All in the Family Farm

Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, Minnesota, has distinguished itself as one of the Wedge's best friends, supplying free-range, cage-free, certified organic eggs, chickens, and turkeys to the co-op for nearly fifteen years.

It's a true family farm too, as Larry and his wife Cindy have five kids. That next generation is already being indoctrinated. "The older ones help quite a bit - making cartons, stamping dates on egg cartons," says Larry. "Sometimes you'll notice we have two or three stamps on a carton? But you can barely read one?"

"Kids," smirks Larry.

All in the Family

Larry currently leases the farm from his father. "But before that, it was my grandpa's farm, and then his dad's."

In the many years that it belonged to the Schultz family, the land endured herbicides only once, in the fifties, when chemical farm inputs first came along. Larry's parents decided to give them a try. "Dad sent Mom out to spray thistle patches [with an herbicide], but it ended up that she got cold sores from it. And she told Dad, 'If I get cold sores, I'm not going to handle this stuff.'"

That patch of thistles was the only recipient of herbicides in Schultz Farm history, which puts Larry in a unique position as an organic farmer. Most have a conversion story, a moment that made them realize that organic farming was the way to go. But Larry never experienced that conversion - he grew up on an organic farm before organic was organic.

"Sometimes conventional farmers will ask about some problem when switching to organic farming," says Larry, "but I can't answer those questions. We never made the switch."

High Quality, Fresh and Healthy

While he tries to sell the most inexpensive eggs he can, it's very hard to compete with big conglomerates wading into the organic market. "At least we know ours will be one of the freshest eggs in stores."

Larry knows this because many egg producers don't put the expiration date on until after the eggs been shipped, candled (internally examined by strong light), and graded. Delaying that long can add thirty days to the age of the egg, which won't be reflected in its shelf date. "Other producers sell 30- to 50-day-old eggs, which is still a good egg, but it's not as fresh as ours. We candle and grade them the day they're laid."

"The oldest egg you're going to get is a week old," Larry says. "I'm usually sold out every week."

Grading is another area where Larry sets himself apart. Most of Schultz's eggs are Double A, a higher-quality grade for which he could certainly charge more money. But he labels them Single A, which keeps his eggs prices lower. He takes the same tactic with sizing, preferring to give his customers bigger eggs that weigh more than the standard 27 ounces per dozen. "It's just a dime," says Larry. "So what? We would rather give you your money's worth rather than skimp and make a dime."

He also refuses to skimp on feed. By giving his hens feed made with organic flaxseed, the omega-3 content is increased, making his eggs a healthier choice than most others.

Big, Healthy Birds

Wedge shoppers may be very familiar with Larry Schultz's organic free-range eggs and poultry, but now and then, Larry's neighbors don't get what he's up to.

"New neighbors," says Larry, "will see the free-range chickens and call me up and go, 'Hey, someone let all your chickens out!'"

But free-range is what Wedge customers want, according to Erturk Mehmet, Wedge Co-op's Refrigerated Grocery Buyer. "That's the number one question I get," Mehmet says. "'Are the eggs free-range?' Then they want to know if they're organic."

Standard of life for the chickens is what his egg-buying customers are most concerned with, according to Mehmet - not just freedom of movement, but health, too.

As well they should be. Parasites in the birds, internal and external, are one of the biggest problems facing any poultry farmer, let alone one with organic free-range birds. For Schultz, the strategy is cleanliness and a well-rounded diet for his birds - two things that large chicken producers don't always account for.

"We use more natural methods," Larry says, when it comes to maintain the health of his flocks. "Keeping bedding and litter dry and clean. Keeping the houses clean and uncrowded, making sure we don't put too many in one house. More natural things you use, like hydrogen peroxide not bleach, for cleaning."

As for feed, free ranging the chickens is key. "Bigger healthier birds like ours?" says Larry. "They're getting small grains, grass, bugs, flax meal for the omega - a very balanced diet. Diatamaceous earth which helps with internal parasite problems, too. Helps them fight off infections."

All of this adds up to healthier birds, which can be a difficult task when free-ranging chickens.

"I think a lot of the health problems with animals is that [big factory farms] try to mass produce and crowd [birds together]. The farmers get higher yields. Artificial fertilizers enhance the crops and the feed, but it isn't as nutritious for the birds. They're mass producing, yes, but the birds might have health problems because of it."

Stupid Free-range Birds

Fortunately for Larry, free-ranging turkeys is a lot easier than free-ranging chickens. Why?

"Turkeys are stupid."

Unlike the chickens, which need to be brought in nightly, Larry says that fencing in the turkeys is all he needs to do to keep the turkeys safe and sound.

"They could jump over the fence- it's only twenty-eight inches high - but they see the fence and stare at it and don't fly over it."

At least some things come easy to the free-range farmer.

Rural Enemies

So beyond pricing, organic certification, bird health, and egg quality, what's the biggest worry in a free-range poultry farmer's mind?

Weasels.

"Chickens are definitely the start of the food chain," says Larry with a heavy sigh. "At night, we have to put the chickens away because of predators."

A chicken's list of enemies is daunting. Weasels can worm their way into the tiniest of cracks, owls will crash through windows and vents to get at the chickens, opossums suck eggs, and mink are so terrifying that the site of one in the henhouse will cause chickens to pile on top of one another to get away, causing death and injury to one another. Not to mention hawks, skunk, fox - even coyotes have reappeared in recent years.

But raccoons, Larry says, are the elite corps of the hungry menagerie surrounding the Schultz Farm, because they take off with the chickens rather than eating them on the spot, as weasels and mink do.

"The chickens just...disappear," says Larry. "You walk in the chicken house one morning and realize you have a lot more room."

How do you keep these predators at bay? Well, sometimes you just get lucky. One winter a crew of rats started killing baby chicks in a Schultz henhouse. "Fortunately, a civet cat moved in under the barn, and he cleaned out the rats - cleaned them right out."

"Or rather _she_ cleaned them out. I found out 'she' was a mom in the spring."

Urban Allies

Fortunately, Larry's enemies are outnumbered by his friends in the Twin Cities. You can find Larry's eggs and chickens in the co-ops and other groceries, of course, but his eggs are also featured at trendy hotspots like the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Uptown Minneapolis.

Kim Bartmann, proprietor of the Bowl, has been a champion of Schultz Organic Farm for over a decade.

"We've been serving Larry's eggs the whole time the Bowl's been open," says Bartmann.

Recently, Bartmann even put a blurb about Larry's farm on the restaurant's newest menu, showing real dedication to the local farming scene, and Bartmann has also added Chicken Wings to the daily menu, featuring Larry's organic chickens.

"Good food isn't a fancy thing anymore," she says, "and we've always been a big Larry supporter."

Wedge Christmas Ordering

Aaron Nytroe of the Wedge Meat Department recommends that you call in your order well in advance if you want Larry's organic turkeys and chickens for your holiday feasts.

"It's always a good idea," says Nytroe. "It's not as big a turkey holiday as Thanksgiving, but better safe than sorry."