Farmer's eggs draw loyal flock of buyers

Monday, October 4, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Marilyn Ison came up with the slogan: "Autumn Lane Farm. For The Egg Less Traveled ... Support Local Farmers."

She also writes the Autumn Lane Farm brochures and designs its labels. She's the sales department and delivery crew. And twice a day, she collects the eggs from her 940 hens.

So far, Autumn Lane Farm in Springfield is a one-woman business, but Ison wants to grow her farm to the point where it can employ her husband and son, too.

Ison recently moved closer to her goal when two Price Cutter stores started selling her eggs.

"It's a big deal," said Ison, who started in 2002 with 30 hens and no clients. "We're reaching a different audience."

Ison already has a following because her eggs are sold in several area stores and three Springfield restaurants.

"We have customers who won't buy another egg," said Kelly Norman, a manager at Mama Jean's Natural Market in Springfield.

Mama Jean's sells two brands of local eggs, Autumn Lane Farm and Bechard Family Farm, each of which inspires this type of loyalty, Norman added.

And she knows why.

"Our local eggs by far outflavor" eggs that are shipped in, Norman said.

But developing a market for her eggs has been as backbreaking as raising them.

Over the past two years, Ison has lost 60 pounds, partly because of the daily walks between her house and the chicken coops and partly because of the stress of starting her business.

She has made endless phone calls and grocery store visits. She has talked and convinced and impressed businesses into carrying her eggs. And she has given away a lot free samples.

Once people try them, she said, they'll know her eggs aren't like typical grocery store eggs. To prove her point, Ison cracks one in a bucket.

"Look at that yolk!" she says, pointing at the nearly orange bubble. "You know, you don't get that in a grocery store egg."

Ison initially bought chickens to meet her own family's needs because she didn't trust the way commercial eggs were produced.

At her farm, the hens live in airy chicken coops attached to fenced-in yards. They eat an antibiotic-free mix of corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa that Ison grinds, and, as they roam in the yards, they eat all the bugs and clover they want.

"Now look in there," she says, pointing into a coop full of hens. "That's a group of contented gals."

Ison wants to buy an automatic egg washer within the next year. She also hopes to get an automated feeding system and water lines laid to the chicken coops.

She would also like more land, so she can expand her brood to as many as 2,000.

Her son, Brian, would like to raise a breeding stock, so the farm doesn't have to buy its chicks every year.

And she would like to find a market for the hens who have reached the peak of their laying season. She has visions of Autumn Lane Farm chicken noodle soup, chicken broth and stewing hens.

The first step, however, is seeing how the Price Cutter sales do.

Already they seem promising. Each of the two stores had asked for one case -- 15 dozen -- per week. One doubled that order for the following week.

"A lot of people are going to look at this and think we're going to get rich," she said. "Oh, honey! It's not going to happen. You're not going to go into any aspect of farming and get rich."

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