A tall, bespectacled man pushing a baby stroller approaches Stanton Brothers Eggs at the Columbia Farmers’ Market in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a booth right near the entrance clearly designated by a plastic-coated, chicken-patterned tablecloth and two large, plush chickens affixed to the top corners of its canopy.
He speaks quickly: “Do you feed your chickens corn? I know corn is often genetically modified.” His matter-of-fact tone suggests he’s ready to write off the eggs completely, as if he’s assuming an answer other than what Dustin Stanton, 22, gives him.
Dustin politely explains that his chickens are fed milo, or grain sorghum. He and his younger brother, Austin, 18, grow and mix it themselves. Milo isn’t genetically modified.
The customer is sold. He’ll take a dozen. Dustin makes casual conversation as he makes change, while Austin quickly replaces the just-sold eggs with a new dozen. Going on nine seasons, the young men have it down to a science.
“We appreciate your business,” Dustin says to him. He says it to every customer, but it’s more genuine than robotic, a trait he says he gets from his mom, Judy.
Their father, Andrew, stands with his arms crossed over his Stanton Brothers logo polo nearby. Some might incorrectly assume he’s the owner and operator of this business. In reality, his sons are running the show.
“People always joked that we’d be working for them, but now it’s legitimate,” Andrew says in his rural Missouri accent. The soybean, wheat, corn and cattle farmer is unfazed by his sons’ successful business.
“Now, farming is just my hobby – this is my full-time job,” he jokes.
Dustin and Austin lay claim to operating the largest independent free-range egg business in the nation. They currently raise 20,000 birds, sell roughly 42,000 eggs a week and farm 400 acres of milo.
The recognizable blue-cartoned eggs can be found at most grocery stores in Columbia: Hy-Vee, Schnucks, Lucky’s Market, Natural Grocers, Clover’s Natural Market, etc. The Stantons also sell to Columbia College and the University of Missouri Campus Dining Services, plus a handful of restaurants in Columbia such as Bangkok Gardens, Sycamore, Broadway Diner and Cafe Berlin. Altogether, the Stantons sell to 40 clients across mid-Missouri, St. Louis, Columbia and Jefferson City.
Plus, they recently started producing and selling their own line of ice cream made from honey instead of sugar. The idea started when an older couple stopped selling ice cream at the farmers’ market. Initially, the brothers thought it would be a frugal way to use their egg by-product, but Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit them from using their own eggs to make ice cream. They stuck with the idea anyway.
The ice cream business was fully approved for commercialization in March 2014, and they have made around 40 flavors since then. Cookie dough sells the best, and coffee does well during early farmers’ market mornings, but the brothers were surprised the Snickers flavor didn’t take off. Their dad says he’ll eat any flavor.
Chicken Before the Egg
Dustin does most of the talking – Austin appears more comfortable working in the background, but he will occasionally abandon monosyllables when it’s something he really cares about.
Dustin says the business started out as a lesson in work ethic: He helped incubate six baby chicks for a 4-H Club project back in first grade. Because he humbly begrudged the lottery-winning classmate who took home the chickens, his uncle bought him six nonegg-laying Cornish hens as a consolation prize. The following spring, Andrew bought him 25 egg-laying young hens, known as pullets. He sold the eggs to family, friends, church members and neighbors.
“That was my allowance,” Dustin says.
His father intended to teach him work ethic by investing in something his son would have to take care of every day. When Austin entered first grade, he joined his brother in the business.
In 2007, a member of their church who was selling produce at the farmers’ market encouraged the brothers to begin selling their eggs there. They sold a half dozen in the rainy first week, and it only went downhill as the weather progressively worsened the next three weekends. They’ve now stuck it out for nine seasons. Dustin says he never expected their stand at the market to grow into a fully operational business that would help him and his brother earn college scholarships.
Dustin received a scholarship to the University of Missouri where he studied agricultural business. He forewent dorm life to live at home and work on the farm when he wasn’t in class. He even graduated a semester early. While the rest of his peers were partying, binge-watching movies and TV shows on Netflix or complaining about 8am classes, Dustin chose a different path; his family doesn’t own a television, and he actually wished classes were offered earlier.
He does occasionally stay out late with friends cosmic bowling or doing other normal 22-year-old activities.
But, even when he stays out late, his lifestyle doesn’t let him sleep in.
“His dad also wouldn’t let him,” Andrew says about himself with a laugh.
Austin is paving his way down a similar road – albeit in cowboy boots rather than the sneakers Dustin wears. In high school, he was the state vice president and District Six president of Future Business Leaders of America and a member of the National FFA Organization, and he has also earned his own scholarships to the University of Missouri where he will begin classes this fall. Although both young men value education, they could be teaching what they’ve learned about raising chickens and selling eggs over the years.
