Teaming Up with Family and Producing the Yellowest-Yolks in the West
There is no better place in California to be an egg-laying chicken than the green pastures of Burroughs Family Farms.Heriberto, Benina, and little Mariana Montes are raising a pasture full of certified-organic, grass-eating, bug-hunting, sunshine-loving laying hens along with a smattering of roosters and 850 acres of almonds, all organic or in transition.
Heriberto handles the day-to-day work with the birds and Benina manages the administrative and design work involved in keeping the business going. Mariana, nearly two-years-old, takes care of keeping them both busy.
The farm’s name points to the long line of agriculturalists in Benina’s family. Theirs is a farming story that begins in the Midwest over 100 years ago with Great-Grandpa Benjamin Burroughs, who was a dairyman in Illinois. Several generations and locations later, Benina’s father Ward Burroughs (who you may have seen with wife Rosie on Organic Valley milk cartons) brought the family dairy business to the rolling hills on the eastern edge of the Central Valley.
Benina had always hoped to come back to the farm after graduating from college. Her three siblings and their spouses are all carrying on the family tradition in one way or another. It was the farm that brought Benina and Heriberto together; they met after he had been working for Full Circle Dairy and were married in May of 2009.
In 2010, the Montes’s took over the egg business from Benina’s sister Christina and her husband, Brian, who run Full Circle Dairy, a grass-based dairy on the family’s home place.There are benefits to sharing resources with family members who share the same values. Heriberto and Benina rent pastureland from Full Circle Dairy for their chickens which provides lush green grass all year long and a diverse variety of plant species.
“Our family is into organic. Because we already have the cows on the pasture, we understand the importance of grass-based products,” Benina said. She continued, “[Grass-fed] is my preference for eating—now more than ever with the kids. You need to give them the best possible start that they can get and this is it.”
The Montes’s are expecting another little chick in their family flock next spring, and having children sealed the deal for the values-based decisions Heriberto and Benina had already begun to make in their businesses, both with the almonds and the chickens. Though options have to be economically feasible, the decision making process hinges on more than just finances.
Collecting eggs is a twice, or three times daily chore.“You have to ask yourself, do you want [the family members who working with you] exposed to chemical sprays? No. Well do you want the employees exposed? No. Ok. Well then, can we figure this out? How can we make it work [organically]?” Benina said of their rational.
Caring for animals is an every day job all year round. Checking water and feed, and collecting eggs happens twice daily; moving the eggmobiles to a patch of new ground happens either every day or every other.New pullets have to be trained to go indoors at night, which means a week or so of corralling and carrying them one at a time at dusk into the up-cycled cotton trailers that have been converted into mobile, barn-red havens of safety.
Blanca, Santa, and Margie, three Great-Pyrenees-Anatolian-cross guardian dogs, patrol the grounds to keep coyotes, raccoons, and other hungry wildlife at bay. Heriberto’s sister, niece, and nephew help wash, pack, and collect eggs.
The chickens get about 30 percent of their feed from foraging in the grass and the rest is a mixture of layer pellet ration, and periodically some scratch, and oyster shell.The chickens have a diet of grass, bugs, layer ration and scratch“In and ideal world we’d love to have corn free and soy free, but the economics have to come into play for us, and economically at this point, we’re not able to do that,” Benina said about the chickens’ diet.
In the past two years, the Montes’s have been taking steps up as the economic viability of the business balances out with their high standards.“We’ve been trying to develop economies of scale. We used to hand wash everything, then we got a small egg washer, and then we got a pretty good sized egg washer that has cut down our time washing. We upgraded to a walk-in refrigerator and that’s just been nice. It’s figuring out what we need, how we get there, and finding the money to be able to do it,” Benina said.
The changes in packaging over time reflect the changes that took place in the field and infrastructure of the family business. Heriberto and Benina have grown the flock from about 350 to 2600 birds over a two year period and are now selling into markets across California in addition to supplying AHO subscribers with yellow-yolked eggs. “The consumers of Abundant Harvest Organics should have been able to see our full progression, and that’s been really fun, “Benina said.