From Our Friends at The Works Bakery Cafe

(A Guest Post from our Friends at The Works Bakery Café! The Works has 8 delicious bakery locations throughout New England)

Sit back and grab an omelet. We’ve got a story for you.

You like eggs, right? At the Works, we buy, make and eat a LOT of eggs.

Which means a lot of chickens need to lay a lot of eggs. Farmers sort these oblong gifts of white-gold nutrition into five sizes from small to jumbo.

Here’s the thing. Generally speaking, we like big eggs. We like eggs that fill up a carton like the Hulk fills jeans. Big is not only beautiful, it’s the only thing our moon pie eyes can see.

But, chickens, man. Chickens… They lay what they lay. Big, small, medium. So what’s a chicken farmer to do?

Ten years ago Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs were swimming in petits oeufs when they met #TheWorks founder Richard French, who couldn’t find local, organic eggs at a price that would work for his customers. No recording of the conversation exists, but we have it on good authority that it went something like this:

RICHARD: “The Works needs eggs! So many eggs.”

PETE AND GERRY: “Dude, we have eggs.”

R: “Are you from New England? We try to be really thoughtful about where we get our food.”

P&G: “Yep. Monroe, NH.”

R: “Are your eggs organic? Any chance?”

P&G: “Organic, free range, from small family farms. Certified Humane. B Corp Certified. The works.”

R: (shakes his head, looks at the ground, grins, looks up to the sky, shakes his head again and says) “Wow. But man, premium eggs — that’s a path to the $12 breakfast sandwich.”

(There is a long pause, with a hint of pessimism hanging in the air. Then…)

P&G: “Do you care about size? Would small and medium sized eggs be okay?”

R: “Heck yeah. But can we get ’em already cracked? No way we can crack 400 eggs on a busy breakfast line.”

(P&G and R look at each other. A general feeling of “Dude, we’ve come this far, we can figure this out” fills the air.)

P&G: “Dude, we’ve come this far.”

R: “We can figure this out.”

NEARBY CHICKEN: Bravo, gentlemen! Strong regional economies start when producers and restaurants get together, tell each other what they need, see what products aren’t fitting into the market right now, figure out how to use them, and come up with a solution that benefits everybody. Creativity, practicality, patience, good will. Awesome. BWAAAAAAAAAWK.

Ten years on, The Works and Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs remain partners in getting awesome eggs to our customers.

 

Good Feed makes for Good Eggs

You are what you eat, as they say.

We all know that a good diet is essential to good health. That’s one reason many of us eat eggs. And yet, too often, as people, we don’t always do a great job with our own nutrition, ill-advised temptations being abundant. At Pete and Gerry’s, our organic, Certified Humane, free range hens have it a little bit better. To begin with, their “treats” are finding insects in the grass. And when it comes to their main meals, they get the benefit of PhD nutritionists as their personal chefs, something few of us enjoy.

Les Morrison, of Morrison Custom Feeds in Barnet, Vermont, a Pete & Gerry’s feed supplier, puts it this way “people food is in the stone age compared to what the hens get for balanced nutrition.” Feed mixtures are developed with an eye to making sure that a hens’ every nutritional need is met in terms of nutrients, protein, sodium-balancing bi-carbonates, ground limestone for developing a strong egg shell, electrolytes and much more.

Contrast that to the giant factory farms that make most of the eggs sold today which use a “least cost formulation” for their feed. That means exactly what it sounds like ­— whatever is the cheapest way possible to give the hens enough calories to lay eggs that day. You can see and taste the result in the eggs.

There are between 30 and 35 separate organic ingredients in our feed mix. And the mixture is adjusted continuously, based on the weather (cold or hot), the flock’s age and point in their laying cycle, general health, and a range of other factors. That’s why another of our feed advisors, Heritage Poultry Management Services, employs two full-time PhD animal nutritionists on their staff.

