(Originally published December 15, 2014 on Examiner.com)
This past summer Vital Farms, the only national supplier of pasture-raised eggs in the country, conducted an online survey. One of the questions Vital Farms posed was an open ended one where people were asked to describe, in their own terms, what they thought “free range” meant. Of the six hundred or so people who replied with a coherent answer, ninety-nine percent defined “free range” as hens living outdoors eating grass and bugs. Or, in other words, people who thought they were getting pasture raised eggs, were instead getting eggs laid by hens that only have very limited access to the outdoors. The truth is that labels used by the egg industry like “free range” and “cage free” are meaningless terms that don’t convey any sense of the reality in which eggs are being produced. So when these people- who all along wanted pasture raised eggs- realize what the labels actually represent, they instead start purchasing pasture raised eggs at a phenomenal rate. Thus Vital Farms’ business continues to grow. These customers care about where there food comes from.
Vital Farms’ tag line is “happy hens humanely raised for ethical food.” So they raise their chickens humanely in a sustainable fashion to the best of their ability in order to produce eggs that are more nutritious than cage free, free range and any other kind of specialty egg. They do this with the added benefit that their eggs taste better than other commercially available eggs due to the mixed diets that their laying hens eat. Vital Farms is a sustainable farming company looking to be part of the food production revolution that is ongoing in this country where people are looking for food that is better produced and humanely raised.
Back in 2007 when Vital Farms started with fifty birds and they were selling to Whole Foods a lot of people said, “hey this is great but you’re not going to be able to scale this or make any money.“ Vital Farms has proved those skeptics wrong since in seven years they’ve gone from being in one store to being in over fifteen hundred stores. This expansion includes Southern California where this past fall Vital Farms introduced their Alfresco Eggs brand to over two hundred Ralphs and over sixty Vons stores in the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego areas. This expansion also comes on the eve of the implementation of California Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. This Act, that requires larger cage sizes for laying hens, goes into effect January 1, 2015. (The new law requires 116 square inches indoor per laying hen. Vital Farms provides each laying hen on average 15,552 square inches per laying hen).
Currently the percentage of pastured eggs is just one percent of the specialty egg market. Specialty eggs are free range, cage free, Omega 3 eggs or pretty much anything that is not a caged hen. The specialty egg market is five percent of the total egg market, and ten percent of the retail egg market. However that one percent was half a percent a year ago and only a quarter percent the year before that. So the rate of growth of this segment is astronomical in a sense plus continues to grow. People want eggs from hens that better represent the way they want farm animals to be raised. There is plenty of available land for the pastured raised egg market to grow as a segment for the foreseeable future. Vital Farms isn’t running out of space. They’re continuously looking for more farmers with experience plus have a lot of farmers migrating over from industrial systems to be a part of Vital Farms’ network instead.
Currently Vital Farms’ network includes fifty farms located in six states across what’s known as the “pasture belt” including Georgia, Texas, Arkansas and California where laying hens are raised outside year round and aren’t as affected by the circadian cycle. There are a few more farms coming on-board soon. Every week Vital Farms gets emails with inquiries from farmers. Though a lot of those inquiries are from novices who love the model but don’t have a lot of experience raising chickens. They’re not the sort of farmers Vital Farms is looking for. Instead Vital Farms is looking for farmers with experience raising chickens ideally in a similar system who also can follow a regulated set of procedures for pastured raised eggs and who also know how to operate a farm in an economically viable way. Another condition for farms is proximity to a processing center where eggs get washed, graded, checked and packed. Vital Farms likes to have its farmers within four hours of a processing center so eggs aren’t driven all across the country to process them. There’s a thorough vetting process for prospective farmers. Vital Farms wants to make sure the relationship lasts long term and that the relationship is beneficial to both parties. They’re not looking to take advantage of anyone who comes to join them.
Several of Vital Farms’ farmers are former industrial contracted farmers. One big change for these farmers is that they can raise their families with their kids on the farm. Their kids are often in the fields playing with the chickens. Industrial farms are not nice environments for young children. Another huge difference for Vital Farms’ farmers is that there is less of a financial investment for the farm system. Plus Vital Farms also pays a better rate per egg. So farmers not only make a better living but they don’t go into such deep debt to get set up. Plus any changes to regulations that are forced on the egg industry by the FDA and USDA do not cause as much reinvestment as would occur at an industrial farm where bigger fans or taller roofs may be needed which then results in tearing down and rebuilding barns. Changes have less of a financial impact on the small farmers that Vital Farms work with who raise their hens on pasture.
Most of the farms in Vital Farms network have about fifteen hundred to three thousand laying hens. There are some smaller flocks in Northern California in the Petaluma area, which are mixed flocks that tend to run a little smaller even though these flocks are on larger farms. Here the hens have up to six hundred square feet per bird. This is in stark contrast to industrial farms where up to a million hens with trimmed beaks are crammed in cages in laying houses two and three stories high. Even in cage free systems, there still are twenty to thirty thousand birds with trimmed beaks confined within large windowless warehouses that have large fans to keep the ammonia from the chicken’s waste from getting too toxic.
As for the eggs, the original eggs Vital Farms produced were one hundred percent organic so the feed was, and still is, organic. The list of regulations to be certified organic goes far beyond if just the feed is organic. There is a whole list of considerations including the way the animals are kept to a degree, how farms are maintained, etc. In reality all of Vital Farms’ farms are kept to those standards: land is organically treated with no herbicides or other pesticides. Now the main difference between Vital Farms various brands is the providence of the feed; what kind of feed it is. The components of the feed are always the same: corn and unprocessed soy meal. But if it is USDA Organic Certified or non-GMO product verified those are considerably more expensive than uncertified or non-verified feed. So that’s where you get the price differential and that is what accounts for the different price points of the different brands.
