CENTRALIA — When Austin Stanton’s cellphone rang during his seventh-grade math class, his teacher wasn't pleased.
“That had better be a business call,” the teacher said, sarcastically. Austin insisted it was and handed the phone to his teacher to prove it.
The teacher was surprised to find a confused grocery store manager on the phone. The manager was calling to ask about an order he had placed with the egg company Austin owns with his older brother.
The teacher let him take the call and told Austin not to let it happen again.
Austin and his brother, Dustin, own and operate Stanton Brothers Eggs. Just 16 and 20, the two brothers raise chickens and collect eggs on the farm near Centralia where they grew up.
They distribute fresh eggs to dozens of supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants and nursing homes in the Columbia area.
The brothers also supply Columbia College and the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville, and they deliver nearly every egg offered in MU's dining facilities, roughly 500 dozen eggs a week.
Maintaining a successful business with 12,000 chickens is a full-time job that requires extreme dedication and help from the whole family year-round.
"We don't get weekends or holidays," Dustin said.
From six chickens to 12,000
The brothers' egg business wasn't always so demanding. It began with a gift of six baby chicks when Dustin was in the first grade.
Like many elementary school classes, the first grade in his school was given a handful of chicks to take home as a project.
Most of Dustin's classmates weren't interested in the little creatures, but he was. Unfortunately, one girl in his class was, too.
To be fair, the teacher put the chicks up for a draw. Dustin lost.
Shortly afterward, an uncle gave him six chicks to raise. Using profits from selling eggs to family friends, which his parents deemed an allowance, Dustin bought more chickens.
"It was teaching me to save money — to invest, which is what I did," he said.
By the fifth grade, Dustin had about 100 chickens, and his younger brother had joined the operation.
Their enterprise grew slowly — selling only to family, friends and neighbors. Then, in 2007, a member of their church told the Stanton family about the lack of eggs at the Columbia Farmers' Market.
Soon after, when the brothers had accumulatd about 250 chickens, they introduced their product at the Farmers' Market in early 2007.
"The very first time we set up there, it rained. We only sold six eggs," Dustin said.
"The next time, we doubled our sales to a whole dozen," he added, laughing.
Business got better. They sold 40 dozen the next time and even more eggs after that.
"They'd be sold out in 15 or 20 minutes," said Andrew Stanton, the brothers' father.
Growing to meet demand
The flock of 250 chickens they tended in January had expanded to 1,200 by November, the month the market closed for the season.
"Here we were, stuck with 1,200 chickens still laying eggs," Dustin said. "We were getting more eggs than we could handle."
At the urging of customers and people affiliated with the Farmers' Market, the brothers began selling to Clover’s Natural Market during the winter. They also began supplying bakeries, restaurants and nursing homes around Columbia.
"It was kind of a mutual deal," Dustin said. "They needed eggs, and we needed a place to sell them."
As winter became spring, the orders rolled in, and demand started to exceed supply.
The Stantons attribute much of that early success to a revived interest in local foods. Consumers were looking for stronger connections between themselves and their food sources.
"People wanted to know where the eggs came from," Austin said. "It's knowing the farmer you buy from."
Andrew Stanton said the local food movement coincided perfectly with the growth of his sons' business.
"They hit the market just right," he said. "You couldn't make a business plan to do what they've done."
Managing a nonstop business
Still, meeting the incessant demand was difficult.
"Clover's still wanted their eggs, but then the Farmers' Market opened up, and they wanted their eggs, too. So it was a catch-22 thing," Andrew Stanton said. "It was a vicious cycle."
By the end of year, the brothers were managing 2,500 chickens.
In 2009, the Stanton brothers, along with other local food vendors, met with MU administrators who wanted to add local food to the dining halls.
Along with one other vendor, the brothers signed the deal with MU to provide all the eggs served in campus dining halls.
By the end of 2009, the brothers had 6,000 chickens, double the number they had a year earlier. Soon they were selling eggs to Hy-Vee stores across Missouri and one in Kansas.
By 2011, the brothers owned 10,000 chickens. They began providing eggs to the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville after meeting with the casino's culinary team at the Columbia Farmers' Market.
This year, Stanton Brothers Eggs started selling to Natural Grocers and even more restaurants and diners around Columbia.
Considering that the Stanton brothers manage 12,000 chickens while attending school full time, it's fair to say that life on the farm is hectic.
Living on the farm
It's hard to miss the Stanton's 1,200-acre farm on the outskirts of Centralia. Clusters of chickens loiter in the gravel road and empty fields adjacent to the ranch-style farm house.