There is a lot of science to the way we formulate our feed. But one aspect of science that you won’t find in any of our feed is pharmaceuticals ­– something you will find in just about all feed that goes to factory farms, which make up 90% of the eggs sold in the U.S. According to Morrison, that’s just putting a Band-Aid on a problem that won’t actually fix it. “The way to keep birds healthy, besides feeding them properly, is to make sure their living environment is clean and not overcrowded” he says. “Good egg farmers are in their barns every day. They can see problems before they happen, sometimes just by listening to the birds” (quiet hen houses can be an indication of a virus starting to spread through the flock).

That’s why we don’t treat our free range hens prophylactically with drugs that are only going to decrease their resistance and then wind up in the eggs. We treat them with care instead.

Morrison concludes, after admitting to a weakness for potato chips in his own diet, that if he were to die and come back as a hen, he would hope to be a Pete and Gerry’s hen.

Why Do Good Eggs Cost More?

At Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, we do understand the question. From the outside, one egg looks a lot like another. And when you regularly see eggs at the store for $2 dollars a dozen (and sometimes less) you begin to see this as the “real” cost of eggs. From there it’s natural to assume that anyone who charges more is just padding their profit.

But before we talk about why our free range organic eggs cost more, let’s first look at why their eggs cost less. Consider that a typical hen can lay almost one egg per day. But to feed and house her in a heated, ventilated barn for a year is not inexpensive. After an egg is laid, it must be collected, washed, inspected, and graded for sale. Finally, the eggs must be packaged and shipped to market. It’s a pretty labor-intensive business. When your great grandparents’ generation was selling eggs straight off the farm to neighbors or to local stores, the inflation-adjusted cost was way, way over $2 a dozen. In those days, people accepted that food had to be a significant part of their overall household budget because most people had first-hand knowledge of how difficult it was to produce that food.

The reason that commodity eggs can sell today for an almost laughably small amount of money (less than a bottle of water, less than a cup of coffee) is the result of giant agribusiness and the blind pursuit of “efficiency.” Efficiency sounds good, and it is good when balanced with other costs and considerations, but in this case, efficiency means putting hundreds of thousands of hens into a warehouse, stacked floor to ceiling with battery cages that cram six hens into a space the size of a microwave oven. The overcrowding, filth, disease and general misery of the animals is so extreme that it stands out even in the world of mass-produced animal agriculture. Their feed is a “least cost formulation” lacking essential nutrition, but that does usually include antibiotics to control the diseases that spread in the overcrowded barns. But, it is efficient! They can crank out millions of eggs and still make a small profit at $2 a carton.

We simply won’t do that. It’s bad for hens and bad for people. And thankfully, now that consumers are learning about these practices and speaking out, change is coming. “Cage Free,” which doesn’t quite mean what it sounds like (i.e. the birds are still confined in massive numbers, cannot go outside, etc.), will still be an improvement in terms of animal welfare. It is likely to come at a higher price on the shelf too. And, it will be money well spent for hens and consumers, despite its shortcomings.

Our farming practices are far better still. We are USDA Organic, Certified Humane Free Range, which means free access to ample pasture space except in very cold weather, ample space in the barn, no confinement whatsoever (“Cage Free” can’t say this, learn more here), roosting spaces, nesting boxes, high quality organic feed and much more. We do this on true small family farms that support real farm families and their rural communities. So, when all is said and done, you will get 12 humanely raised, organic, antibiotic free, protein-filled, nutritionally dense eggs for a few dollars. When you compare that value to your cable bill, your car insurance, or just about anything else at the grocery store – it starts to seem like a pretty good deal.

So the question we ask is not why Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs cost so much, but why do those other eggs cost so little?

Big Changes to Our Small Farm

As those of you who have read past posts on this blog know, our farm up here in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire was where it all started. Way, way back it was a dairy farm. Then my grandfather Les decided to try chickens, after he returned from World War II, because there were so many other dairy farms in the valley at that time. My father and mother converted the farm to Organic, Free Range back when barely anyone had ever heard of such a thing. They did this because they were being priced out of the egg market by giant agricultural factory farms that could vastly underprice anything they could do. In the process, they discovered the joy of farming in a humane, responsible way.

