By Rui Santos.
Kingston has witnessed significant changes over the last 75 years. Much of the woodlots and open space that was plentiful in the 1950s has disappeared, given over to housing of various descriptions. Prior to 1970, there was considerable undeveloped land, yet no large-scale piece of it was in meaningful agricultural production. Ship-building and the cutting and exporting of ice were more significant businesses than agriculture in the town as early as the 19th century.
Rooted in its Origins
In the 1950s, near Pembroke and Grove Streets in Kingston, there existed three poultry/egg farms within a quarter-mile radius. Also within that sphere was a strawberry farm and an Angus beef cattle farm. Of those five farms, only the Santos Family farm remains and continues to sell farm fresh eggs to the public. The farm has been in my family for three generations and has been operational for close to eight decades.
The original owners, my parents, Cesar and Laura Santos, began their farm in 1941 raising broilers as meat birds. In 1955, the business transitioned to egg production and soon became one of the largest egg farms on the South Shore. From 1955 to 1983, my parents annually had approximately 5,000 laying hens in production with a replacement flock of nearly 5,500 pullets in development for six months of the year. These pullets were essential to the business to maintain a seamless continuity of egg production to meet customer demands. Pullets start their life on the farm as day old baby chicks and are raised for approximately 20 weeks before they begin to lay eggs.
As more and more houses were built in Kingston, the woodlots, open space, and small farms disappeared. By the spring of 1983, the strawberries and beef cattle were gone, as were two of the three poultry farms. Changes also came to Santos Family Farm that year when the number of hens in production was reduced from 5,000 to 1,000 as a new generation of farmers took over the family business. My parents retired, turning the farm over to me and my wife, JoAnn. As the second-generation owners of the farm, we led hectic lives as we both had full-time occupations outside the farm. I was a public school history teacher at East Bridgewater High School, while JoAnn worked as a full-time bookkeeper for a local non-profit housing authority.
Farming requires one’s attention, management, and input seven days a week, every week. Farming is not a job; it is a lifestyle. It is work beyond the toil of ordinary employment. Livestock has to be attended to every day regardless of weather, holidays, or the occasional wedding or graduation. Each day the eggs need to be gathered, graded, boxed, and put up for sale. Furthermore, if you are selling farm fresh eggs straight from the hens to the consumer, you must rotate those eggs daily to keep the freshness exact. Unlike the eggs sold in supermarkets or large box stores, which most often come from factory farm operations, farm fresh eggs are not required by the USDA to be power washed with a detergent. That washing is required since eggs from factory farms are susceptible to salmonella; however, power washing destroys the egg’s natural protective coating called the bloom. Farm fresh eggs do not require refrigeration for seven to eight days after they are laid. Buying fresh eggs at the farm means you are participating directly in a farm to table experience. Keep in mind most Europeans do not refrigerate eggs since the eggs they consume come straight from the farm and have not been washed.
In 1995, after 12 years without a single day off, my wife and I made the bittersweet decision to close the commercial business. We were sad because it brought to an end a major poultry operation, which I had grown up on, and that had existed as a commercial operation for nearly 50 years. It had been my dad’s livelihood and his dream as an immigrant from Portugal. I had so many positive memories of working alongside my father as I grew up. On the other hand, it was a relief because JoAnn and I were tired from working seven days a week for over 13 years. We needed some down relaxation time. However, having grown up enjoying the taste of farm fresh eggs, we kept a dozen or so hens on the farm property to provide the family with a quality commodity. Eggs have a multitude of nutritional values that we wanted to pass on to our children. Eggs are a good source of natural protein, as well an excellent source of vitamins B12, D, and E. They also contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.
With just 12 to18 hens on the property, JoAnn and I decided to grow and sell vegetables and pumpkins. That agricultural endeavor changed once again in 2005 when I retired from teaching after 36 years. Coincidently, the size of the flock of hens on the farm subsequently began to grow. The arrival of our grandchildren aided in this growth since few things in nature are as captivating as baby chicks. The rest is history. Two dozen hens soon led to five dozen hens, and then ten dozen, and so on. By 2011, Santos Family Farm was back in business as a commercial egg farm, selling farm fresh eggs at the door directly to the consumer.
Operating a Small Egg Farm
Today, Santos Family Farm sells only to individual customers (versus restaurants) who must come to the farm to make a purchase. Fresh eggs are kept on sale for six days.On day seven, any surplus eggs are given away to local charitable groups in the area. (Remember, the eggs stay fresh for ten to twelve days.) We gather between seven and ten dozen eggs every day at Santos Family Farm. The number of eggs gathered depends on the age of the hens, with older hens producing fewer eggs after some 14 months of laying. One hen can only produce one egg every 24 hours if she lives in an optimum environment.
Weather also has an impact on the number of eggs a hen can produce in a given period of time. Hot weather, in particular, is bothersome for hens, whereas the cold weather has much less impact on egg production provided the hens are kept away from direct cold drafts. The egg-laying hens most often found in New England are Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Black Sex-links. All three of these hen breeds lay brown eggs. Cold weather does not have a significant effect on egg production as these specific laying hens produce considerable body heat. Each of these brown egg-producing hens, weighing in at approximately five pounds, will generate 20 BTUs of heat per hour. As the birds roost together, they fluff out their feathers; their body heat radiates off the feathers and back onto their bodies. Hence, the hens keep warm. In the winter, it is not uncommon for farmers wearing glasses to enter a hen house containing several hundred hens and have their glasses fog up due to the difference in temperature from the outside to the interior of the hen house.
Close attention needs to be paid to free-range hens. First and foremost, chickens running around the yard encourage predators like foxes, fisher cats, and raccoons to seek a meal. If these predators find food in your backyard once, they will return time and time again until the food source disappears. Do not forget that red-tailed hawks also like an occasional chicken meal. Chickens roaming freely in areas where they have repeatedly been raised run the risk of picking up parasites and passing them along from one flock to another. Also, if the hens begin laying eggs outdoors the backyard farmer has to locate the nest, and daily gather up eggs before any predator enjoys them first. Despite often-repeated tales, salmonella is not common in most hens in backyard flocks or in a cage-free bevy of birds raised indoors.
In addition to providing the benefits of fresh eggs, a backyard flock of hens can be a rewarding and pleasurable experience for a homeowner. Many nutritionists consider the egg a perfect source of protein. Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on earth, and their benefits outweigh the time involved. Furthermore, there is no comparison when it comes to taste. Farm fresh eggs have an unmistakably better taste. Anyone who has consumed them will vouch for the authenticity of that statement. Santos Family Farm is one of the last remaining farms in Kingston, and although we still sell farm fresh eggs directly to the customer, in truth the farm is only a vestige of its former self.
Santos Family Farm
68 Pembroke Street
Kingston, MA 02364