The brand recently introduced to customers in Southern California at Ralph’s and Vons, the “Alfresco Eggs,” is what Vital Farms call their conventional pasture raised brand that typically retails between five to six dollars. The non-GMO brand “Backyard Eggs” is currently available only in Whole Foods. Vital Farms will be introducing a non-GMO brand outside of Whole Foods in 2015 called “Lucky Ladies” These retail and will retail between seven-fifty and eight-fifty. The organic brand retails between eight-fifty and ten dollars.
What Vital Farms has determined is that non-GMO feed is not significantly cheaper than organic feed just because of supply and demand. There aren’t enough people making this type of feed. Though as supply grows the gap between non-certified and certified is closing. Some would say that’s unfortunate because organic is superior and is always across the board a better product with Vital Farms’ eggs. But the reality is the driving costs for producing eggs is the feed. It is an input output model. What one puts into a chicken, one gets out as an egg. So whatever is put into a chicken has to be offset with the cost that those eggs are sold for. Thus non-GMO and organic feed are close in price and the conventional is less expensive.
Vital Farms has a lot of passionate followers who frequently send emails asking why Vital Farms does a non-organic, non-GMO brand and who express the belief that Vital Farms should adhere to its organic principles. Well the reality is that up to fifty percent of what the chicken eats is coming from the pastures which are organic, in all but name, for every single farm (the majority of the farms are certified organic). They don’t pay for the organic certification where the conventional brands are produced because there’s no need to carry the certification since the hens are given conventional feed. There’s just no need to take on those additional certification costs. But apart from being certified organic, all of the land on all of the farms is organically treated with no herbicides, pesticides, weed pickers, or toxic run offs. So at least fifty percent of the feed is coming from the organic land’s vegetation and insects.
Now a “cage free” specialty egg typically retails for between four to five dollars. So consumers can more easily make a jump up to a pasture raised egg if they aren’t doubling their eggs costs. But once they go from five to six dollars and appreciate the benefits they get from their eggs (which are the eggs they thought they were getting all along), they then may make the decision to go to organic and pasture raised. Thus the conventional egg brand, “Alfresco Eggs” is a “gateway” egg that introduces these consumers to pasture raising and the benefits of pasture raising which include benefits not just to the consumer but to the chicken, farmer and the land as well. Vital Farms works with a stakeholder model where everybody and everything that is involved with the production of the product benefits all across the board. That’s pretty much how they operate as a business. So the benefits to the consumer are many.
Vital Farms also looked really hard at the end of last year at producing a soy free egg. There are a number of reasons why they haven’t done it yet. First of all to replace soy in feed, they’d need a mix of about twelve different beans and pulses to adequately replace soy. So for every one of those ingredients they would have to be able to verify and certify the supply chain and there is an inherent cost for that. When this is done for one soy crop there’s “x’ amount of dollars. When this is done with twelve crops there are twelve times that “x” expense just to verify those crops are organic or non-GMO. So that’s one issue. Secondarily a lot of the farms that go soy free use a variety of animal sources like crab or fish meal. Typically those come from non-sustainable farmed or wild caught sources like menhaden that’s used for fish meal. The population of menhaden is collapsing due to over fishing to produce this fish meal for livestock feed. Because Vital Farms’ business model requires sustainability at every juncture, they can’t look at these types of animal proteins. They have no aversion to animal proteins, they just can’t use ones that aren’t sustainable farmed or caught. Plus the farmed sources use feed with a much higher concentration of soy than Vital Farms uses in their feed. So all that is being done is to offset the issue with the feed by one generation. Yet another thing is that when they’ve been to some of the stores (they do store visits all the time) that sell soy free eggs, the eggs with the most cartons remaining on the shelves are the soy free ones. With most types of eggs there will be around twenty five percent left. With the soy free eggs, there are around ninety percent left stocked.
Vital Farms has also looked at things like coconut, copra, hemp oil as alternatives to soy. There are so many inherent problems with any alternative. Currently the FDA also prohibits the feeding of insects as feed to laying hens from which eggs are gathered for sale. Nevertheless, Vital Farms is still investigating insects and their larvae as potential feed sources for the future. Insects have the potential of being a great alternative and will continue to be explored. Though for right now, especially with the FDA’s restrictions, there just yet isn’t a viable alternative, but Vital Farms is still looking at doing a soy free egg.
Vital Farms has done some specific tests for isoflavones in their eggs. They sent a whole batch from all of their farms to a university’s labs to measure the amounts of isoflavones. The results came back and the amount of soy isoflavones in their eggs was less than what is in two pin heads of soy milk. The studies where people have issues with soy are ones where people are drinking four liters of soy milk a day. Even customers with soy allergies have written Vital Farms with the mistaken impression that Vital Farms’ eggs are soy free. So a soy free egg is a very tenuous pay off. Though they’re still trying to do one but they’re not willing to sacrifice their standards or methodology to do one until they find the right soy free solution. Then, at that point, they’ll do a limited regional roll out of that soy free brand to see if it is something that people really want.
Find out more about Vital Farms by visiting their website at vitalfarms.com Plus find where Vital Farms eggs are sold with their ‘Amazing Egg-Finder’ atvitalfarms.com/map. Please also follow Vital Farms on Facebook andTwitter for news, updates and chicken scraps.