When I took over the family business, demand for our ethical Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs was growing very quickly and we were adding barns here on our property to meet it. It was then that I was struck by the fact that if we just kept adding more barns, pretty quickly, we would become just another giant egg producer. Maybe we would be a more ethical giant egg producer, but we would be a giant nonetheless. And that would mean pushing other small farms like we once were out of the way.

That’s when it hit me, why not support all the other small farms out there that were just like us when we started, but that don’t have the same opportunity from a sales and distribution standpoint as we do? Some 130 small family, partner farms later, Pete and Gerry’s is still growing by staying small and by supporting real families out there who still have a dream of farming responsibly while making a living.

So successful this has been, we’re now even managing to reduce the footprint of the home farm even more. At our peak, we had nine barns in use with over 100,000 hens on the property, all meeting the Certified Humane Free Range standard. If that sounds like a lot, it’s actually not that much when you consider that factory farm competitors routinely cram over 300,000 hens into a single barn and have millions on site. But it was still more than we wanted given our belief in a different type of farming model. In the past six months, by not repopulating barns whose flocks reached the natural end of their lifecycle, we are now down to just two barns and less than 40,000 hens.

We plan to always have Free Range hens on the home farm. We feel that the best way to be good stewards to our partner farms is to know exactly what their lives are like and what challenges they face. And it keeps one humble, standing in a pasture of hens every day, listening to what they have to say. Still, we’re very pleased that we’ve managed to meet the growing demand for our wonderful, free range, organic eggs by staying small ourselves and thereby benefiting other small farms and the countless communities they thrive in.

Journey of the Egg – From Farm to Table

How does an egg make it from one of our small family farms to your home?

At the Farm

The journey begins in a nesting box, inside the barn, where one of our hens lays her egg. She will typically lay one egg per day, usually in the morning hours. From there the egg will slowly roll down the inclined, padded surface of the nesting box to the conveyor belt that runs the length of the barn. It will usually sit motionless on the belt until about 11AM when the farmer turns on the belt and gets ready to pack eggs in the packing room. The conveyor delivers the egg, along with several thousand others from that morning, to the packing station. A packing machine gently loads the eggs from the conveyor into plastic trays. The farmer, and if they are lucky a family member or two, run the packing machine, pull out any cracked eggs, and carefully stack the trays of eggs onto a pallet. Each pallet contains 900 dozen eggs. The pallet is then rolled into the adjacent cold storage room that is kept at 45 degrees.

On the Road

Once a week, one of our fleet of “Rooster Cruiser” trucks will turn into the farm and roll up to the small loading dock next to the cold storage room. At that time, the week’s worth of eggs, somewhere between ten to twenty thousand dozen, depending on the farm, will be loaded onto the truck. The truck will make a few more stops at other farms in the area until it is full and then proceed to one of our two processing plants in Pennsylvania or New Hampshire.

In the Plant

At the plant, the egg will now be rolled into our “nest run” cold storage area. When we are ready to run the eggs from that farm, the egg trays are loaded into our egg washer where they first go through an Organic citrus-based solution. Brushes do a gentle scrub before they get a sanitizing rinse.

At this point things get pretty technical as each individual egg is photographed and cataloged by the computer. The camera is looking for specs of dirt, cracks and other imperfections. It is also gauging the size of the egg so that down the line it will know to send them to the correct packing station for Large, Extra Large, Jumbo and so on. Each egg is also tapped lightly by a tuning fork at this stage to test for hairline cracks that the camera cannot see. Broken or otherwise problematic eggs are pulled from the line automatically. A little less than 1% of them are simply thrown out to become pig feed for other farms and other are sent to a “breakers” line where they are cracked into our liquid egg products. The intact eggs move up the line to the packaging station based on their size and are automatically placed into cartons, never being touched by human hands. From there they go into master cases and are put back onto a truck. See our video of this part of the journey.

