Aaron Brand’s farm in Empire Township goes back four generations, but his new, completely-automated henhouse is 21st century.
Built in September, the 3,600 square foot barn cost as much as a small house, Brand said, but has greatly improved the hens’ health and overall efficiency.
“The bird health is increasingly better up here and I cannot push that enough,” Brand said.
The new facility allows him to keep more birds than before, which means more eggs. This year, Brand started selling fresh eggs to Hy-Vee stores in Lakeville and Eagan, in addition to stocking them at eight local farmers markets and contracting with a wholesale company that provides eggs to restaurants.
Brand, 32, farms with his father, John, on 200 acres of land divided into two parcels. He grew up on the farm, and his father still milks Holsteins, in addition to producing beef cattle.
Brand said he always knew he wanted to farm. He attended a two-year agribusiness program in Mankato after graduating from Rosemount High School.
“I enjoy it and I grew up doing it,” Brand said. “I definitely could never see myself sitting in an office all day.”
When he returned to the family farm in 2005, though, it was clear that things were changing in Empire Township, which sits on the edge of Farmington. Houses had sprouted up around the family’s acreage, making expansion of the dairy farm unrealistic, Brand said.
That’s when he realized he needed to diversify, he said, and get into selling apples and eggs. In 2007, he set out with 300 chickens in a structure built by a friend. He placed a sign at the end of the road advertising fresh eggs, and his business took off. He later converted an old greenhouse into a barn and added 800 more birds — a commercial breed of Rhode Island Reds — to his flock.
But the chickens weren’t as healthy as they could be, and the labor was grueling. Last year, he decided to build the new henhouse, breaking ground in May and finishing by September. The food, water, heating, ventilation and nest boxes are controlled automatically now.
Several weeks ago, the new chickens arrived. They’re about 19 weeks old, and just figuring out how the new barn works, he said.
The chickens initially had trouble locating the food and water, he said. They want to lay their eggs on the ground rather than hopping up into the nesting boxes.
“They’re in massive training right now,” Brand said.
At full production, Brand’s 2,500 hens will produce a total of 2,400 light-brown eggs a day. Egg production will no longer decline in winter, since light and temperature are controlled. When it’s warmer outside, the chickens will have outdoor access. When they’re corralled inside, they have occasional access to hay bales, since greens in their diets keep their egg yolks a deep orange-yellow.
“A lot of my customer base at the farmers markets like to see the birds go outside,” Brand said.
Some parts of the business aren’t so technological, like washing, grading, sizing and packaging the eggs. Those tasks are done manually, with Brand’s retired grandparents, Jim and Elaine Erb, lending a hand.
“It keeps us busy,” said Elaine Erb, who also staffs and prepares for the farmers markets. “We just want to help him so he does good.”
Elaine Erb said the old henhouses were akin to unheated garages, and working in them was unpleasant.
“This is a godsend,” she said of the new structure. “Everything’s so much cleaner — it’s just a better operation.”
The farm has other revenue streams, including growing Honeycrisp, SweeTango and Haralson apples and using them to make apple chips, apple cider and apple-flavored doughnuts. Pumpkins, pears, peaches and cherries also ripen in Brand’s fields, and he bottles honey for sale, too.
Brand said the “buy local” movement has greatly boosted sales. “I would not be where I’m at if not for that push for locally grown,” Brand said.
Customer Michele Cress said a neighbor recommended Brand Farms, and she loves the eggs.
“You can definitely taste a difference between fresh farm eggs and store bought eggs,” Cress said.