When Alex and Andrew Verlanic started Farmer Boy Eggs in 2016 at their family’s ranch in Drummond, they started with just 600 hens. Today they have 3,000 hens and are on track to double that in the months ahead, increasing tenfold from where they started just three years ago.
Producing nearly 2,800 eggs per day at their facility off Montana Highway 1 near the town of Hall, Farmer Boy distributes throughout western Montana —Drummond, Anaconda, Deer Lodge, Helena, Missoula and Butte.
The company produces eggs from cage-free free-range hens, something they take pride in because they believe it produces better tasting eggs.
But when the brothers started out, they weren’t sure how they eggs would be received or how difficult it would be to sell them to retailers.
But to their surprise, they found that both stores and customers readily embraced the locally grown eggs, even though they cost a bit more than the big name brands.
Home for the two brothers is Verlanic Ranch, where the family raises Black Angus cattle.
“Our father and grandfather ranched here and we grew up on the ranch,” said Alex.
After graduating high school, Alex went on to get a degree in accounting from the University of Montana, while Andrew and their other brother Connor attended Montana State University, where they studied agriculture and business. All three played football for the universities.
The Verlanic children, however, didn’t stay away for long. All three returned to the region to resume their ranching lifestyle and contribute to the family business. Connor, who ranches in Deer Lodge, also helps at Farmer Boy Eggs.
Andrew, the family said, was the one who pioneered the concept of getting into the egg business, which none of the Verlanics had done before.
Andrew told The Montana Standard last week that he got the idea for starting the business after touring a similar facility in Bozeman.
The owner Lee VanDyke of Manhattan, Andrew said, was supportive of him and his brother getting into the industry. VanDyke and other egg producers in Montana took the brothers under their wings, so to speak, showing them the ropes of the complex business.
A visit to Farmer Boy last week showed a facility that’s on the cusp of a new step forward.
The two brothers are in the midst of a facility upgrade with the addition of more space for their operations and new machinery made by a German company that will allow them to wash, sort and inspect their eggs more rapidly.
On Tuesday, they hosted a tour of their facility, leading the way to a barn where they’re currently raising 3,000 young birds, which will eventually put them over the new benchmark of 6,000 hens.
“We got these as day-old chicks and we raise them all the way up until they start laying,” said Alex, explaining that he and Andrew previously purchased mature birds but decided instead to raise their own so as to have more control over the process.
The end goal is to produce the best eggs possible.
“These are the babies,” he continued. “They have free food, free water. They’re able to roam around. They’re on a lighting system. They get 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.”
Alex said the beginning of the Farmer Boy Eggs was anything but a romantic origin story.
“In all honesty, (we couldn’t) tell you there was a master plan where we saw there was an opportunity, or we wanted to diversify revenues or something like that,” said Alex, adding that the truth of the matter is he and Andrew just wanted to try something different. “We grew up in agriculture and providing food for people and so this was just another way to do that.”
But mom Cari said diversifying was nonetheless an important driver.
“In agriculture today, diversity is a big piece of it,” she said.
The buy-local movement too, Cari said, has been another big driver for Farmer Boy Eggs, especially in Montana where buying local isn’t just a buzz word, it’s also a matter of state pride.
“(Consumers) do want to know where their food comes from,” said Cari. “I know they appreciate the cage- range-free, but the freshness is a real plus, a real positive for people.”
For instance, eggs traveling to Butte on a Wednesday have been washed as early as the previous day.
A tour of the hen facility, meanwhile, yielded a cacophony of noise, sounding a bit like a thousand little race cars taking off.
Once inside, Verlanic explained that the hens are able to move up and down, from side to side, and feed and water is dispensed throughout the day with an automatic system, so they’re able to eat and drink at will.
Similarly, the chickens are able to go outside during certain times of the day — a distinction that makes them “free range.”
To help with the animal side of the business, the Verlanics have enlisted the help of Drummond resident Katie Burden — Farmer Boy’s chicken expert, or the “chicken tender” as the Verlanics called her last week.
Burden, one among six Farmer Boy employees, does much of the caring for the chickens. With no formal education in agriculture or ranching, Burden is self-taught and raises her own chickens at her home in Drummond.
“She understands them and knows them,” said Verlanic.
Burden grew up in Elliston, where her family had horses and other animals until one day her parents bought her a few chickens.
“We lived in the middle of nowhere and I was an only child so I spent a lot of time with the chickens I guess,” said Burden, laughing, when asked how her interest in the animal grew overtime.
Alex credited Burden, their mom, and employees Jackie Bolster, Barb Conn and Janet Koon with doing much of the dirty work after the egg ranch’s initial set up.
“They’re the one’s that make it work. We’re just the little farmer boys,” said Alex.
So where does the Farmer Boy name come from?
The Verlanics came up with the name based on one of Andrew’s favorite books growing up, “Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“The was goal,” said Alex. “We’re just little farmer boys… It’s a very familial atmosphere. Our mother works here, our neighbor, a lot of local people.”
As for the future, Alex said they’d like to continue to grow but don’t want to get too big and diminish the quality of their product.
“We believe in small town Montana,” he added, reflecting the brothers’ decision to return to their hometown. “What it offers, from people to experiences to how it makes you, is very much what we’re about. We want to continue to try to keep that going because we believe in it.”