On average, each American eats around 280 eggs per year.1 However, many of us probably don’t think much about where those eggs are coming from or their impact on the land. In fact, these days, most eggs are sold as commodities.
Though the egg industry is now commoditized and centralized, it wasn’t always this way—certainly not when Les Ward started his egg farm after returning from serving as a dive bomber pilot in World War II. While he was away at war, his brothers had taken over the family dairy farm, but Les wanted to give egg farming a shot. So, he used some of the land to start a small farm of 500 hens and slowly built it up from there. By the time his son-in-law, Gerry Laflamme, took over the farm in 1982, it had grown to around 70,000 conventional laying hens.
Egg farming radically changed in America soon after Gerry took over the farm. Before, many farmers had chickens along with their main production. They collected eggs for their own use or to sell to neighbors and the local grocer. Starting in the 1980s, however, more farmers started specializing in egg production, leading to vertical integration and industrialization of the egg market. Eventually, small family farms didn’t have a place to sell leftover eggs in a now-commoditized market, so many of them stopped altogether. In the late ‘80s, over 2000 egg farms were large enough to be reported to the USDA; by the early 2000s, only 178 egg farms were reported.2
Family farmers Neila and Lee Zook take a break from the day’s chores to share a moment with their girls in Pennsylvania.
Gerry’s small egg farm was struggling due to its size. Throughout high school and college, he discouraged his sons from coming back to the family farm. He assumed that its days were numbered since he refused to scale up to compete with the now-commoditized market. So, when Gerry’s youngest son, Jesse Laflamme, returned to help his parents on the farm after graduating from college, he thought it would be temporary. However, around this time, Gerry decided to start transitioning the farm to organic—a decision that would shape (and ultimately save) the future of the farm.
The switch to organic was not a business decision; it was based on Gerry and his wife Carol’s belief that animal welfare and how food is produced are important. They refused to turn their farm into a huge, conventional operation with millions of hens that have no outdoor access. So, they started a network made up of family farms who also wanted to continue raising hens using organic and humane practices. By working together, these farmers could compete in the changing marketplace without sacrificing their values.
There were a lot of learnings along the way, and Jesse realized that getting even small, like-minded farmers on board with organic, free-range practices took time. They needed economic incentives to make the transition, which was risky due to the investment in time and money with no guarantee of a commodity market. However, focusing on better practices ultimately saved many of these struggling family farms, since their better-tasting and more-humane eggs provided a way out of the hyper-competitive, conventional egg market. (Have you ever compared the yolk of a conventional egg to an organic, free-range egg? The difference in color and taste will convert even the most skeptical consumer.)
Feed production is one of the biggest contributors to negative environmental impact in egg production.3 Because Pete & Gerry’s free-range hens are fed only organic ingredients, the environmental footprint from their feed is significantly lower than that from conventional feed. Organic feed growers use biological fertilizer inputs and management practices such as cover cropping and crop rotation to improve soil quality and build organic matter. Improved soil organic matter helps soil absorb and store carbon and other nutrients. Organic practices also support biodiversity and water quality, and protect farmers, farm workers, and communities from exposure to synthetic pesticides.4 Egg farm practices are also important: conventional operations often use manure lagoons to manage the huge waste output. Furthermore, they often have to use antibiotics to manage diseases caused by the hens living in such tight concentration. Pete & Gerry’s family farms, on the other hand, are able to capture hen manure and use or sell it for fertilizer. They do not allow antibiotics (and don’t need them because the smaller scale helps with disease management).
Family farmer Tim Crouse packs fresh eggs on the farm he shares with his brother in Pennsylvania.
Over the years, the network has strengthened and grown. Reminiscent of Pete & Gerry’s beginnings, some failing dairy farms have converted over to organic egg farming, ultimately saving them from a struggling dairy industry. “Dairy farmers make incredible egg farmers,” Jesse explains. “They look at their animals as individuals rather than one flock so can see when something is wrong.”
