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Stanton Family Judy, Andrew, Austin and Dustin Stanton of Stanton Brothers in Centralia, Mo.

By Joann Pipkin

Stanton Brothers focus on building rapport with customers.

Tucked in the shadows northeast of the college town, few combines roll on this autumn day. It’s been a year full of hurdles with rain hampering fieldwork at what always seemed like an inopportune time. Today is no different with sun only peering through the dark clouds.

As we venture off the four-lane, the charm of the countryside returns. Autumn’s palette paints the sky as generations till the soil and reap harvest’s bounty. Some traditions become distant, making room for the next generation and agriculture all its own.

Barely a stone’s throw off the narrow rural road west of Centralia, Andrew and Judy Stanton, along with sons Dustin and Austin, live out the legacy set forth by Andrew’s father and grandfather on family land dating to pre-Civil War times. While much of the Missouri’s heritage is rooted in corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, the Stanton’s bring a new dimension to farming today. Touted as the largest free range poultry operation in the nation, Stanton Brothers poultry business has truly cornered the market on farm-to-table agriculture.

Laying the Groundwork

Born in the 1850s, Andrew Stanton’s grandfather walked Civil War battles on land the family now farms. Andrew’s dad was born in 1912 and his dream was for his only child to carry on the family farm and someday pass it to his own children.

But, it hasn’t been easy for that dream to come to reality. “Margins in farming were tough back in the 1990s,” Andrew recalls. “When the boys started the chicken operation, I never thought it would take off like it has. We farm about 2,000 acres and this is a way for them to stay on the farm.”

With the help of a small, beginning farmer loan through FCS Financial, Dustin was able to purchase land adjacent to the family’s existing operation. Diversifying the farm to include the poultry operation has become a way for the family to farm together.

Stanton Farms, operated by Andrew, includes milo and soybean production as well as a 100-head cow/calf operation and a few hogs. Stanton Brothers, a partnership owned by Dustin and Austin, includes an egg business as well as growing milo for poultry feed and potatoes, which are sold primarily through farmer’s markets. Andrew and Judy help in their sons poultry business through a labor exchange arrangement.

Some 13,000-hybrid chickens roam the Boone County spread while another 7,200 are kept inside an automated poultry barn complete with feed, water and temperature control.

eggs moving on conveyor beltCageless, those housed birds are still considered free range. Eggs are laid in a central nest before being carried by conveyor belt to an adjacent room where they are washed, sorted, graded and packaged for shipping.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Dustin Stanton recalls a 4-H incubation project as being the spark that ignited the fire under Stanton Brothers’ poultry business.

Devastated that he wasn’t the youngster to receive those baby chicks from the project, Dustin’s uncle bought the boy his first chickens. “They were a Cornish-cross, meat chicken, though,” he recalls. “By that fall, the chickens were too big and they mysteriously disappeared.”

After that, Andrew and Judy replaced the meat chickens with layers. And, rather than give their sons money for an allowance, the youngsters sold eggs as a way to earn cash.

“We would raise the chickens, gather and wash the eggs and sell them to people in our church, neighbors and family friends,” Dustin says. “The business literally started as an allowance. We would save $1 at a time, turn it in to mom and dad for one $20 bill. And, we thought that was pretty cool.”

Fast-forward to 2007. As a freshman in high school, Dustin joined the Centralia FFA Chapter. He and younger brother Austin developed the poultry operation into a partnership that would become Dustin’s Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) project. He purchased 500 layers and then went to the Columbia Farmer’s Market to sell the eggs.

“The first week was absolutely terrible,” Dustin remembers. “We paid for a full year’s membership and it just rained on us. We sold a half dozen. The following week, we doubled and sold a full dozen.”

Thinking about quitting the farmer’s market scene, by the fourth week the brother’s sold 40 dozen.

From that meager beginning, Stanton Brothers’ egg business has evolved through networking opportunities like the farmer’s market. “It helps us meet the grocery store manager, the restaurant owner, the consumer,” Dustin says. “We meet people there that help us get our foot in the door at nursing homes and grocery stores.”

Stanton Btothers egg cartonsToday, Stanton Brothers supplies eggs to more than 40 outlets weekly, most of which are in mid-Missouri. Included in the lengthy list are grocery powerhouses HyVee and Schnucks as well as the dining halls at Columbia College and University of Missouri. A host of downtown Columbia restaurants and the Isle of Capri Farmers Pick Buffet also feature Stanton Brothers’ eggs.

Dustin’s entrepreneurial endeavors earned him National FFA’s 2014 American Star in Agribusiness Award.

Cornering the Market

“We have a lot of customers and neighbors who bring their family members here to take pictures,” Andrew explains. “They cannot believe the chickens run on the road. It’s a marketing tool, though.”

And, marketing is the name of the game in today’s agriculture.

While word of mouth serves as the biggest return on investment for Stanton Brothers, Dustin says networking and building a rapport with their customers is what pays in the long run.

“We don’t operate on contracts,” Dustin notes. “You gain a ton of rapport in business by not having a contract. If you do business with a handshake and look your customer in the eye, that means so much more than having something written on paper.”

