This is an excerpt from the 2019 Impact Journal, which will be released in December. More details to come on how you can get your eyes on the full article as well as more compelling stories surrounding the key initiatives, ranchers, partners, and animals driving the EPIC food revolution.
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
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. Over the years, the network has strengthened and grown.
EPIC partnered with Pete & Gerry’s to launch the new Rise & Grind 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.
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 an 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.3
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 “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