Boscawen: A farmer’s life for Tom Giovagnoli

  • Bonnie the dog looks out of the newly erected organic chicken egg barn in Boscawen on Monday, Sept. 12, during an open house hosted by owner Tom Giovagnoli. Giovagnoli, who initially tried to open his operation in Dunbarton, is caring for 20,000 layer hens and collecting eggs for Pete and Gerry's. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Tom Giovagnoli, left, and former University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension poultry specialist Tom Danko, right, chat during an open house at Giovagnoli Farms on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Tom Giovagnoli stands in front of his newly erected Boscawen barn on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, where visitors must don biohazard suits and use hand sanitizer before entering the chicken area. Giovagnoli is caring for 20,000 chickens that will lay eggs for Pete and Gerry's. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Pete and Gerry's farm manager Kyle Phelps gives a tour of Giovagnoli Farms' new chicken barn on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Pete and Gerry’s farm manager Kyle Phelps gives a tour of Giovagnoli Farms’ new chicken barn on Monday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Layer hens get settled in at Giovagnoli Farms in Boscawen on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. The 20,000 or so hens will be laying eggs for Pete and Gerry's. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Karl Johnson, Pete and Gerry's farm outreach director, wears a biohazard suit and plastic booties before entering Tom Giovagnoli's newly opened chicken barn in Boscawen on Sept. 20. 2016. One of the biggest health concerns for chicken farmers is avian flu. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Several dozen visitors attended an open house at Giovagnoli Farms in Boscawen, where Tom Giovagnoli has begun operating an organic egg farm for Pete and Gerry's. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Grass grows alongside Tom Giovagnoli's Boscawen barn on Sept. 20, 2016. The 20,000 chickens he is raising for eggs will go outside for the first time in the next several days. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Tom Giovagnoli spent several years trying to open an organic chicken farm in Dunbarton. He finally found a home in Boscawen and began his operation last week. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tom Giovagnoli finally has his girls.
The 52-year-old retired Manchester diesel mechanic now lives with 20,000 chickens on his brand new farm in Boscawen, and he couldn’t be happier.

“I think it’s awesome,” Giovagnoli said. He’s always wanted his own farm, he said, having grown up raising hogs in Manchester.

Operations at Giovagnoli Farms LLC officially began when the birds arrived last Thursday, making him one of about 50 small family farms supplying Monroe-based Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs.

This plan was hatched several years – and one lawsuit – ago. Giovagnoli spent two years negotiating with several towns about his potential egg farm, starting in 2013 with Dunbarton, where he owned an 83-acre farm on Twist Hill Road.

The planning board rejected Giovagnoli’s plan for a 27,000-square-foot laying barn after residents complained of potential smell and wastewater runoff. For a time, the wannabe farmer lost his contract with Pete and Gerry’s.

In 2014, Giovagnoli filed suit in Merrimack County Superior Court against the planning board, claiming it acted illegally and unreasonably and caused him to lose out on a more than $1 million farming opportunity. A judge ruled in the town’s favor later that year.

After unsuccessfully looking in Chichester and Weare, Giovagnoli found some luck and a potential home for his coop in Boscawen. He had informal discussions with the agricultural commission, and eventually, the planning board approved his plan for the organic egg operation in February 2015.

The meeting minutes note that Giovagnoli plans to sell his manure since there is a market for it as a natural fertilizer.

Giovagnoli bought a 200-acre woodlot parcel near the Salisbury town line last October, and he’s used a loan from Farm Credit East to build his $700,000 state-of-the-art, free-range, laying hen barn.

“The town couldn’t have made it any easier for me if they had to,” Giovagnoli said.

The barn

Town officials were among the several dozen people who attended the Giovagnoli Farms open house last week. Rhoda Hardy, a planning board member and longtime resident, looked around the new chicken barn and smiled.

“It’s really been very good and we’re lucky they came to Boscawen,” Hardy said. She was especially supportive of Pete and Gerry’s working with a farm in her town, since the egg company donates a number of cartons to the Boscawen food pantry.

“We’ve had eggs all summer long,” Hardy said.

Hardy and others at the open house were generally in awe at the automation of Giovagnoli’s chicken barn, which can be successfully run by one person.

Pete and Gerry’s farm manager Kyle Phelps led a tour around the 532-square-foot building, where special, pink-hued lights lit a plastic grate platform for the chickens, nesting boxes, and the suspended watering and feeding systems.

Phelps explained that an automatic scraping system would clean the manure from the barn and into a pit on a daily basis, and a series of vents and fans keep the air moving in the building.

After peak egg-laying time in the morning, doors will open along the barn for chickens to wander outside, too,

As for the eggs, they are automatically tilted out of a nesting box onto a conveyor belt. The belt sends them into a packaging machine before they are stored in a pallet, refrigerated and then trucked weekly to Pete and Gerry’s processing plant up north.

“The modern chicken farm, believe it or not, there’s lot of paperwork – almost more paperwork than time out in the barn,” Phelps said. Maintenance, he added, is the farmer’s main job, plus picking up any eggs laying on the floor.

The girls

Open house guests received a tour of the empty barn last week, since the chickens didn’t get there until Thursday.

The 20,000 hens, all colored red and hybrid-bred, were just settling in Tuesday. The feathery bunch was quiet as some birds perched on their water feeders. Others dipped their head into the food trough, and most looked curiously at the two humans walking in their coop.

At 18 weeks old, Pete and Gerry’s farm outreach director Karl Johnson said they wouldn’t be laying eggs for another month. They’ll mature under the barn’s pink lights, which stimulate growth and also imitate sunrise and sunset for the chickens.

The biggest concern now, Johnson said, is keeping the birds healthy.

“Probably the biggest danger is humans coming into the barn,” he said. Avian flu – which can be picked up by stepping on bird droppings from wild fowl – is the most present threat.

Red posters resembling stop signs warn visitors along the driveway and in front of the barn that the farm is a “disease prevention area.” Anyone who goes inside is required to wear a biohazard suit and booties. Hand sanitizer sits ready by the barn entrance, too.

“Tom will be depending on these animals for his income,” Johnson said. “We really want to protect our farmers and protect their income.”

If all goes well, Giovagnoli’s current flock of chickens will lose their peak productivity in a little more than a year and will be sold to wholesale markets in New York and New Jersey.

Then, Giovagnoli will start all over again – minus going town to town and finding a home for his farm. He’s all settled in Boscawen along with his hens, and there he’ll stay, surrounded by neighbors that he said value agriculture, just like him.

“They’re all farmers, too,” Giovagnoli said.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)