Austin says many farmers must have non-farming jobs in order to supplement their incomes, but luckily, this is not true for the Stanton brothers.
Egg Before the Chicken
Dustin and Austin have never been far from the coop – agriculture is in their blood. In fact, Dustin’s been farming since his first day home from the hospital, when his dad held him as he was grinding hog feed on his tractor.
The brothers’ ancestors were Irish potato farmers, and they are fifth-generation producers. Their great-grandfather sat on the porch of his Centralia, Missouri, farm – near where their operation is located today – and watched battles unfold during the Civil War. Andrew has also been farming since he was a boy.
Their mother, Judy, doesn’t come from an agricultural or farming background, but her tractor-driving skills convinced Andrew she was the one. Today, Judy is the main egg-washer and processor. And while the men are busy selling eggs, she’s back at the farm’s headquarters, unloading a semitruck filled with seed.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck operation between the gathering, washing, grading, packaging, refrigerating and delivery of eggs as well as farming the milo. The Stantons divide the business in three parts: production, processing and sales and marketing.
Although the brothers split the work equally, Austin is the hands-on, manual-labor man who prefers production. Dustin is better at sales and marketing. Because of this, Austin always tries to out-produce what Dustin can sell, and vice versa.
The brothers say keeping up the family farm gives them their sense of purpose; it’s what drives them to maintain the long hours, to balance school, life and their workloads. They agree that their shared dream is to always be on the farm.
More Eggs in the Basket
The brothers are frugal and repurpose whatever they can to put back into the business. Dustin says they started the business with a used chicken coop and grew it into a hog building and an old cattle barn. At the farmers’ market, regulars drop off foot-tall stacks of recycled blue egg cartons that the brothers use to redistribute eggs.
“We hate waste,” Dustin says.
In 2010, Dustin bought the materials for a 60-by-60-by-20-foot building. And in the summer of 2014, they expanded the space to include an 8,000-square-foot climate-controlled chicken house to raise 4,000 more birds – although it can hold up to 7,200. To maintain their work in the spring through the fall, they go to bed at 1am and get up no later than 5am every day.
“It’s just the lifestyle,” Dustin says of the long hours. As the main coffee-drinker in his family, he says that if he still has a cup of coffee glued to his hand after noon, he asks his family take it away from him.
The Hy-Line Brown and Bovans Brown chickens raised on the farm are open range as opposed to free range. The birds are allowed to explore the whole 1,200-acre property. Andrew jokes: “Why does the chicken cross the road? Because it goes wherever it wants.”
Dustin explains that chicken labeling allows for lots of gray areas. The Department of Agriculture suggests free range means the birds are allowed access to the outside. But, he says free range can mean birds are free to roam really tight outdoor cage quarters. The Stantons advise that the only way you can really know the chicken conditions is if you know your producers. Even if the brothers diversify and grow their operations as they plan, their chickens will still have freedom to roam where they please.
Austin is particularly excited about expanding into the potato business. Instead of buying himself a truck he’s had his eye on – a common dream for any teenager – he spent all of his earnings on potato-farming equipment. The idea started when Dustin began studying the financial production of potatoes for an agricultural-business class. Inspired, Austin delved into research of his own, and the future project is now his baby. Austin would also like to move into the “pop milo” market – which is a lot like popcorn, only the feed is smaller, sweeter and doesn’t get stuck in one’s teeth.
“It’s good for little kids,” he says.
In addition to potatoes, pop milo, ice cream and eggs, the brothers hope to begin selling chicken meat in 2015.
“As long as they stick together, they can grow the business up,” their father says with pride.
No one at the farmers’ market asks why the Stantons’ eggs are brown and speckled as opposed to lily white. It means they aren’t bleached like mass-produced eggs. And in fact, Dustin says it’s the earlobe that determines the brown shade of the egg: Chickens with red earlobes commonly lay brown eggs, and chickens with white earlobes commonly lay white eggs.
Customers also no longer ask how many roosters they have (because, of course, roosters don’t lay eggs). Dustin thinks this is because they’ve helped educate their regulars – and there are a lot of them. In fact, on several recent trips to Staples to buy office supplies, the brothers have been recognized as “the egg guys.”
One of their regulars, a man with a wife and toddler, comes up to the booth to buy eggs. Dustin says he’s seen customers go through college, get married and have kids – there are a few regulars like that.
“I do enjoy that,” Dustin says. “They’ve seen us grow up, and we’ve seen them.”
Stanton Brothers Eggs, 573.682.2842
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