and eggs sanitary, some states don’t require licenses for small farmers who sell off the farm. As youngsters selling to neighbors, the Stanton brothers didn’t need a license, but when they began selling at the Columbia Farmers’ Market, they got their first license, along with inspections from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. When they passed the threshold of 3,000 chickens, federal regulations clicked in with on-site inspections by the USDA and FDA.
What’s the future of Stanton Brothers Eggs? Dustin and Austin are both hooked on the independence that comes from owning their own business. They see a future full of chickens and eggs, plus the possibility of marketing homemade chicken soup. The more important question is one they can’t answer: What impact will these two hardworking, young men have on the future of free-range egg production?
Jack Wax lives in Columbia, Missouri, where he cares for a flock of 23 chickens that roams freely on the 10 acres surrounding his home.