To the Store

From here, the trail can get a little complicated. Sometimes, our trucks will deliver right to a grocery chain’s central warehouse and they will redistribute them to their individual stores. In other cases, we might deliver them to an independent distributor to haul for us. And in some cases, we might even deliver our eggs to a big factory farm where they are “cross docked” and loaded onto other trucks that do individual store delivery. That’s because we don’t operate a big enough fleet to drive to individual stores, nor would we have enough eggs of our own to deliver even if we did. So in those cases where a big caged egg company is also the sole egg distributor for a given location, we have to “ride along” with them. That’s why you can see our trucks backed up to these mega farms. It’s not because we’re picking up eggs there, it’s because we’re delivering them there! Not an ideal situation, but for us, the only way to get our eggs where they need to go.

On Your Table

The final leg of the journey is from the store’s back room out to the egg shelf, and then home to your kitchen table. The typical time from nest to table is about 25 days. That is well within what USDA recommends for fresh egg consumption and still leaves plenty of time for you to store in your refrigerator before eating. We print the “Best By” date right on our carton as to when we recommend you consume the eggs by. But don’t worry, eggs are very resilient to spoiling and it’s possible to eat them beyond that date and be fine. We don’t recommend that of course, but typically you only lose a little bit of freshness. A good test if you’re not sure of an egg’s freshness is to drop it into a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s still fresh. If it floats, that means that the egg has had time to develop air pockets between the shell and the egg and it’s time to toss it.

Once your eggs are safely home from the store and in the fridge, it’s time to cook them up!  If you’re looking for recipe inspiration, here are some of our favorites.

Getting the Girls Outside – Our Outdoor Access Policy

About a decade ago, we made the decision to stop growing our home farm here in New Hampshire to meet the rising demand for our eggs and to instead partner with dozens of small, family farms that need a market for their organic, free range eggs. That was a great decision, for many, many reasons that I’ve touched on in this blog, but it is also considerably more complex than just building more barns on our property. These are independent farms, spread across the country. So it is vital that we have a great relationship with them to insure that our high standards of quality and humane animal care are never compromised.

One of the ways we do that is by having an Outdoor Access Policy that each farmer agrees to adhere to. Why? Well here’s a little fact you may not know. It’s much safer and easier for a farmer, even conscientious ones like ours are, to keep their hens inside the barns. The flock represents their family’s livelihood, and without their flock, and the eggs they lay, that livelihood could disappear. So naturally, they want to protect it. And while the pasture is something hens clearly enjoy, it’s not as safe as being inside. Threats include predators like foxes and weasels, Avian Influenza from passing migratory foul, cold weather, and even rain and standing water. Hens are a bit like kids, they don’t always know what is good for them and can easily become sick by too much exposure to chilly, cold weather or rain. On top of all that, the farmers want them to learn to lay their eggs in the nesting boxes inside, otherwise, the labor to collect the eggs becomes untenable. So for all these reasons, it can be tempting to keep the girls inside. Most of our farmers enjoy seeing their hens in pasture every day so much, they don’t need to be encouraged to open up the doors, but to make absolutely sure that all our flocks are getting the same humane treatment, we have our policy.

Some of the stipulations include:

  • If the temperature is below 45 or above 93 degrees Fahrenheit, we recommend keeping the hens inside.
  • If there is rain, snow or standing water, we recommend keeping them inside until it clears.
  • During the short period when the hens are laying their first eggs, the farmers need to train them to lay in nests to ensure they do not lay eggs outside.
  • During high-risk periods where a disease like Avian Influenza is a known hazard for that area, in consultation with our team of experts, we may request that they keep the flock inside.
  • Lay times – most of our hens become accustomed to laying in the morning hours. In order to accommodate laying in nest boxes rather than pasture, they may keep the flock inside during the morning lay hours.

They must record their decisions and any exceptions to normal outdoor access due to the above conditions in log books that our auditors can review each week.

This is one of the many ways we are working to help restore human-scale agriculture back to a country with 320 million mouths to feed. It’s a balance between doing everything we can to help the farmers be successful and reduce their risk, while at the same time insuring that we’re farming in a way that is moral and responsible.

Paper or Plastic?

A question that we get a lot usually goes like this: “I love your eggs and your commitment to animal welfare and the environment, but why do you use plastic egg cartons? Isn’t that worse for the environment?”

