TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Growing up on a dairy farm that transitioned to organic production in 2006, Spencer Mallet wanted to pursue a venture of his own — organic eggs.
“I was born and raised in ag life, dairy life and thought I’d diversify and get into chickens,” he said.
He could have continued his studies in sustainable food and farming at the University of Massachusetts but was ready for the real-world trials and errors of raising chicks.
“I learned leaps and bounds out on the farm,” he said.
He had planned to raise his own chicks from eggs, but realized it was more work, requiring more equipment and costs than he anticipated. Instead he ordered them from a hatchery in Oregon.
This year, he expanded the operation from 1,200 hens to 3,000 — with a lot of learning curves along the way. The additional 1- to 2-day-old chicks to triple his operation were flown in Thanksgiving week, and he raised them over the winter in a 10,000-square-foot barn.
It takes 5 months for the chicks to reach laying age, and production drops off after two or three years, he said.
“Then you’re just keeping them for fun,” he said.
When production tails off, the hens are butchered and new chicks are brought in. He hasn’t butchered many hens yet in his young operation, and is trying to firm up buyers — maybe dog food manufacturers since the meat will be older and tougher than chicken sold at retail.
Hens lay an egg about every 30 hours, about five a week per hen. His flock can produce 10,000 to 15,000 eggs a week, but production has slowed with the high temperatures experienced this summer. He’s currently delivering 6,000 to 7,000 eggs per week to customers.
“I’m still trying to build up the market and customers,” he said. He currently sells to retailers and restaurants in the Wood River Valley, including the Sun Valley Resort. He’s also talking with grocery chains and potential buyers in Boise.
USDA allows eggs to be held four to six weeks before they’re sold, and they can be on shelves two to three weeks, he said.
“The quality of eggs I have could last three to four months, but I try to keep it under four weeks,” he said.
He gives any excess production to friends, family, churches or other organizations. In the future, he’d like to work with soup kitchens, food pantries and other charitable organizations.
Harmony Hens, like the family’s Harmony Organic Dairy, is certified annually.
“We get a pretty lengthy inspection. Sometimes it can last multiple days for the chickens and dairy,” he said.
Everything has to be certified organic, including bedding and feed. The hens have to be on organic pasture more than half a year. Housing has to be large enough, antibiotics can’t be used and the chickens and feed can’t be exposed to pesticides or fertilizer — and there’s plenty of recordkeeping, he said.
The hens are rotated to new pasture every day, with access to 8 acres at a time — although they typically like to stay close to their mobile coops. The pasture has a variety of 20 to 30 plants and an array of tasty bugs.
“That’s their happy treat — when they move to new pasture. It’s a salad bar every day,” he said.
In addition to handling Harmony Hens’ chickens, eggs, financials and marketing, Mallett is also involved on the dairy side, managing the majority of office work and bookkeeping.
There are always challenges, and this year’s drought was one of them. But there are also rewards, he said.
“Probably the best thing is just being able to wake up and participate in the agrarian process. I just like having this connection to food,” he said.