Farmers Hen House President Ryan Miller speaks fondly of the farmers who send their eggs to the Kalona, Iowa, plant. He sees them as family.
“We try to foster a feeling of working together for the same goals,” Miller said. “We have several farms that are part of the same family, brothers and in-laws, and the same is true of employees.”
Over the next 12 to 18 months, that family is expected to grow. Farmers Hen House plans to add a few farms in 2021, several in 2022 and at least one in 2023. All of them will be Amish/Mennonite farms like most of the company’s current 80 farms. Most of the farms will be local, with a few farther away, but all the farms will be in areas where current farms already are.
“The expansion will represent around a 15% increase in production with more flexibility in styles of production from free-range to pasture,” Miller said.
FHH’s trucks pick up eggs at each farm weekly. Each producer has a refrigeration area on-site where they store the eggs until pickup. Farms range from 1,200 birds to 24,000. Farmers average five to six pallets per week, with a range of one to 14 pallets. The plant grades 100,000 dozen eggs per day.
Once the eggs arrive , they're graded and packaged using a Sanovo Optigrader 600 with 20 packers. The 67 employees work one shift, Monday through Friday, with a five-person crew coming in each night to clean the floors and machines. The company's egg grading facility, distribution facility, coolers and offices that are 100% powered by a nine-acre solar field near the grading and distribution facility.
On average, four to six trucks leave the plant every day. They use contracted trucks to move the finished product to distributors nationally. Most of the eggs, 92% to 95% go to retail. The remaining eggs enter the food service market.
“About 35 to 38% of our eggs carry the Farmers Hen House label,” Miller said. “We want it to be more like 75%. We’re working to get there,” Miller said Sept. 8 during Day on the Farm at the plant.
Chester Yoder is one of the farmers who supplies eggs to Farmers Hen House. His Amish farm is literally right around the corner from the plant. The camaraderie displayed between Miller and Yoder during a visit to Yoder’s farm was apparent.
Yoder joked about not being paid enough for his eggs, but he and his family welcomed Ryan and guests with open arms. A brief peak inside the pullet house, some time spent in the layer barn and an Amish lunch all revealed the care Yoder has for his chickens, and the way Farmers Hen House values its relationships with its egg suppliers.
Farmers Hen House founder Eldon T. Miller’s dream was that producing organic eggs could be a way to keep small local family farms like Chester’s competitive in the modern economy. Miller said he believes that’s still true today.
“We are still growing and the farmers are thriving,” Miller said. “I feel good about this expansion because we already know where most of the expansion is going to be used. We normally don’t expand on speculation of where they might go.”
Miller said it is important for Farmers Hen House to work with new, local farmers, ultimately employing more small farmers.
“Having the farmers close cuts down on transportation costs, but the main thing is that we want to provide income for our local family farms,” Miller said. ““We want to give more farmers, especially younger farmers a chance to get into the business of supplying eggs.”