It’s an excellent question. We’ve all come to see plastic as bad. It’s derived from a non-renewable source (oil), it doesn’t decompose for a very long time, and these days, a lot of it is winding into the oceans (see Pacific Garbage Patch and Microbeads Pollution). So it’s understandable that it has a bad reputation.

On the other hand, the molded pulp cartons and the polystyrene foam cartons are not environmental bargains either, for many of the same reasons. So what’s a well-meaning person to do?

We asked Quantis, a Canadian research company specializing in environmental impact of products, to do a complete Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Egg Cartons for us in 2012.

Quantis looked across the raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and end of life/recycling aspects for RPET (our recycled PET clear package), virgin PET, Recycled Molded Pulp (RMP) and Polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam). They scored that as a total Carbon/Climate Change footprint score based on all of those life stages. They also scored them on the basis of Human Health, Ecosystem Quality, and Resource Depletion measures.

The RPET carton that we use was determined to be superior, or vastly superior, to both the Molded Pulp and Polystyrene as a whole, and across all of the individual life stages, with the one exception that it had a slightly higher manufacturing impact than recycled pulp. It is worth noting that the worst option, was typically the PET plastic made from virgin plastic. That’s because of the high amount of fossil fuels required both as energy and raw material in its production. This is what large 2-liter soda bottles are made from (so think about that the next time you’re considering buying soda). We take the recycled material from those containers to make our cartons. The tri-fold PET also has an important consumer benefit in that it provides the best protection for the eggs while allowing you to see the unbroken eggs without opening the carton in the store.

Once used, our cartons can then be placed right back in the recycling stream for another trip through the system. Paper pulp can also be recycled. Styrofoam all goes to the landfill to wait for the end of time.

So in total, while we wish we could sell our eggs in wooden boxes or wicker baskets that were re-used over an over, we feel as though we’ve arrived at the best possible solution we can for the time being. We ask that you always recycle your Pete & Gerry’s cartons after use and we can continue to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. And thank you for bringing our eggs home in a re-usable canvas bag as well.

Why Cheap Eggs Are So Expensive

At Pete and Gerry’s, our eggs cost a little more than conventional eggs. We don’t apologize for this. In fact, we’re proud of it. We’re proud of producing a great product in a way that is both beneficial and sustainable.

Consider the alternative. Over the course of this past spring, roughly 48 million chickens & turkeys had to be put to death during the Avian Influenza outbreak. In Iowa alone, 24 million hens, or 40% of the egg laying population, were hauled to landfills, buried, or burned. That’s because if a single bird within their massive warehouse enclosures (aka “barns”) contracts the disease, all other birds that could have conceivably come into contact with it have to be put down to contain the spread. So that might mean 5 million birds on a single “farm” are lost all at once.

The loss represented almost 20% of the laying hens in the U.S. This meant an immediate and dramatic increase in the price of conventional, caged-raised eggs that continues to this day. And that wasn’t the only way consumers paid. Several counties in Iowa were declared disaster areas, so taxpayers there were also forced to bail out the huge corporations that make up the agricultural industry in Iowa. Governor Branstad of Iowa also requested federal relief funds but was denied by the Obama administration. Still, the USDA has paid $191 Million in direct payments to farm corporations for their losses already.

This raises the question, how much do eggs really cost? In the store, they might retail for as little as 2 dollars a dozen. That’s because these “farms” have tried to make farming like building widgets. They have created mega factories, scaled up as much as possible, built an assembly line of sorts, systematically eliminated human intervention, creature comfort, or any other detail that could have a small cost associated with it, and built an egg producing machine that can put a carton of eggs on the shelf for 2 bucks, and still leave a tidy profit for the shareholders.

There are two really big problems with this model. One, chickens aren’t widgets. They are living, breathing, thinking animals. So this system that reduces them to egg-laying cogs is cruel beyond belief (and that is probably the best reason not to patronize these companies). The second problem is a systemic one. The scheme has little tolerance. If one bird on a single mega farm gets sick, that means destroying millions of hens, which immediately drives up prices, not to mention requests for government aid. The system is so inhumanely narrow in its construction; it’s just one big house of cards.

