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Siblings make successful business: free-range eggs

By BEVERLY FORTUNE, Lexington Herald-Leader

It's all picturesque. A large flock of chickens is busily pecking the ground for worms and bugs and tender blades of grass, just minding their own business. Then in the distance, an all-terrain vehicle is heard.

Every chicken looks up. Every beady eye is trained on who's arriving. Suddenly, it's a mob scene as 1,500 chickens start clucking and running to greet Chelsey and Jared Schlosnagle. The sister and brother have come to collect eggs and pour grain in long, narrow feed pans.

These are the free-range chickens that lay the eggs for Chelsey's Gourmet Pasture Eggs, which are sold in Lexington and Louisville gourmet groceries and specialty stores that feature organic and healthy foods.

For her enterprising spirit and business acumen, Chelsey, 18, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, won first place in the 2010 Girls Going Places entrepreneurship award program this summer, beating more than 5,000 girls across the country and winning $10,000.

The program, sponsored by Guardian Life Insurance Co., recognizes enterprising girls ages 12 to 18 who demonstrate exceptional entrepreneurship and community service.

The siblings have received other awards, including Chelsey's first-place finish in 2009 in the Future Farmers of America's state poultry competition. Earlier this year, Jared, 17, was third in the FFA poultry competition, and Chelsey was a finalist for the FFA State Star Farmer award.

Chelsey and Jared, a senior at Shelby County High School, have raised chickens for more than 12 years and are sixth-generation Kentucky farmers.

Their parents, Doug and Susan, raise grass-fed beef cattle on their 250-acre Dutch Creek Farm in Shelby County. The couple also have other jobs: Susan is a farm appraiser and Doug works for United Citizens Bank and Trust in Campbellsburg.

Of the children, Susan said, "Cattle was too big for them when they were little, so we started them on chickens. Every year we'd say, 'You sure you want to do chickens again?'" she chuckled. "They'd say, 'Yeah, we want to do chickens.'"

When Chelsey was 9, she started selling a few dozen eggs a week to a small restaurant on Shelbyville Road. By the time the youngsters were 10 and 11, their egg business had gotten large enough that they began filing their own income tax returns.

Five years ago, they launched Chelsey's Gourmet Pasture Eggs as full partners. The business has expanded to 1,800 hens that produce as many as 120 dozen eggs a day.

The chickens are "a cross between leghorns that are really efficient layers but a little flighty, and Rhode Island reds that are calmer and easier to handle," Chelsey said.

In the peach orchard are 300 Araucana hens that lay green eggs. Two Araucana eggs are put in each carton of a dozen brown eggs to add color and interest, she said.

In Lexington, the eggs are sold at Whole Foods Market and Good Foods Market and Cafe. In Louisville, you can find them at Whole Foods, ValuMarket, Doll's Market, Amazing Grace Whole Foods and Rainbow Blossom Natural Market.

Donna Hottinger, grocery manager at Good Foods on Southland Drive, said of the eggs, "They're a great tasting product and they sell extremely well." The market has carried the eggs for about three years. "We carry lots of local eggs. Hers is one of the more popular," Hottinger said.

--- Free to roam

Today, there's confusion about what natural food production means, Susan Schlosnagle said.

A "free-range" egg producer can have a confinement pen holding 50,000 chickens with one door, "so if the chickens can find the door, they have access to outside," she said. That meets the letter of the law so the eggs can be labeled "pasture-based," even though once the chickens get outside, "it's a dirt lot," she said. "There's no grass, no bugs, no natural food."

With Chelsey and Jared's chickens, "free-range" means what it says. Their chickens are free to roam an eight-acre pasture, scratching for bugs and worms and nibbling the variety of grasses and weeds. The hoop house, a portable chicken house where the birds roost and lay their eggs, is dragged to a different place in the field every few weeks to maintain a good supply of grass and insects.

"We can honestly market our chickens as free-range," Chelsey said. She and Jared also raise free-range turkeys for Thanksgiving.

"These guys have a pretty good life," Susan said. "We say it's chicken heaven right here on earth."

She said studies show that pastured chickens produce eggs with increased levels of beta carotene and omega-3 nutrients. She said the eggs are lower in cholesterol than eggs from caged hens.

An electric fence surrounds the field to protect the chickens.

"It's helped a lot keeping predators away," Chelsey said.

Plus, a pair of Great Pyrenees dogs, Max and Molly, live with the chickens and provide 24-hour security. At night, the chickens roost in the hoop house with the doors locked.

--- No plans to fly the coop

Chelsey and Jared also sell their eggs at the St. Matthews Farmers Market in Louisville, where she cooks Chelsey's Three Egg Omelettes and Jared offers J-Burgers made from beef raised on the family farm.

Chelsey and Jared have saved egg money to pay for college, but eggs are a lot of work. Chelsey delivered eggs the past two years until she started at UK, where she is majoring in agriculture education. After college, she wants to go to law school.

Much of the day-to-day work now falls on Jared.

"He's in training to make deliveries," said his mother, who does much of that now.

Jared hasn't made a college decision yet, but he wants to major in business and agriculture.

Both Chelsey and Jared said they want to come back to the farm to live.

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