Couple hatches plan to expand free-range egg production
By ANNA WILLARD
BONANZA, Ore. -- After eight years of being in the free-range egg business, Jon and Lauren Hobbs have made significant progress on their operation.
Located outside Bonanza in North Poe Valley, "Poe"tential Farm started with approximately 200 hens and had the couple up until the wee hours of the morning washing eggs by hand in their kitchen sink. Now, they have an egg washer, a walk-in cooler and enough customers to take about 500 dozen eggs a week.
When they moved to the Klamath Basin from Sacramento in 1999, the couple knew they needed to do something with the property.
Lauren Hobbs started out selling their eggs at the Klamath Falls farmers' market in 2002, when she was approached by the owner of Nightfire Natural Foods. The store was getting ready to open and needed an egg supplier. This prompted "Poe"tential Farm to go through Oregon Department of Agriculture certification in 2005.
It's unusual for producers to take the extra step to get certified to sell in stores, said Dalton Hobbs, Oregon Department of Agriculture assistant director. He is not related to the couple.
"We haven't seen too many people moving up the ladder to get certified," he said. "You see where people have fresh eggs on the side of the road and you put a dollar in the can to farmers' markets."
Selling in farmers' markets and other direct-marketing methods seem to be the most common among producers, said Terrell Spencer, sustainable poultry specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. While producers can get a higher price through direct marketing, Spencer said that having customers, like a store, is more convenient because they provide storage and sell the product.
Jon and Lauren Hobbs sell their eggs in stores and restaurants in both Klamath and Jackson counties. They are looking at increasing the number of customers they supply either in the Rogue Valley, Central Oregon or Northern California.
USDA's definition of free range is "that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."
"These operations range from my neighbor with two chickens to some with sizable flocks," said ODA's Dalton Hobbs.
In the summer the hens are on pasture, but winters in Klamath County are cold, so the hens are housed indoors during the winter. This production method allows them to produce eggs year round.
"We've doubled this year; we were at 1,000 (hens). Now we're trying to maintain 2,000 layers," Jon Hobbs said.
Most large-scale egg producers are also mechanized to enhance efficiency and lower the cost of production, Dalton Hobbs said.
While "Poe"tential Farm is not considered a large operation, it has gone to some automation for things like water and feed.
"We're thinking now we can automate until the cows come home, but where does automation make sense and where does simplification make sense," Jon Hobbs said. "We have kind of a weird system where we bring them inside in the winter, so in some ways automation doesn't make sense."