At the end of a barn swarming with some 1,500 squawking chickens, 12-year-old Autumn Walkup turns a makeshift crank, a conveyer belt running beneath nests lurches forward, and out wobble a couple of big, brown eggs. These are the "stragglers," afternoon latecomers. Most of the day's eggs rolled out in the morning, when Autumn or one of her older teenage brothers, Chase and Nathan, or her parents, John and Crystal—who together make up the workforce at Mission Mountain Organic Eggs near Ronan—collected eggs four times between 7:30 and noon, prime egg-laying time.
Compared to large-scale industrial egg operations, the Walkups' daily egg gathering routine seems decidedly low-tech. It gets even more so: In the farm's other two barns, which house about 1,300 and 2,000 chickens respectively, the family plucks eggs from nests by hand. The "candling"—the meticulous work of detecting blood spots and cracks in shells—is usually done in a darkened room by Chase, 17, between college classes and other farm chores. And when the eggs roll out of the antiquated washing and sorting machine, the Walkups take turns placing the eggs into cartons.
Still, of Montana's handful of organic egg operations, Mission Mountain Organic Eggs stands out as the largest certified by the state's Department of Agriculture. Today, the Walkups collected about 150 dozen. Since the farm's inception in 2007, it's grown from raising 1,200 hens to 5,000, and now has farm-fresh eggs in stores as far afield as San Francisco and Minneapolis. "We were burning up more in fuel than the eggs were bringing in and we thought, 'We are going to fall on our face'" John Walkup says of the early days when he and Crystal toured the state searching for buyers. "And then, by the grace of God, things turned around. It was one of those things where markets started getting interested and we started selling more eggs."
The farm's success reflects national trends. Between 1997 and 2007, organic egg sales grew at an annual rate of 19 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the number of organic laying hens grew at an annual rate of 22 percent. Montana's organic egg industry remains tiny, but "organic" doesn't tell the whole story. A number of non-certified organic pastured poultry operations have popped up in recent years that still adhere to organic principles.
Mission Mountain Organic Egg's growth can partly be attributed to Missoula's appetite for local, healthy food. Walkup calls the Good Food Store his business' "backbone," and he says every week it buys between 10 and 20 cases (with 24 dozen in a case) of their eggs, laid by hens that eat a soy-free diet including alfalfa and fishmeal.
"The Good Food Store was the only thing that kept us with grocery money," Walkup says. "They were our best customer, and they still are."
Other Montana sellers include groceries and co-ops around northwestern Montana and in Bozeman, Helena and Billings. Walkup says Montana buyers can be assured his eggs are no more than a week old. "We try to keep a reputation for very fresh eggs," he says.
Between the barns, off a secluded gravel road between Ronan and Polson, in view of the snow-covered Mission Mountains across Highway 93 to the east, Chase cracks open an egg, laid by a Bovans Brown hen earlier in the day, and out drops the yolk and whites into his dad's hands.
"What we like about a fresh egg—why you can tell a fresh egg from an egg that's not so fresh—is a really fresh egg, when you drop it in a skillet...it will just stand there," Walkup says, with an orange yolk perched in his palm. "A non-fresh egg...you drop it in a skillet and it goes to the edges. The density breaks down over time."
These eggs are now being dropped into skillets throughout the western half of the country. With the Montana market pretty well saturated, the farm looked to Azure Standard, an organic food distribution company based in Dufur, Ore., to help expand its reach. Azure Standard began buying Mission Mountain Organic Eggs in fall 2009, and it distributes them to every state west of the Mississippi River.
"They've grown in popularity a lot in the last year or so," says Azure Standard CEO David Stelzer. "It seems to me like we were buying small pallets and now we're buying very big ones, probably stretching [Walkup's] production."
Stelzer says Mission Mountain Organic Eggs are particularly popular in California, which accounts, he estimates, for as much as 25 percent of the brand's sales through the company.
"We've got people calling from places like Arizona saying, "Oh, we just love your eggs,'" Walkup says.
Demand spiked last summer when a nationwide salmonella outbreak led to a recall of more than a half billion eggs, exposing the inherent risks of industrial egg operations—which, according to United Egg Producers, lay about 95 percent of the country's eggs. The boost in business allowed the Walkups to build their third barn.
"This is going to be a good year, I think, God willing," Walkup says, encouraged by the farm's expanded capacity. "If we can keep 'em moved, it ought to be a real viable operation. No more hand-to-mouth."
They're moving hens, too. The Walkups sell the birds—for $2 each—when their egg-laying productivity begins to wane, making Mission Mountain Organic Eggs the source of an untold number of backyard flocks across western Montana. But you'll have to get in line: There's a waiting list.