The public also bears other costs of giant agricultural operations in terms of waste ponds (giant manure filled puddles that frequently leach into ground water and surface water), the overpowering smells generated by these places, and many other forms of pollution that would not occur with human-scale farming. A study cited 8,400 jobs lost in Iowa as fallout from the epidemic. That means more unemployment claims and a variety of other societal costs. The Des Moines Register estimates the outbreak cost the Iowa economy $1.2B. Figures for the country as a whole are $3.3B.

At Pete and Gerry’s, our small family farms have yet to lose a single hen to Avian Flu. Some of that is due to our careful safety protocols, the close eye our farmers keep on their flocks, and some of it is just luck. But even if we did lose a flock, our egg production is spread out over forty small family farms, each with just a barn or two on their property. None of our partner farms represent more than 3% of our capacity. This humane, distributed method of farming is ultimately a better value for consumers when one carefully considers all the costs.

Egg Yolks – Two for the Price of One

Have you ever cracked into an egg with a double yolk? Lucky you! Ever cracked into several eggs in your dozen to find double yolks in more than one? A fan did recently, and he wrote to us in amazement to find out why. Here’s what we shared:

Double yolks are fairly rare – you might find them in 1 of every 1,000 eggs. These eggs typically come from our younger hens who are still just learning how to lay eggs.

Double yolked eggs also tend to be very large. They are usually graded ‘Super Jumbo.’ Eggs identified as Super Jumbo are too large for our packing machine to pack into cartons, so they are moved to the hand packing station. At Pete & Gerry’s, these eggs are still labeled as Jumbos, even though they are technically Super Jumbos. As our team fills Jumbo egg cartons with the Super Jumbo eggs, of which more than 50% of which will include an extra yolk, that makes something fairly rare in nature suddenly appear rather common.

So if you crack open a Pete & Gerry’s egg and find a double yolk, you’ll actually be pretty likely to find another ‘eggstra’ yolk or two in that same dozen. And because those cartons are hand packed and placed in cases together, you could find a whole grocery display of Jumbo dozens that have a high likelihood of containing a double yolked egg or two!

Focusing on Profitable Partnerships

Recently, chickens have been in the news, and not always for great reasons, such as with bird flu and the attention inhumane practices have received after California passed Proposition 2, forbidding the use of battery cages for producing eggs.

Another news story about chickens that we’ve noticed is about farmers who work under contract for big meat poultry companies. The arrangement works like this: the farmer owns the land, structures and equipment. The poultry company sends them chickens and the feed necessary to raise them. The problem comes when the company continually demands that they modify their facilities in various expensive ways, but do not support that with higher payments to the farmers. Furthermore, they apply a “tournament system” whereby if your birds don’t grow as fat on the same feed as a neighboring contract farm, your payments will be cut and you can even be terminated as a contractor with little notice. Finally, if a farmer requests a change to their facility to improve the quality of life for the birds, they will often be told no and can be subject to additional sanctions, inspections, or pay cuts. This is a fairly ruthless, but still quite common, course of business in the industry.

Pete & Gerry’s also works with independent, small family farms to produce our eggs. But there are some very significant differences with how we do business with our farmer partners.

First of all, our farmers are partners, in every sense of the word. They are offered guaranteed prices to follow the strict guidelines for Certified Humane farming.

Second, we do not use a tournament system to constantly weed out our less efficient farmers. Instead we sign long-term contracts and do not penalize them for production issues that are not in their control, and will instead lend them a hand. We send our farm technicians to their homes to help them with issues that affect production like lighting, airflow, and temperature in the barn. We never pressure them to increase production by doing something that impairs the welfare of the hens, or the family that tends to them.

Third, instead of cutting corners, we continually work to improve conditions, such as our recent accomplishment of getting 100% of our farm partners on a Certified Humane Free Range standard. This is the opposite of the approach some of these other companies take. We are a Certified B-Corp, which means that we seek to meet a triple bottom line of financial, social welfare and environmental standards.

In the past decade of farming under our current partnership system, we have never terminated a farmer for poor financial performance and we have never had a farmer sue us, or leave us because they were unhappy with the partnership. That’s something we’re very proud of.