Iowa organic egg company produces on small farms

Farmers Hen House began with a few small Amish farms and the idea that producing organic eggs would keep these farms viable and sustainable.

Farmers Hen House prides itself on producing organic eggs on farms that are viable and sustainable. (Courtesy Farmers Hen House)
Farmers Hen House prides itself on producing organic eggs on farms that are viable and sustainable. (Courtesy Farmers Hen House)

Based in Kalona, Iowa, Farmers Hen House (FHH) began with a few small Amish farms and the idea that producing organic eggs would keep these farms viable and sustainable. As the network of farms continued to expand, local to Kalona, Mark Miller took over the business and continued the tradition of working with family farmers. Mark was able to cultivate FHH into the growing business it is by sticking to the original format -- keep it local and keep it organic.

As the company continued to grow, Mark's son, Ryan, became more involved and is now the president of FHH. Egg Industry magazine recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan Miller and discuss the operation and what it's like working with Amish and Mennonite growers to produce a wide portfolio of free-range and pasture-raised eggs.

Egg grading and distribution

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. Amish producers use diesel-powered refrigeration units.

Once the eggs arrive on-site in Kalona, they're graded and packaged. On average, four to six trucks leave the plant every day. They use contracted trucks to move the finished product to distributors nationally.

As the business expanded, the Millers upgraded their grader to a Diamond 8300 then an 8400 to go along with it. Last summer, they upgraded to a new Sanovo Optigrader 600 with 20 packers.

"We grade 3,000 to 3,500 cases per day, or 90,000 to 105,000 dozen," Miller said.

Farmers Hen House Equipment

Farmers Hen House recently upgraded to a Sanovo Optigrader 600 with 20 packers. (Deven King)

The company distributes its own labeled product line, and packs for other private labels.

"There are several of us in the industry that just produce specialty eggs," Miller said. "Originally, a lot of the commercial guys were coming to people like us because their conventional customers, like the Targets and Walmarts, were starting to tell them, 'We need some of these specialty eggs.' Commercial or conventional companies didn't want to deal with producing this type of product."

He added that a lot of those companies are producing their own specialty products now.

Solar usage

The company's egg grading facility, distribution facility, coolers and offices are 100% powered by a nine-acre solar field near the grading and distribution facility.

Farmers Hen House Solar

The nine-acre solar field was built in 2016 to supply electricity for the company's egg grading facility, distribution facility, coolers and offices. (Deven King)

FHH was approached by the Rural Electric Co-op (REC) about the opportunity. When it was built 2016, it was the largest solar field in Iowa. FHH uses the power first and any surplus energy is put on the grid for others to use. Even in the winter months, when sunshine is minimal, there is still more than enough power to run FHH and still kick out extra energy to the grid. REC manages the solar panels.

To be even more sustainable, sheep graze on the nine acres to manage the grass under the panels.

Two of the 24,000 birdhouses are also run on solar power from separate panels. Miller said some of the outdoor shade provided for the birds can be created using solar panels and, in some cases, they have done this.

Working with Amish and Mennonite operations

Most of the farmers in the area surrounding FHH are Amish or Mennonite. While the company prides itself on working with such growers, their way of life presents a few challenges, specifically the Amish.

The Anabaptist faith communities, like Mennonites and Amish, do not utilize all modern conveniences. Some groups accept the use of electricity in farm buildings, but not in homes. Others don't use electricity at all. More recent innovations, like cellphones, have not been adopted.

“Timely communication can be a challenge because they don’t have cellphones and no phones in their houses, but many do have voicemail that they can check from community phones. If we really need to talk to someone in a hurry, we often have to drive out to their farm and find them,” Miller said.

Modern ventilation and pullet growing are among some of the more difficult challenges for Amish producers who don’t use electricity.

"We have several Mennonite farms that are free range or cage free. They just haven't gotten into the organics as much, but they can have electricity and modern ventilation," Miller said.

The barns that these producers are working with are 50 feet wide by any length that is needed for the number of birds. Floor barns include a scratch area, a slated area with feed and water lines, and nests down the center.

"We give the birds 1.2 to 1.5 square feet per bird indoor space, minimum of 2 square feet per bird outside, up to 108 for pasture-raised," Miller said.

Many of the operations use Georgia Poultry Equipment feeders but are not required to.

Farmers Hen House Barn

Birds are given 1.2 to 1.5 square feet per bird indoor space and a minimum of 2 square feet per bird outside. (Deven King)

Production success and challenges

Miller noted that they have growers that continuously meet or exceed the management guide numbers. He said some members of the industry have fears that birds will not produce as well and may be more susceptible to diseases when they're allowed outdoor access.

"I have not seen a difference in production between an organic flock where the birds go outside, compared to a cage-free flock where the birds do not go outside," Miller said.

He believes production success has more to do with the management of the birds and pullet growing than it does with the birds going outside.

There isn’t much difference between health challenges experienced by free-range and organic hens. The living conditions are identical; the only difference is the feed. Pasture-raised birds have more space but, again, health challenges are minimal. Management is critical in maintaining the health of birds with outdoor access.

Targeted consumers and company mission

With distribution across most of the country, including the recent launch in more than 150 Target locations, Miller said that, while they hope FHH's product appeals to various types of consumers, he realizes that the highly educated consumer with a high income is their largest buyer.

He said they do not see as much fluctuation in organic sales because those customers are generally buying all organic goods.

"We are more catering to that generation that is looking at animal welfare, but one of the big things that we try to connect our consumer with is our individual farmers that are producing the stuff. We want to make sure we are providing a way of life for the approximately 65 farmers we are working with," Miller said.

The biggest barn FHH is working with now houses 24,000 birds; the smallest houses 1,200. In total, FHH has about 750,000 hens.

Mill said several of the farmers they are working with have asked to put up second barns, and while he wasn't implying that the company would never do that, he said it is more important to them to work with new farmers, ultimately employing more small farmers.

Most of the producers that FHH works with were already farming in an organic fashion, this has allowed for most of them to be fully integrated in their practices.

When birds are sick, FHH producers utilize diatomaceous earth, apple cider vinegar and other products so that all the birds stay organic.

"We hold our farmers to very strict standards that go above and beyond most industry regulations ... the hens' quality of life is priority No. 1," Miller said. FHH is certified humane raised and handled by Humane Farm Animal Care and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic.

Miller hopes to show the extended farming community that an operation can be ethical and sustainable and be successful.

Page 1 of 359
Next Page