Klendas find niche marketing farm-fresh eggs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
During a good month, she can gather about 1,000 eggs a day from her laying chickens, who range freely on a 40-acre farm in rural Lincolnville.

Julie Klenda and husband Val own J&V Cackleberry Farm. Their open-range egg-producing enterprise is an additional source of income and pleasure for the couple, who wholesale fresh eggs to area grocery outlets and also sell to regular customers.

“It’s a good feeling,” Klenda said about supplying stores with her eggs. “I walk into the stores and hear, ‘Oh, the Egg Lady is here.'”

Klenda’s eggs can be purchased at Carlson’s grocery in Marion, Ampride stores in Marion and Hillsboro, Main Street Grocery in Hope, Barnes Food Center in Herington and Burdick Meat Market & Locker. She also sells her eggs to the Centre school district and Daylight Donut Shop in Hillsboro.

“I use them in my Jayhawk pies,” Kerry Magathan of Daylight said about the meat pies filled with sausage, egg and cheese.

“When I have time, between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., I’ll fix eggs by request for regular customers. I’ve even made pancakes and waffles with her eggs.”

The name cackleberry refers to a chicken’s egg.

“An egg’s been known as a cackleberry because sometimes a chicken will lay an egg, and the chicken will just cackle,” Klenda said.

Married 23 years, the Klendas have six children ranging in ages from 14 to 21. In addition to taking care of crops, swine and breeding cattle, Val works as a pen rider for a feedlot. Klenda is a full-time receptionist and works in accounts receivable for Cooperative Grain and Supply in Hillsboro.

In an era of large-scale egg production companies caging laying chickens, Klenda has held true to the ethics of small egg-producing operation procedures.

“It’s interesting to watch those big chicken houses,” she said. “The eggs come down the conveyer, and they have a machine that picks them up. But there’s not anything mechanical to ours.”

With two large chicken houses and another one for her baby chicks, also called pullets, Klenda has taken care of as many as 1,200 hens at a time during the past 13 years and currently takes care of that many.

“My chickens go in and out of the chicken house, and they get to roam the farm,” Klenda said. “They’re looking for insects and whatever nutrients they can find.”

In addition to free-ranging, the chickens are given water and feed twice a day.

“We grind our own feed,” Klenda said. “We get a multi-purpose concentrate and mix it with things like alfalfa, milo and some corn. I also feed them free-choice oyster shell that comes in a bag. They can have it whenever they want, too.”

After the couple were married, they kept a few chickens. But in 1990, they purchased about 500 chicks and obtained a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up their business.

“The reason I did that is because my mom was also in the same type of business,” Klenda said. “So I just went through her and did the same thing she did.”

The license is renewed every year for only $5. In accordance with standards set by the USDA, Klenda candles and weighs her eggs.

“I have to candle them,” she said. “It’s just a light bulb in an enclosed case that lets the light shine out in one spot. You hold the egg up to it and look-to see whether or not it’s cracked, bloody or something looks wrong inside.”

Klenda purchases plain styrofoam egg cartons in bulk. These containers get labeled with the company name and the size of eggs enclosed-small, medium or large.

“So I also have to weigh them,” Klenda said about grading her eggs under USDA restrictions.

“I probably sell some of my eggs as larges, even though they’re extra large, just because it would take me more time to get a carton of extra-large eggs.”

One chicken house is about 20 feet by 40 feet, and another is about 16 feet by 40 feet. They contain wooden boxes, typically placed three rows high by nine nests across.

A chicken’s life span isn’t long, and predators such as coyotes can take their toll. So Klenda purchases day-old pullets every year at 84 cents each. Her supplier is a company in Nebraska. Purchasing from 300 to 500 chicks at a time, she picks up the shipment of chicks mailed to the Lincolnville Post Office.

“When you hear the cheep, cheep, cheep, you know someone’s gotten chicks,” Klenda said, chuckling.

In the past, she has tried to get a breed of chickens called Leghorns. “But you can’t find Leghorns very often, because they’ve bred them differently. I think most of the Leghorns are called Hy-line now.”

Hens start laying at about four months old and continue laying throughout their life span. But after about 11/2 years, their productivity begins to decline.

Although the hens lay year round, the amount of egg-laying activity varies during the year.

“I don’t have any air conditioning, so when it’s hot, they’ll cut back,” Klenda said. “And when it’s too cold, like right now, they’ll cut back.”

At their peak, the Klenda hens will lay an egg a day.

“Mine usually lay real good for quite a time,” she said. “But then they take a break. I think it’s just the way their system is. They can’t go on forever. Then, they come back up but maybe not as heavy.”

Although breeds such as the Bantam chickens lay brown and sometimes a greenish egg, Klenda’s Hy-Line chickens lay white eggs.

“Every once and awhile, I’ll get one that’s a little off color,” she said.

Trying to be conscious of optimum productivity, Klenda has chosen to keep a light on in her chicken houses throughout the dark hours of the day.

“I guess, because there’s a light on, they’re up and eating,” Klenda said. “It seems that they produce more eggs with a light on.”

Arising before the sun comes up, at about 5: 30 a.m., Klenda makes sure her hens have fresh water and at least two buckets of feed every morning.

When Val gets home from work, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., he’ll gather eggs and replace the water as needed. Any time after 4 p.m., Klenda dumps out the water, replenishes it, brings in about eight to nine buckets of feed and gathers more eggs.

The eggs are gathered in a wire basket that holds from 12 to 15 dozen eggs at a time.

It’s not unusual for hens to lay in the same nest or for Klenda to be confronted by a feisty chicken on a communal nest.

If the hen starts pecking, Klenda grabs her by the head and moves her away from the nest, being careful to avoid the beak and not lose any eggs caught under the bird.

“They don’t peck that hard” Klenda said. “Most of the time, they won’t draw blood. It’s just something they do.”

Although she doesn’t need roosters, some come with the pullets she orders two or three times a year.

“I don’t have a problem with them,” Klenda said about the roosters. “The only reason I get rid of them is if they get too cocky and chase after the nieces and nephews.”

Klenda said she enjoys the egg business, but about once a month, she faces an unenviable job.

“There’s the nasty task of having to clean the chicken house,” Klenda said. “I scoop it out, and we spread it out on the fields with a manure spreader.”

At the area grocery stores carrying her eggs, Klenda receives the same wholesale price that the stores pay their warehouse suppliers-a market that fluctuates.

“You would think, with it being a farm -fresh egg, you’d get a premium,” she said. “But I get whatever they have to buy their eggs for.”

She also sells to regular customers and even friends and employees at CG&S-making sure to keep a fresh supply in the company refrigerator-charging somewhere between the current wholesale and retail price.

As far as she knows, Klenda is the only producer in Marion County selling farm fresh eggs to retail outlets.

“Ampride doesn’t get eggs from other suppliers,” she said. “They just sell my eggs.”

When regular customers come into the area stores that carry her eggs, they’ll look for her eggs, Klenda said.

“I’ve heard comments that the yolks stay together better,” she said comparing her eggs to warehouse eggs. “And my eggs are fresher.”

Klenda said she plans to continue her sideline business because it’s profitable right now. But that’s not the only reason she continues to get up at the break of day and muck out her chicken houses once a month.

“People have to have eggs, for cooking or whatever,” Klenda said. “And I’m part of the local food suppliers.”

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