Just off of Highway 50 on North East Lake Road, there's a small farmstead that stands out when you pass by. The bright yellow school buses on the property are particularly hard to miss.
No, owners Dwayne and Shelby Unruh are not building up their own fleet of transportation vehicles. These buses, like much of the equipment on site, have been repurposed for another use — housing the 800 laying hens that make up the bulk of their farming operation, "Graze N Layz."
Eggs are the main product the Unruhs are currently focused on, with Graze N Layz dozens sold in several local stores (including Meridian Grocery and Prairie Harvest in Newton, Weaver Grocery in Hesston, Keith's Foods in Goessel and Pop's Diner in Peabody), but the Unruhs noted they are also hoping to supply meat to those same stores starting this year — with state certification the last step in that process. They experimented with chickens and turkeys in the fall, while also potentially looking to add beef cows or hogs to their operation this spring.
As for the business's origin, poultry has been Dwayne's bread and butter since he first started 4-H in the third grade, getting more seriously involved once he joined FFA in high school — going on to win the 2010 National Poultry Proficiency Award in college. While earning his degrees in entrepreneurship and animal science from Kansas State University, the seeds for Graze N Layz were planted, which he started as a side business while in school.
"When I was in college I was also doing this to help pay for living expenses and other college expenses and that sort of thing," Dwayne said. "I think my freshman year (2009) is when I got the first bus."
Dwayne began the business project on his family's farmland, not far from where the current Graze N Layz operation is situated (as his parents own a farm less than a mile to the west, and his aunt and uncle are just across the road from them, both near his grandparents' farm), and his father helped tend to the chickens while he was away at college.
Between him and his father, Dwayne noted the idea to use school buses for chicken coops came up somewhere along the line, given that old models sold for relatively cheap and they came with good tires, insulation and tightly sealed windows. While it took some time before Dwayne got his second bus for the operation, the business model started to grow during that gap, as he competed in the "Next Big Thing" entrepreneurship contest at KSU.
"My first time doing it, this (Graze N Layz) was the business that I created, so that's when I got all the background data just starting it," Dwayne said, "and that's probably where I really thought maybe this is something that we could do here at the farm."
Expanding from his family's operations (his father raises cattle and his uncle tends crops), Dwayne purchased the farmland for Graze N Layz a few years ago, though everything about the business remains very communal.
"It's a family effort," Shelby said. "I usually get home about 12:30 or 1 p.m. and I gather the eggs, at least during the week. That's my job. And then, his parents actually do the washing. They usually wash them, package them and bag them, and then Dwayne does most of the bigger projects like grinding the feed, filling the feeders, filling the waterers, moving the buses and fences. He does a lot more of the big projects, I'd say, and we kind of take care of the little stuff on a daily basis."
Right now, the Unruhs noted their hens are producing about 45 dozen eggs per day, but that number will grow closer to 50 once the weather gets a bit warmer. While that keeps them busy, Dwayne noted it will be even more so in the spring as he raises the chicks (which he buys each year) to maintain a productive rotation on the farm. Add in the birds being raised for meat, and that is nearly 3,000 chickens Dwayne may be tending to in the spring.
Compared to the hens, the chicks need more attention, with Dwayne noting he will go out to water and feed the latter two to three times a day compared to once a week with the former, but it is work he still enjoys — especially in coming up with new ideas for how to go about those daily tasks.
When Dwayne bought the farm, he said it was overgrown, and given the costs that can add up when starting a new farm he had to get creative in implementing equipment to help with the routine chores. So, like the buses, he found ways to utilize resources he already had access to.
"I really enjoy thinking up new and interesting ways to use old stuff, repurposing it to use it for new operation parts. Pretty much everything out there has been repurposed from something else," Dwayne said.
"He's an engineer at heart," Shelby said.
Some of the items he has converted include turning old combines into feed wagons, making a washing station out of an old garage and transforming milk coolers into temporary storage for the meat birds that are processed.
Providing their products to local vendors — including donating some eggs to the Salvation Army — the Unruhs believe the health and environmental benefits are not lost on area consumers.
"Our chickens, they get to roam around and wander, and I feel like a lot of people are conscious about that," Shelby said. "They don't want the animals that they're eating to live terrible lives, and ours don't. They're pretty happy out here on the farm."
Additionally, the Unruhs are pretty happy, too. Given the opportunity, Dwayne would even like to be on the farm full-time (both Unruhs have part-time jobs in Newton) and potentially offer tours in the future as well.
For more information on the business, visit the Graze N Layz Facebook page.