The quest to find free range eggs, or organic eggs, or both, is often a confusing one for consumers. The standards over what defines a genuinely free range egg, or a barn raised egg or an industrial organic egg, cause plenty of arguments on both sides of the pond.
But no matter how you define what a free range egg, the fact is that more consumers, and businesses, now turn to more humane eggs. Large chains such as Burger King and Krispy Kreme have transitioned to either free-range or cage-free eggs. Whether this makes a difference in the nutritional value of these companies’ products is debatable, and animal rights activists have plenty to say whether “free range” truly is a plus for chickens. But overall these steps are a positive trajectory for animals, and surging consumer interest in more ethically source foods is turning into a gold mine for entrepreneurs. One free range success story is occurring outside of Austin, Texas.
Vital Farms, which Matt O’Hayer founded in 2007, has grown to a network of 15 family farms that reached almost $5 million in annual sales. The chickens who live on these farms have the most comfortable existence that egg-laying hens could possibly score. Hens live outside, where they can forage for grass and insects, and can roam, explore, and scratch to their hearts’ content. The grain feed Vital Farms’ managers use to facilitate the hens’ egg production is GMO-free, pesticide-free and certified organic. As the nationwide drought has devastated farms in Texas and the midwest, Vital Farms’ employees have done what they could to keep hens in the company’s flagship farm to stay happy and cozy by building man-made roosts for shade and extra hand filling of water dishes to keep them hydrated and cool.
The results have been increased sales at Whole Foods and other supermarket chains across the country, and after balking, Vital Farms has now entered the broiler chicken business. The chickens are granted the same privileges as their egg-laying sisters, and for now carry a “Step 4” rating at the Whole Foods meat counters in the southwestern United States. Vital Farms has gained plenty of attention for its humane and innovative business practices, and landed on the Inc. 500/5000 list this year.
Other farmers and entrepreneurs have joined the free range egg bandwagon, from New England’s Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs to Mary’s Chickens in the San Joaquin Valley. All these companies face long term challenges on the growth front as their farming practices do lend themselves to scale. The American Egg Board, the egg industry’s largest trade group, is lukewarm to this trend at best and hostile at worst. But as more consumers become aware of the negative results that come from industrial farming, growth in small businesses will pay dividends in communities, on kitchen tables–and even for chickens.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photos courtesy Vital Farms.