I Work With Animals: My Life as an Egg Farmer
Hidden behind everything from garden apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., to charming bungalows in Portland, Ore., urban chicken coops abound.
Even celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Martha Stewart enjoy fresh eggs plucked from their own backyards.
Few people fly the coop (so to speak) and leave a former life behind to become a full-fledged chicken farmer, but that’s exactly what Souriya Khamvongsa — along with his wife, Sophin, and son, Phoenix — is well on his way to doing with his venture, Phoenix’s Egg Farm.
The now professional Oregon farmer talks to Vetstreet about what it's like to harbor a passion for chicken farming. Last one to read on is a rotten egg!
Q. What is your background? Does farming run in your blood?
A. Khamvongsa: "My father had 1,000 ducks in Thailand; his grandfather had 1,000 ducks, too. I think there was always a farming gene somewhere inside of me.
"I started college on a science track, but I graduated with a double major in business marketing and finance, which has [turned out to be] very useful because a farmer needs to be good at sales and marketing — on top of being able to farm.
"When I told my dad that I wanted to have a chicken farm, he said, 'Are you sure you want to do that? It’s not easy work.' He was right."
Q. What was your life like before you started this venture?
A. "Six years ago, we moved from Portland to the country because I wanted a quieter life. I also wanted to make the move to start farming, but I didn’t think it would be on a scale where we would make a business out of it. I thought we’d just have produce for friends and family.
"Professionally, I was (and still am) an environmental health specialist, which means that I’m an expert on food safety and environmental sanitation, so I was already intimate with all of the rules and regulations of farming.
"Once I got some chickens, it quickly became addictive. I started out with three, and that grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50 and then 100 chickens by the end of a year. We began selling to our neighbors, and once we advertised, we had a steady stream of customers. In fact, it quickly got to the point where I had to make reservations with customers a week beforehand in order to supply them with eggs!"
"At that point, we got into the coops, smaller shops and, as our chickens started to lay more eggs, bigger stores like Whole Foods. We’re now in about 25 stores — and it’s keeping us busier than ever."
Q. Did Phoenix’s Egg Farm thrive from the get-go?
A. "For the first two years, we were losing money every single month just keeping it going. We’re on a 17-acre parcel, and there’s enough land to do farming for myself but not enough to grow to the level I envision. So we leased some more acreage this year, and the chickens are now using roughly five to 10 acres.
"At that farm, there is always the option to expand more, but retail stores often don’t understand the costs of small farming, so they get upset if they don’t get your product exactly when they want it. There are going to be times when the chickens aren’t able to produce to meet the demand. The most frustrating part is that you'll have a market for the eggs, but you have to wait five months until your new chickens start laying eggs.
"We have green egg layers, hybrid egg layers, traditional heritage-bred chickens and we’re also experimenting with birds like ducks to see how they'll fair in the Oregon climate. You have to make sure that you’re as optimal as possible to stay in business. And, of course, you always need new baby chickens to replace the old ones."
Q. What is an average day like?
A. "You wake up at 6 a.m., and you’re out by 8 a.m. delivering eggs. Then you come back to do safety checks, make sure that all the equipment is in operation and fill the feeders. These chickens eat six tons of feed a month — that’s 12,000 pounds!
"The chickens have 24-hour access outside, with roosts inside a big tent. If you can imagine camping your whole life in a tent, that’s essentially what these chickens are doing. We do pasture rotation [or moving their tent to a different field] every two weeks to a month, depending on the weather, how fast they’re eating and their stage of growth. There’s at least 80 hours of labor a week, so I have one full-time employee and two part-time helpers. I just can’t do it all myself!"
Q. Is there a trick to collecting eggs?
A. "Yes! The trick is slow and easy. How you collect the eggs is critically important — and so is having clean nest boxes. You have chickens who are going to crowd into one box and ignore some of the others, so even the weight of the chickens on those eggs can crack them."
Q. What does your son think of all this?
A. "Phoenix loves his roosters and chickens. He’s an early bird and wakes up at 5 a.m.; he thinks the roosters are alarm clocks. I let him pick the chickens he wants to keep closer to the house as his favorites. He nicknamed them White Roo-Boy and Red Roo-Boy. He loves it!"
Q. Fess up — do your eggs truly taste better?
A. "Farm fresh eggs do taste different. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in business. And I still haven’t gotten tired of eating eggs yet."
For more tales of what it's like to work with animals, check out these other Vetstreet-exclusive stories.