3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
NORTHUMBERLAND, N.Y. — Thomas Poultry Farm makes sure kids throughout New York’s Capital Region have plenty of Easter eggs to hunt for each spring.
The Saratoga County business produces 12,000 dozen eggs per day, enough to supply all 325 outlets in the Stewarts Shops convenience store chain and a number of Hannaford Brothers and IGA supermarkets.
About the only thing the farm’s 205,000 birds don’t do is lay pre-colored eggs.
“Sometimes we’ll joke when eggs are coming down the conveyor, Hey! We need 10 more with stripes or polka-dots,’ “ said Jennifer Thomas, whose husband, Brian, and brother, Ken Bean, own the operation.
The farm was started by Brian’s parents, Eleanor and the late Jared Thomas Jr.
During the week before Easter, sales always shoot up 20 to 25 percent. “The only other time we’re that busy is Thanksgiving to Christmas because people are doing a lot of baking for the holidays,” Jennifer said.
Chicks are purchased when they’re a day old from Hy-Line International, in Pennsylvania. They’re raised in the farm’s brooder barn, which gives the Thomases complete control over how birds are fed and cared for, including vaccinations.
“That way you know what you’ve got,” Brian Thomas said. “You know they’re going to mature and gain weight properly. If somebody else is doing it, they’re just doing it for a buck. They might cut corners.”
Hens start laying eggs when they’re 18 weeks old and their “career” lasts about 1 1/2 years. Chickens are divided into three different flocks, based on their age. The youngest produce small and medium-size eggs, the middle group’s are large, while extra large and jumbo eggs come from older birds.
“Right after Easter we rotate out the oldest flock and bring in a new one,” Jennifer said. Older birds are shipped to Canada, where they’re used for a variety of meat products from soup to chicken nuggets.
Eleanor and Jared were married in 1943 and moved to the farm site, about a mile from where she grew up, in 1947. The business was launched a year later.
“We started with nothing,” she said. “When you start with nothing, you’ve got to grow gradually. It’s been quite a ride. You better believe it.”
Eleanor did it all during her working days, from bookkeeping to peddling eggs from the back of a Plymouth pickup truck. “I candled eggs for 33 years,” she said.
The couple only had 25 chickens at first, for their own personal use. Jared worked at a local brass works and would sell some eggs to co-workers. Soon, they bought 300 more chickens, word spread and before long they had a regular door-to-door route.
By the early 1950s, the poultry became a full-time business.
Today, the farm has 19 truck routes and employs 17 people, about half of them family members.
“It’s kind of a niche,” Jennifer said. “If we get too big we’ll lose that family farm atmosphere.”
For many years, everything was done by hand. Slowly, the Thomases introduced time-saving machinery and by 1987 the farm was fully automated. From the hen house to cooling facility, eggs aren’t touched by human hands.
Freshly laid eggs roll down a slope and onto a conveyor that brings them into the processing barn where they’re washed, rinsed, candled, graded by weight and put into cartons. The only labor required is manning machines and loading dozens of cartons into cases and putting them onto pallets, ready for delivery.
Absolutely nothing goes to waste. Eggs with tiny cracks are pulled out of line and sold as liquid products.
Like any agricultural enterprise, poultry has had its share of ups and downs through the years. In the 1970s, business took a hit from health-related concerns about high cholesterol. However, things rebounded when many consumers began turning to eggs as a source of protein.
Ironically, animal rights activists gave the industry a boost, too, some years ago. Because of criticism about the use of caged birds, some farms decided not to expand such operations, which limited supply and drove prices up.
“We were at 70 cents a dozen for a lot of years,” Jennifer said. “Now we get about $1.25. The buy-local movement has helped us a lot, too. That’s been a great trend.”
At 89, Eleanor can’t help admiring how far the business has come in the past 65 years. She’s no longer actively involved, but enjoys living on the farm, and her presence alone is a constant source of encouragement and inspiration.
“I’m not a snoop-avisor,’ “ she said, smiling. “I just watch and see what happens.”<\c> Photos by Paul Post
Mike Fish loads dozens of eggs into a case to prepare them for delivery at Thomas Poultry Farm in Northumberland, N.Y.
Employee Gerald Ball shows off some of the freshly laid eggs at Thomas Poultry Farm.
Jennnifer Thomas shows how eggs move automatically by conveyor from the henhouse to the processing facility.