OAKLAND, Ill. | Max Miller was considering options two years ago for establishing a long-term career on his family's small farm when he hatched the idea of getting into the egg business.
Now, the 21-year-old has a flock of 500 free-range chickens on the family farm north of Oakland and a product line of Miller Brothers Eggs that is available for purchase at local County Market supermarkets and other retailers.
"I am just going to go as far as the business takes me. I am hoping that I will be able to keep expanding my business," said Miller, who graduated from Lake Land College this spring with a degree in agriculture production.
Miller grew up on a farm where his family has been raising row crops and its Ascent Angus Farms cattle for three generations. His first entrepreneurial venture began during his sophomore year in high school when he started Miller Brothers Mowing, a still growing business that paid his way through college. Miller said his egg production venture resulted from his goal of generating cash flow outside of the mowing season.
The young entrepreneur said egg production offered him an opportunity to learn a new trade and to fill a local niche for eggs from free-range chickens at a considerably lower cost than purchasing farmland and heavy agricultural equipment.
"I got into the egg business because of the low start-up costs," Miller said.
To start his egg business, Miller acquired a small flock of Isa Brown chickens from an Arthur farm, and provided grassland where they can roam and a large shed where they can roost. Miller said he relied a lot on his experience with Angus cattle but he also did a lot of research and sought the advice of family friend Larry McWilliams, owner of Little Farm on the Prairie in the Kankakee area.
Miller said his 11-year-old brother, Isaac; their parents, Chris and Mary; and their grandfather Max, have all been a big help in getting Miller Brothers Eggs started. He said they need to let the chickens out in the morning and give them their first feeding of the day, check on the chickens periodically throughout the day, collect the eggs by hand between 3 and 5 p.m., and then secure them for the night.
"It's definitely a big commitment. It's very time consuming," Miller said of raising free-range chickens and harvesting the eggs. They feed the chickens a mixture of nongenetically modified corn along with a few other natural fillers, which are combined with vitamins and minerals.
Miller, whose egg business is licensed by the state, started in August 2011 by selling eggs directly to individual customers and to Steve & Shirley's Diner, which is located along Main Street just east of the town square in Oakland.
Diner co-owner Shirley Parsley said she decided to serve Miller Brothers Eggs because they are fresh, locally raised, and from a family that she has known and trusted for many years. Parsley said the eggs, particularly those served over easy, have proven to be popular at the restaurant, adding that she has needed to increase her egg orders to meet the demand.
"All of my customers love them. They love the richness of the yolk. You can tell they are from very healthy, brown egg layers," Parsley said.
Miller said free-range chicken owners typically sell their eggs at farmers markets in their regions but some, such as McDaniels' Little Farm on the Prairie, have placed their eggs in supermarkets.
"I decided that if (McDaniels) can do it, I might as well try," Miller said, adding that he knew the supermarkets would provide him with a reliable source of revenue.
To meet this supermarket goal, Miller increased his flock of chickens and had Miller Brothers Eggs cartons made for use in retail cooler cases. These cartons of eggs started being stocked in April. They can now be found at supermarkets Charleston, Mattoon, Arcola and Oakland.
Miller said he obtained placement for his eggs in supermarkets by networking with those who work in the grocery industry and those who know people in this industry. Miller, who described himself as a quiet chicken farmer, said he is still adjusting to the salesmanship responsibilities of his egg business.
"I am on the learning curve still. I am learning by doing," Miller said, adding that his next project will be to winterize his barn to accommodate his larger flock of chickens during cold weather.