Good Eggs: Farmers Hen House
By Toby Cain, Iowa Organic Association
Farmers Hen House began with one man: Eldon Miller. In the early 1990s, Eldon started bringing together Amish farmers for quarterly meetings in the Kalona area. The meetings started with just a half a dozen farmers who met up for casual conversation and to learn more about the emerging organic market. Over the course of a decade, Eldon’s small group ballooned to include over 100 farmers. In 1997, Farmers Hen House was founded.
We heard Eldon’s story on a sunny day in early June. Eldon spoke with a group of farmers, consumers, and interested Iowans who attended the Iowa Organic Association’s Field Day: Organic Egg Production with Farmers Hen House. We gathered in Kalona to learn more about this innovative business. The Field Day provided a program for folks to learn more about the organic egg production and distribution process, tour the Farmers Hen House organic egg packing facility, and visit a local poultry farm that produces organic eggs.
Demand for organic products continues to grow at a rapid pace of over 10% annually. Eggs have the highest total value of sales of organically produced commodities in Iowa – supplying $32.5 million of a $2.2 billion market in 2016. Farmers Hen House sources eggs from 48 certified organic farms in the Kalona area and distributes 15 million eggs per year. With only 67 certified organic egg producers in Iowa, there is great interest and potential to expand organic egg production in the state. Organic egg production offers farmers the opportunity to earn higher premiums (compared to conventional production) than any other organic product, it helps meets consumer demand, and diversifies Iowa’s agriculture operations.
Eldon’s introduction to the Field Day helped attendees learn more about the rise of organic eggs in Iowa. After learning about the origins of Farmers Hen House we toured the cleaning, grading, and packing facility. First, we walked through an enormous building stacked to the rafters with pallets of eggs. All of the pallets were labeled with the information of the farm where they were laid. Since Farmers Hen House works with nearly 50 farmers, the packaging facility works hard to maintain an organized and traceable supply chain. Farmers are supplied with color-coded plastic egg pallets. Many facilities use one-time use pallets but Farmers Hen House, committed to sustainability, chose to pay a little extra for supplies that can be used again and again. In addition to incorporating sustainability into the supply chain, Farmers Hen House’s facility is 100% solar powered.
After walking through the chilled room of the storage facility, we emerged into a large warehouse floor that housed several enormous pieces of equipment. We watched as a washing machine carefully carried eggs along a conveyor belt. The eggs then made their way onto another conveyor belt that measures the size of the eggs. Smaller eggs rolled down one shoot while larger and larger eggs fell into their own shoots. After the eggs were washed and sorted, another machine carefully placed eggs into cartons and applied a label. The labeled eggs were then ready to move to another storage room to await delivery to one of the scores of locations that sells Farmers Hen House eggs.
After we toured the Farmers Hen House facility we were ready to see where the eggs were laid. We traveled a half mile to the home of Chester Yoder. Chester has been raising eggs for Farmers Hen House for many years. He raises organic pullets on his farm and has a large laying barn for his mature chickens. When we pulled up to the farm, the first thing we noticed was a large fenced pasture next to the laying barn. The grass was tall and lush and chickens scratched around in the dirt, digging for bugs. Organic chickens must have access to the outdoors, and Chester’s chickens seemed to love being outside. We stepped inside the sorting room of the barn and made our way into the laying area. Chickens had free range to wander around the large, airy space. They rested on perches and walked around, pecking at the ground and preening themselves. Hens sat in nesting boxes on one side of the barn. The Yoders have built a conveyor system to bring eggs into the foyer of the barn where they can sort the eggs and put them onto pallets. They collect eggs every day and send over several pallets a week.
Farmers Hen House sources only certified organic eggs. Organic eggs come from hens that are fed 100% organic, non-GMO diet. Hens have access to the outdoors so they have interesting bugs to forage. They must have access to natural light and freedom of movement. Hormones and antibiotics are not allowed in organic egg production facilities. Even their bedding is certified organic. For a full list of the standards that Farmers Hen House uses for their organic eggs, visit their website.
After seeing hearing Farmers Hen House’s story, seeing their state-of-the-art packing facility, and touring an organic laying barn, I can confidently say that the folks at Farmers Hen House are helping to foster ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable farming systems. Their story is an inspiring example of the power of community and cooperation.