The organic, Certified Humane, and free-range claims on Pete & Gerry’s eggs reinforce the founding values across their entire network. To maintain these claims, which are way beyond USDA standards, Jesse cannot make his farm any larger, which pushes Pete & Gerry’s to extend the network of family farms. And consumers now expect these claims from Pete & Gerry’s, so there’s no room for compromise. For context, even small conventional caged egg farms are likely to have at least a million hens; many have closer to five million in one place.5 Pete & Gerry’s free-range, Certified Humane farms have an average of 25,000 hens with a maximum of two barns—a size that is manageable by a couple and their children.
Organic is important, but it’s no longer enough—especially when it comes to animal products. Unfortunately, the current administration withdrew animal welfare regulation for organic farms, which would have required higher production standards for organic livestock and poultry. This is why Pete & Gerry’s pursued the third-party Certified Humane designation, becoming the first egg company to do so.
Free-range is a huge step above cage-free claims, since cage-free hens aren’t required to have any outdoor access. They are not put into battery cages, but still often live their entire lives in a dark, crowded barn. Free-range requires a much smaller scale because you need to have enough space for all hens to go outside (at least two square feet of vegetated outdoor access per hen are required per Certified Humane standards). This designated requirement for vegetation square footage—which many farmers in the Pete & Gerry’s network choose to exceed—limits the size of flock in a barn and translates to a substantial amount of pasture space along each side of their barns.
Family farmer Tom Giovagnoli and his sons Eric and Andy walk the pasture at his farm in New Hampshire.
EPIC partnered with Pete & Gerry’s to launch new bars that incorporate their organic egg yolks. Egg consumption goes up in the winter (especially around the holidays) for baking needs, so this has allowed Pete & Gerry’s to better manage seasonality with a newfound opportunity to sell the nutrient-dense egg yolks year-round. With more consistent demand, Pete & Gerry’s has been able to add more family farms to their network. Plus, consumers now have a way to conveniently enjoy egg yolks—which contain antioxidants, amino acids, and fat-soluble vitamins.6 Moreover, egg yolks are one of the highest sources of the essential nutrient choline.7
Besides being nutrient-dense and delicious (they add a rich savory flavor to the bars), we also feel that supporting free-range egg supply chains helps create a more ecologically viable food system. Outdoor egg-laying hens can add valuable nutrients back into the soil through their manure, which helps promote soil health. Their foraging also helps manage bugs that can become parasites for other animals. Moreover, eggs provide this incredible nutrient and protein profile while requiring less resources than the production of many other foods. They are less water-intensive than tubers, dairy, farmed fish, and conventional beef.8
When nutrient-dense food can be produced in a way that supports the environment, it’s worth talking about. Next time you crack open an egg, consider what kind of food production system your breakfast is supporting.
1 “Per Capita Consumption of Eggs in the U.S. 2019.” Statista. Accessed September 25, 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/183678/per-capita-consumption-of-eggs-in-the-us-since-2000
2 “Egg Industry Fact Sheet.” American Egg Board, Sept. 2004, http://web.archive.org/web/20050211021746/http://aeb.org/eii/facts/industry-facts-2-2004.htm.
3 “The Environmental Footprint of the Egg Industry.” Phys.org, El Servicio De Información y Noticias Científicas, 3 Apr. 2018, https://phys.org/news/2018-04-environmental-footprint-egg-industry.html.
4 The National Organic Farming Handbook. USDA, November 2015.
5 “Eggs Profile.” Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Dec. 2018, https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/livestock/poultry/eggs-profile.
6 Nimalaratne C, Wu J. “Hen Egg as an Antioxidant Food Commodity: A Review.” Nutrients. 2015;7(10):8274-93. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4632414/
7 Zeisel, Steven H. “Nutritional Importance of Choline for Brain Development.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2004, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15640516.
8 “Animal-Based Foods Are More Resource-Intensive than Plant-Based Foods,” May 31, 2018. https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/animal-based-foods-are-more-resource-intensive-plant-based-foods.
Liz is a writer, marketer, and nutritionist—living the dream in Austin, Texas. She holds degrees in business and Spanish from the University of Texas. Since environment and nutrition have long been two of her most consistent fascinations, Liz officially landed her dream job when she started working for EPIC Provisions. Liz seeks adventure and joy in her daily life. Outside of the office and kitchen, you’ll find her cycling, rock climbing, or teaching yoga.