Behind the Barn with Handsome Brook Farms’ Alvin Jantzi
Alvin Jantzi and wife Rachel in front on their farm in Kentucky
From fried eggs and bacon for breakfast to family dinners on the farm, we go behind-the-scenes for a day in the life of an organic, pasture-raised egg farmer
Behind the Barn is our new series in which we’ll take some time to delve into the daily lives of our favorite farmers. From how they got started, to what they eat for breakfast (eggs are usually involved...) to the intricacies of the relationship between hen and human — we’ll take a peek behind the curtain into what it actually means to be a hen farmer. Today, we’re joined by one of our earliest partners, Alvin Jantzi in Kentucky.
How did you originally get into farming? (What is your background, how did you wind up here)?
I grew up on a farm, and that’s where it started. My dad was a dairy farmer in Ontario, CA. When I turned 16, I worked in a factory, a stove shop, and then a furniture shop until marriage — but I always wanted to get back on the farm. I think my dad was wise to put me in a shop for a while to get me to come back to the farm. It made me miss what I had.
How did you first hear about HBF and what drew you to the network model?
When we moved to Virginia, I heard about what HBF was doing because they had a meeting with some farmers in the community. I actually missed that first meeting but reached out to the company afterward because I was intrigued and liked the idea. I was already growing organic produce, and I knew that was the right direction for food production. I figured, if that was where produce was going, eggs would be going that way too. So, I built a 5k bird operation in VA, and it was a really good experience. When we moved to Kentucky, we wanted to stick with HBF. We ended up building a barn that was twice the size, and now I’m about to start on my third flock in Kentucky.
Tell us about family life on the farm
I've got 5 boys and a daughter. The oldest is married and in PA. My wife and I take care of the birds during the day. My daughter is the youngest, and she is in school. The other boys have a business building fences that I am a partner in. That keeps them busy during the week, so they help out on the farm on the weekends, and I probably help them out 1-2 days a week. On Sunday, we have church so we have to scramble to get the eggs, we all kind of chip in to get it all done between the busy social schedule. Sunday we start an hour earlier than normal and do a quick family collection and then after lunch we do a whole run later in the day. I can pretty much run it all myself during the week but I appreciate the help on the weekend.
What's the first thing you do when you wake up every morning?
I have my coffee!
What do you eat for breakfast (and when do you eat it)?
Eggs, of course! It's a fairly basic staple for us. Fried eggs with bacon or sausage usually. My wife is a fantastic cook. Sometimes we’ll have biscuits and gravy. My boys are usually up and out at 4:30/5am, and so I eat with my wife and daughter most mornings.
Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes insight into your daily interactions with the hens?
I have a very consistent schedule with them. Feeding and lighting is all automated — the lights come on at 5am and the feeder goes on at 5:30am. Then everyone is up. I come out a little before 7am, and I walk through the barn. I'll walk each side of the barn, collect floor eggs, and check on the hens after the night.
I can always sense the mood of the flock as soon as I step in the barn. Even in the pasture, I can sense the mood. I can tell instantly if there has been any kind of disturbance. But if anything happens, say they spot a hawk, they will be clustered by the trees or around the barn. Around 8/8:30am I start the belt and take the eggs off. I finish around 11am. I sweep up, log everything and then, after lunch, I do something else until 5pm. Then, when I know all the eggs are laid, I’ll do a last collection which takes about 30 minutes and do a final egg count. If the hens are out, which they might be until 9:30/10pm, I will wait until dark to walk around the barn and close all the doors (because by dark, they are all already in the house).
What is your standard midday meal?
Our family meal is actually usually in the evening. The boys are up and out early. My daughter will eat with us and then bike to school unless it's raining, in which case I’ll drive her. Lunch is quick. Supper is the main meal of the day — that is when the family is all home. The boys are hungry, and maybe we fire up the grill.
What is your favorite part about working on the farm? Least favorite part?
Best: I enjoy taking the eggs off the belt. It takes me 2-2.5 hrs and I do it by hand. I'm usually looking at 9k or so eggs. And I really enjoy it. It's easy, it's quiet. 20 years ago it would have been boring but at this age...
Worst: I don't know, there are always times. If a hen dies, for example — that I don't like. Or picking up eggs off the floor. But there isn't much. I really do enjoy it.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about your industry?
The birds love going outside. When I open the doors, they come flooding out, they really love being out in the grass, and I love watching them in the pasture. They are running and picking at bugs. They love it, and I love watching them.