He’s an eighth-grader at Henley Middle School, attending class while overseeing a business with a workforce of 800.
James Jacobs is also responsible for the housing and health care of his workers, a huge flock of laying hens at the family farm on the edge of Old Trail. Decker’s Happy Eggs––named after Decker Zobrist, the boy who started the business in 2017––has grown under its new leadership and now boasts an output of 130 dozen eggs a week. James said the family eats a lot of eggs, but the enormous production is mostly for profit.
James does have some upper management help, mostly Paul, 8; George, 6; and Juliette, 5; and is assisted in the post-production work by Jackson, 13; and Vienna, 11. They’re his five brothers and sisters.
There’s a sales force too, the “egg reps,” friends from school who help deliver and assist with marketing, riding their bikes around neighborhoods and knocking on doors of potential customers. Selling is his least favorite part, James admits. Luckily, his elite marketing team is willing to assist for a cut of the profits. The middle school entrepreneurs get a one-dollar fee per delivery or a flat fee for new pick-up customers.
There’s also a legal advisor connected with Decker’s Happy Eggs. His father, Jonny Jacobs, is an attorney with Zobrist Law Group. Dad had plenty of experience with business law but, he admitted, zero experience with farming.
“No one on the planet ever had less,” Jonny said. But he did have a Crozet connection, Darren Zobrist, with a family farm in Crozet and an egg business run by his son, Decker. When the Zobrists moved to Puerto Rico, the Jacobs family moved to the farm, and Jonny joined the legal practice owned by Darren’s father, Duane Zobrist.
It may have been too hasty a move, Jonny once thought. “I was in shock. I had a big law practice, a bunch of kids, endless work.” After six months or so, this changed. “It was like a switch was turned on.” He and Andrea, his wife, examined the egg business that then employed a mere 60 or so hens with an eye towards economy of scale. “We were doing all the work, for not much return. We wanted to make the profits more substantial so the kids would want to be involved, and it would be worthwhile for them.”
They sat down with James and outlined their plans for expansion. Their oldest son was ready for the new venture, and the first step in the business plan was a trip to the Free Union Grass Farm to purchase 130 more birds. It turned out to be quite a trip, with James, Darren and Vienna in the middle of the three-row vehicle and the hens in the back, squawking and flapping and generally in a panic. As Jonny recalls, “We made it back to Crozet in record time.” Also in record time: a trip to the car wash and a concerted effort to provide the best life possible for new hens and old.
For hens, a good life means plenty of space, clean water and access to fresh bugs and grass.
The Jacobs decided to adopt the model made famous by Swoope farmer Joe Salatin, with A-frame housing that moves around, providing the birds with fresh grass and the grass with fresh manure at each stop. Jonny suspects the hens might also benefit from the beautiful view, just as he does. The operation’s attention to health and cleanliness has paid off: “These eggs are nothing like what you might buy in the grocery store,” he said. “They taste so good, and homegrown eggs have more good cholesterol, less of the bad, and all kinds of antioxidants.”
Since the operation is clean and the eggs roll gently down to a collection point from the laying boxes, there’s no need for anything but the most superficial spot cleaning. “Fresh eggs have a special coating that keeps them fresh longer,” James explained. “They last much longer if you don’t wash off that coating.”
With almost 200 hens, the business was on its way, but it needed many more egg sales to pay for the portable living quarters, the special feed, and the commissions for the teenage sales force. James quickly became a connoisseur of egg aesthetics and found he appreciated the appearance as well as the flavor of his product: “I like to give people a carton of eggs with different colors,” he said. So, in short order they grew a multicultural flock. They can count on the Ameraucana hens to lay green eggs, the Whiting True Blue for blue eggs, and the Novogen White and Golden Comet hens to produce white and brown eggs, respectively.
James realized the best value was in purchasing newly-hatched chicks, and the family established a nursery where the babies are kept fed and warm until they can join the flock. When it’s time to introduce them into the main operation, James said he found it works best to slip them in at night. Hens aren’t always receptive to newcomers and can sometimes turn into bullies, he said.
The expansion has worked, and the hen force is coming into full production now. The management team and the reps are searching for new customers in Crozet, and they’re glad to deliver to certain neighborhoods for an extra dollar. Or you might want to pick up your order at the edge of the farm on Haden Lane on Thursdays. Jonny loves to see the neighborhood customers gather there, he said: “It has turned into a bit of a social event.” To minimize contact, James sends out bills, which can be paid in a number of ways.
The flock is healthy, so there aren’t many emergencies. A handful of roosters police the hens, but once in a while a hawk or a fox will get one. James has observed the roosters sometimes intervene to keep the peace between angry hens, who take offense at another hen for no good reason apparent to humans. He can spot subtle signs of weakness in his flock, and has learned a lot about health care for hens. Some of the information he’s gotten from observation and books, but in a pinch he’s most likely to call Decker in Puerto Rico for advice: “I think he knows everything there is to know about chickens,” James said.
In addition to looking after his egg empire and his education, James also enjoys rock climbing, mountain biking and backpacking, and aspires to join the Western Albemarle crew once he’s there. As enterprising as he is, James still doesn’t know about his future profession, he said, “but I don’t think I’ll be a chicken farmer.”
For details about purchase and delivery, go to deckershappyeggs.com.