The young entrepreneur admits, though, that philosophy might be different if they just had one customer. However, he realizes there is selling power in having a branded product. “If one store doesn’t want us, tomorrow we could have our eggs in the next store down the road.”

Treating all customers the same has also proved to be a key marketing strategy. When production is low, eggs are rationed to each store rather than stopping supplies to a particular outlet altogether.

“That way every customer is treated fairly,” Dustin says. “If you have shelf space in an outlet, you don’t want to lose that.”

feeding chickensShrewd businessmen, Dustin and Austin have the operation divided into three divisions. The production component includes egg and milo production while the processing entity focuses on the washing, grading, sorting and packaging of the eggs. Distribution features the sales and marketing as well as transportation of the eggs to each outlet.

“We like to control the operation inputs as much as possible,” Dustin says. Growing milo and soybeans help them control costs early on in the production cycle. “We try to control the margins along each stream of the business. You don’t have to market at a high price to have a good margin.”

Dustin admits they could have drastically raised their egg prices this year especially because of the avian flu outbreak. However, they chose to stay focused on margin and building long-time rapport with their customers.

“Customers want our eggs because of the flavor,” Andrew adds. “It’s about customer loyalty.”

Not Your Grandma’s Chicken

With 500-dozen eggs bound for daily distribution, picking eggs alone is a full-time job.

According to Dustin, the chickens need about 14 hours of light each day to produce and 70 degrees is ideal for laying. Production decreases when daylight is short.

The chickens found on the Stanton farm aren’t traditional Rhode Island Reds like grandma used to have. They are special chickens bred to be habitual with even temperament and good feed conversion. Hyline is one particular hybrid breed found at the Stantons.

When birds are purchased and brought to the farm, Andrew says they are unloaded in a building. The birds can run everywhere during the day, but when it starts to get dark, they flock back to their home base in the building. Designated nests are found throughout the farm, both inside and outside the buildings, and eggs are gathered daily.

While Dustin graduated in December 2014 from MU with a degree in agricultural business, Austin is in his first semester there. And, managing school with the farm business is often daunting.

Yet, each member of the family pitching in where needed helps the operation stay on track.

packaging eggs for saleAustin does much of the feeding while Dustin handles the book work and accounting. Andrew sorts and boxes the eggs with Judy taking care of deliveries. All pitch in to get the eggs picked, which can take a solid eight hours when the birds are at peak production. Three part-time workers also help out when needed.

Figuring the ins and outs of the egg business has been nothing more than trial and error, Dustin says. “You buy the wrong chickens, they spend the night in the trees and you lose half your flock in one night,” he explains. “You learn not to buy that breed of chicken again.”

Trial and error has even helped the brothers determine marketing strategies when making sales calls. “You learn what works, how to read people,” Dustin says.

That management method is helping the young farmers get a grasp on their first attempt at potato production, too.

Austin’s senior trip sent the family to Idaho to purchase a potato harvester he had located online after helping brother Dustin with a college project. Growing potatoes intrigued Austin and the duo opted to give it a try this year.

Long story short, their equipment venture proved to be a learning experience as they returned home from their journey with a half-paid-for, less-than-operable machine. Its remnants remain in Idaho, awaiting a trip to the Show-Me-State. And, that left the Stantons to dig their two-acre potato patch by hand.

Though challenging, potato production is already on the docket for next year as Andrew says there is money to be made in growing the crop once they figure out the best way to harvest it.

Building a Network

“They know ag,” Dustin says simply of his relationship with FCS Financial. “That’s crucial for us. They have experience with what they do.”

The adjacent 180-acre farm Dustin purchased with assistance from FCS Financial’s small, beginning farmer loan he says will eventually help save their family farm. He’s certain the land, which sits at the end of their dead-end road, was destined to be a subdivision. If that had come to fruition, it could have had devastating results to their operation.

“Again, it’s building a rapport with people,” Dustin explains. “Dad had worked with FCS Financial for years. I never even looked for another lender.”

Andrew is quick to credit FCS Financial for their personal service and on-farm visits. “They can come out here and really get a feel for what’s going on. This is our bread and butter. (They) can see that.”

FCS Financial’s Phillip Durbin says, “Being able to visit the Stanton farm gives me a better grasp of their operation, too. I would have no idea what’s going on if they just brought me in their tax returns. As unique as the operation is, it’s very important to come out to the farm and see what’s going on.”

Staying active in the farm community is critical for building relationships, Dustin believes. The Stantons take part in Missouri Farm Bureau activities as well as their county cattlemen’s association and Young Farmers and Young Farm Wives. They also like to give back by working with community civic groups like Rotary Club and Kiwanis.

“Yes, we are young ag producers,” Dustin says. “We are in a unique situation. We have to consider the viewpoint of the farmer, the consumer, grocery store manager, the restaurant owner. It’s about trying to find the best way to get your product and message across.”

Nonetheless, both Austin and Dustin are determined to make their business a success. “We want the operation to be big enough to sustain our families,” Austin says.

“Agriculture is very generational,” Dustin concludes. “We hope to grow the business so it can sustain itself. We like being independent and making our own decisions. If you succeed it’s because of you. If you fail, it’s because of you, too.”
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