Photos: Down on the chicken farm

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KENYON — Pulling up to L&R Poultry, you may be greeted by a curious hen.

On the 72-acre Kenyon farm, the 300 laying hens are working hard, pumping out 430 dozen eggs per month.

They're free range as well, walking near the woods, taking the conventional dirt bath to rid their feathers of potential parasites.

Not far down the road, fields of squash, potatoes and organically grown, no-till vegetables grow as well.

The farm, run by the mother-son team, Rae and Leo Rusnak, sells wholesale eggs and vegetables to many different businesses around the state. Ferndale Market and Raw Bistro in Cannon Falls are two of the biggest businesses that purchase eggs from the farm.

Rusnak said they sell 180 dozen eggs per month to Ferndale Market and 150 dozen eggs per month in a special frozen liquid egg to Raw Bistro for their dog food products.

The operation has been scaled up continuously through the years. Rusnak said the family purchased the farm in 1995, beginning to sell commercially in 2003.

Rusnak grew up on a poultry farm, where her father would sell eggs from chickens, ducks and geese as a breeder. On top of that, she would spend a lot of time on a family members' vegetable farm as well.

Rusnak looks back on those days fondly, saying subconsciously the memories informed her future decision to own and operate a farm full-time, beginning in 2007.

However, Rusnak didn't have any land to her name. But after purchasing the farm and getting a letter from the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation, the dream became more attainable.

Rusnak said she had the chance to enroll a significant amount of land into the Conservation Reservation Enhancement Program in Minnesota. She was paid a good amount, enough to purchase a tractor and get started on her land.

After some time, the farm moved from selling eggs and meat to just eggs. Rusnak said they also decided to grow less varieties of vegetables and focus on growing more of what they currently had.

The decisions were financial, as Rusnak would say, she started carefully, not having "a big appetite for debt."

However, Rusnak said she felt her timing was perfect, getting involved with the Farmer's Market, connecting with businesses in Cannon Falls, Northfield and Burnsville.

The farm even sells produce to the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts, selling thousands of pounds of squash and rutabagas for kids to eat. Rusnak said this year they'll be sending a lot of rhubarb there.

With little business background, Rusnak said she's had to take opportunities as they come and has felt fortunate to work with the businesses and schools that she has.

Although she's found success, Rusnak said when growing vegetables and raising chickens many obstacles can arise.

What kind of ventilation do you have for your flock? Do they require a more air conditioned place or would small windows suffice?

What about managing the manure? L&R Poultry uses the manure to cultivate the vegetable fields, but do you use a shovel or a skid loader to remove it?

Do you plan on vaccinating your chickens? On top of that, are you raising any other animals on the farm that could potentially infect the chickens?

Lastly, how are you going to keep the predators out of the facilities? Do you have more birds to keep them away? Or do you have a noble dog like Romeo who patrols the farm and doesn't mess with the chickens?

The considerations are plentiful. And that was just for chickens.

As a financially savvy farmer, Rusnak said doing something on a small scale is valuable, like going to a CSA business model or selling at farmers markets.

Don't start with 300 chickens. Maybe start with 50.

"You may not be able to jump, say, to working full-time to farming full-time in one week," Rusnak said. "It's not going to be like that ... there's a bit of risk. The way to kind of mitigate that risk is to start small, proceed slowly and, I think, don't bite off large chunks of debt."

Financials aside, Rusnak loves being a farmer. Even more so, having a family at her side.

Her 80-year-old, poultry-breeding father is out running the tractor during harvest time. Her sister comes down from the Twin Cities to harvest and help where it's needed. And her son, Leo, helps package, take care of the chickens and is a solid partner to Rusnak.

Rusnak said seeing her 16-year-old son grow up on a farm has been exciting, seeing Leo grow up in an experience that many of his classmates at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School won't ever get a chance to see.

Along with the family aspect, Rusnak said the outpouring of compliments have touched her heart.

When she hears from people shopping at the Ferndale Market, buying her farm's eggs again, it's a terrific feeling. When she visited the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts last year, they presented her with a trading card, like what a baseball player would have. With a picture of her, the vegetables she grows, the works.

"They treat you like a celebrity, which is kind of surprising because it's vegetables," Rusnak said.

If Rusnak could give advice to farmer, it's to stay business curious. Look into markets like school districts and other places where the need could potentially be there. Visit restaurants and co-ops. Don't limit the operation, unless it causes an overextension.

And most importantly: don't eat big chunks of debt and love your chickens.

For more information and to contact L&R Poultry about wholesale purchasing, visit their website at: lrpoultryproduce.com.