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Free-range chickens to flock together in Farmington

Brand Farms owner/operator Aaron Brand recently built a state-of-the-art chicken barn that will be home to around 3,000 birds. The barn has improved bird health and efficiency, allowing him to expand the egg business to wholesale suppliers. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Kim Ukura)1 / 2
Brand Farms chicken barn is fully automated, and eggs are collected using a conveyor belt under the nests. With the new system, one person can prepare more than 70 dozen eggs each day. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Kim Ukura)2 / 2

Community members who care about how their food is raised and produced don't have to look much further than Brand Farms, a producer of eggs, apples, milk and beef located right in Farmington's backyard.

Over the last decade, the story for family-owned Brand Farms, located on on Biscayne Avenue in Empire Township, has been diversification.

After owner/operation Aaron Brand graduated from college in 2005, he decided to add to the farm's flock of 50 chickens, selling farm fresh eggs directly from the farm site and adding another revenue stream to the farm's dairy operations.

Last fall, Brand took a major step forward with his egg business, adding a state-of-the art barn to consolidate the 1,300 chickens, improve efficiency, and increase production so he could expand into wholesale egg sales.

The new chicken barn, on top of a hill behind the main dairy barns, is completely automated. The chickens are given food and water automatically. Sensors monitor the temperature and humidity to create a consistent environment for the birds. A timing system turns the lights on and off each day, giving the chickens a stable sense of day and night.

When the weather improves — and proper fencing is put in place — the barn will be open during the day, allowing the flock to range around the farm site.

Eggs are laid in nests that can be closed at night, helping the eggs stay cleaner before they're collected. The nests sit on a conveyor belt that can be turned on each day, bringing the eggs out of the barn and into a workroom where they can be sorted, washed, and packaged before they leave the farm.

These new features mean that Brand can run the entire egg operation by himself, collecting an average of 70 dozen eggs in a single day. The barn is built for 3,000 birds. Brand hopes to have 2,500 by the end of March.

"With my difficulty in finding hired help, it was a no-brainer to expand to something that requires less labor and is easier for me to do," said Brand.

In addition to efficiency, Brand said the new barn has increased the overall health of his flock. Poor ventilation in the older barns meant he lost a lot of birds, and because he doesn't use antibiotics, there was no effective way to treat sick birds.

"Up in the new barn, I haven't had any issues — the birds are as healthy as they could be," said Brand.

The investment for the farm has been significant. Brand said this is the first time he's gone into debt with the chicken operations, but he believes it has been "very well worth it, because of bird health and the time savings."

The new barn will also allow Brand to continue to expand his operation, adding wholesale supply and distribution to restaurants and grocery stores.

Because the new barn has automated temperature and lights, it helps eliminate some of the seasonal changes to the chickens' laying patterns, helping them produce eggs more consistently, Brand said.

"When I was in my old barns, there were times I didn't have any eggs or was sold out," said Brand. "Now that the barn up there is heated, it's a non-issue because production has not changed since I put the birds up there in September."

Brand Farms has been owned and operated by members of the Brand family for four generations. Although Aaron and his father, John, manage most of the current operations, his grandfather, Richard, still has a presence at the farm.

In addition to the egg business, Brand Farms also operates an apple orchard and produces milk and beef with dairy cows and cattle.

Brand Farms' location in Farmington has been an advantage in growing the business. Brand said members of the community have been loyal customers for years, and the push for locally-grown foods has helped the farm stay relevant.

"Customers really want to know where their food is grown and how it's raised — that has been a huge push over the last few years," Brand said. "Farmington is such a growing population, that's why a lot of the interest is so high. A lot of people are new to the area, they're looking for something locally grown — my location is pristine for that."

Residents interested in purchasing eggs from Brand Farms can do so from a self-serve refrigerator in the office at the farm, from several local grocery stores, or at farmer's markets throughout the Twin Cities area. For more information visit www.brandfarmsmn.com or find the farm on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BrandFarmsMN.

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