Stamp Egg Farms in Johnston, RI
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Johnston, RI - Bob Stamp, the third generation of German immigrants to own Stamp Egg Farms, knows his chickens. One of the roosters, for instance, has been misbehaving himself. “Big Red is a bit older than the other two. He’s been around a long time,” Bob told me one sunny afternoon at his neatly kept farm in western Johnston. “He got feisty a couple of months ago. Territorial.”
But none of Bob’s 7,000 chickens has any reason to complain. They roam their three-story coop freely, without cages, and are fed a vegetarian diet without hormones or steroids. These all-natural eggs are picked and packed the same day they’re laid, so they stay fresher longer—and taste better.
“It’s the feed,” he explained in the little store nestled between the coop and the main house. He was simultaneously sorting the eggs by size, packing them into cartons and waiting on a steady stream of customers—some new, and some regulars. If the feed is mostly corn, the eggs have a deep orange yolk. “Ours are real dark,” Bob continued over the clackety-clack of the sorting machine. “You also have to have a certain amount of protein for the chickens to be healthy … usually that means a better tasting egg. We still do it the old-fashioned way. A lot of places don’t.”
The old-fashioned egg operation started in 1937, when Bob’s grandparents came over from Germany to follow their American dream, and they bought the land in Johnston. “My grandfather made hot dogs in Olneyville; my grandmother was a maid for some people on the East Side. When they bought this farm, they started seeing chickens all over. I guess raising chickens was popular in the old days.”
The neighbors all had chickens; it apparently seemed like the thing to do. “I think it was a race to see who could put up the fastest chicken coop and have the most chickens,” Bob laughed. “My grandfather won the race.” Bob’s grandparents worked the farm together, followed by his parents. Bob and his wife, Patty, have been in charge for the past 10 years, since his father retired.
Bob had the choice of a different career, having gone to Rhode Island School of Design and graduating from its now-defunct culinary arts program. “I only had one job in a restaurant after I finished [the program]. I figured someday I would own a restaurant but it just never happened. If I’m going to be sweating my butt off, I’d rather sweat in the chicken coop than making food for someone. I’m my own boss. Plus, it looked easy when I was younger,” he added. “I had just a little bit more energy.”
A typical day for Bob starts at quarter to 6, when he gets up and checks the chickens to make sure there aren’t any problems. Water is automatic. Patty starts picking eggs, sorting and packing them into dozens and flats. Bob loads up his truck, and for about half the day he delivers to a variety of wholesale accounts: restaurants, diners and bakeries. “I even have one barroom,” he said. “They sell the eggs to their regulars. If they stay at the bar all day, the guys buy them to take home to their wives to stay out of trouble!” The eggs reach the markets very quickly, usually within a day of having been laid.
Nowadays gas is expensive; obviously it costs more to load up the truck and make deliveries. “All the suppliers that deliver to me have added a fuel surcharge. It’s gotten crazy the past year,” he said, shaking his head. Cardboard boxes, for example, didn’t used to cost him money in fuel. Now they do and as a result, he’s had to add his own fuel surcharge but just for the wholesale deliveries. “It’s not really enough to offset all of [my added costs]. Basically it just covers the surcharges I’m getting from my suppliers.”
The greatest challenge, however, has to be the grueling schedule. Stamp Farms never closes.
“Really?” asked one customer, a woman who came in for a dozen extra-large and overheard our conversation. “Not even holidays? Christmas Day? New Year’s?”
“The chickens don’t care,” Bob responded. “They work seven days a week, so I have to work
seven days a week. I’d love to take Christmas off for once in my life.”
“But … vacation?” the customer pressed, apparently not comprehending.
“No,” Bob replied. “And that’s definitely a sore subject around here.”
Bob insisted later, “I wouldn’t do this without my wife. I don’t think I could do it without her. She pretty much runs the farm; I do the wholesale deliveries on the road. I have one
daughter who helps out. If I had to do everything myself, I couldn’t handle it. You have to have the family involved. That’s true with any farm, really.” Bob has two sisters and two brothers, none of whom wanted to work on the farm. Not too many people, understandably, would want to work seven days a week, 365 days per year.
But the chickens seem to enjoy it, Bob says. How can he tell? Despite not having enough nests to go around, “they’re not killing each other to get in and out,” he said with a grin. “They squeeze right by each other to get inside [the nests] and do their thing. My friend was over the other day and he said, ‘Nice! They put the eggs right inside the box for you.’ I said, ‘Yes, they do!’“
Those must be some happy chickens.
Photos by Carole Topalian