Inside the gate, thousands of hens waddle among several barns where they roost and lay eggs in nests and mangers filled with straw. The cluck of 12,000 chickens is a loud, eerie chorus that wavers in and out of unison.
Almost all the chickens on the farm are golden layer, hy-line browns or Bovan browns — birds best suited for producing eggs rather than meat. They typically lay an egg a day.
The Stanton dogs act as security guards. Andrew Stanton said the dogs think they are chickens: "It's worked out well."
The chickens are raised free-range, a farming practice that lets them roam freely for their food. Their diet consists mainly of grass, bugs and milo, a crop grown on the farm. The Stantons also plant soybeans, hay, wheat and clover.
Because chickens are creatures of habit with a strong homing instinct, it's rare to have one wander off. Even though thousands of birds sleep in several barns, Andrew Stanton insists that if you marked the spot where a chicken slept one night, you'd find that chicken in the exact same spot the next night.
The problem is, the chickens are running out of room on the farm.
"We gotta do something," Stanton said. "We're almost maxed out."
The future of the business
The Stanton brothers don't touch their profits — they reinvest all proceeds back into the company.
They plan to install an automated egg collection and cleaning system where the chickens will lay eggs on a conveyor belt that carries them to an automatic cleaner.
"It takes us about eight hours a day just to gather eggs," Dustin said. "With this, we'll be able to press a button and the eggs will come to us."
This would allow the brothers much more time to focus on other aspects of their busy lives.
Dustin is majoring in agricultural business at MU on a full entrepreneurial scholarship. He attends classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Because of his real-world experience, classes are easy for him. He hasn't missed a single point on an exam in his accounting class.
Dustin knows about accounting — his business depends on it. A couple years back, he created his own record-keeping system using Microsoft Excel.
"There's thousands of dollars he would have lost if he didn't have those records," his father said.
Dustin emphasized the importance of hands-on experience in business.
"That's the neat thing. You can learn all this stuff in school, but to actually do it is a different story," he said. "A lot of those 'by-the-book' businesses don't last that long."
His experience in business won him the FFA National Risk Management Award in 2011. He flew to Washington, D.C., in 2011 to speak before Congress on the importance of rural agribusiness.
"I talked a little bit about how the risks associated with agribusiness are unique, in that they include weather, disease and rising variable cost," Dustin said. "These risks directly affect the producer and also indirectly affect the consumer."
Now a sophomore, he said he appreciates the classroom experience, but it cuts into his business operation.
"I don't want to say college is a bad thing, but it has definitely slowed our growth down," he said. "As soon as I'm out of college, I plan on bringing the growth back up."
Austin is learning the fundamentals of business both at school and in practice.
He's a sophomore at Centralia High School and president of the school's Future Business Leaders of America chapter. He is also secretary of the FFA's Centralia chapter.
Austin isn't sure about going to college — it depends on scholarships. He said he wants to stick with his business.
Assuming that it remains successful, the brothers intend to start raising broilers, birds that are raised for meat.
"Every market they go to, there have two or three people that want to buy meat from them. There's a market for it," their father said.
Early starts and no vacations
"If you sleep until 8 a.m., that's considered sleeping in for us," Austin said.
Dustin said his family hasn't been on vacation in years. "We celebrate Christmas morning and Thanksgiving dinner, but we work those days, too."
The brothers tried hiring employees to help out, but they usually quit after realizing how hard the work is, Dustin said.
"Chickens don't have normal hours," he said. "People want to come to work and leave at 5 p.m."
Between the farm and school, the brothers simply don't have time to perform all the duties their business requires. They rely on the help of their parents when their schedules become overwhelming.
Their mother, Judy, makes deliveries to about 40 outlets a week in a refrigerated truck the family refers to as the "reefer." The nickname almost landed Dustin in serious trouble with the FFA in an essay contest.
"I almost got kicked out of the contest for putting down that my goal was to 'purchase a reefer,'" Dustin said, laughing. He ended up winning.
Their father helps out when he's not busy with his own chores. "They kind of gave us a job," he said.
The brothers do manage to have a social life, albeit limited. Sometimes friends will help finish the day's work, so that they can go out that night.
"I do have friends. ... I'm not here all the time," Dustin said.
His father said Dustin used to be shy: "When he was younger, you could have never gotten him to talk to you. Now, he's won several public speaking awards."
The unexpected success of Stanton Brothers Eggs has come with enormous responsibility, but the family has made it all work.
"It just kind of happened, all by supply and demand," Dustin said. "It went from an allowance, to a job, to a life."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.