Talk About a Good Egg: Taking 'Pasture-Raised' to the Masses

Vital Farms is changing the way laying hens are raised in America.

free range chicken

(Photo: Courtesy Vital Farms)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Pick up a carton of eggs at your local supermarket, and you'll see terms used to describe the conditions of the hens that laid them, terms such as “free-range,” “humanely raised,” and “cage-free." While these phrases do have utilitarian definitions, in the egg aisle they're squishier, invoking images of hens roaming freely in the outdoors.

For the most part, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Conventional big poultry producers have capitalized on the growing consciousness among American shoppers about egg production methods by slapping buzzwords on bucolic packaging.

As we’ve reported, most of these terms are not federally regulated and can mean hens were raised a number of ways—but most likely not as well as you think. "Cage-free," for instance, refers simply to the absence of a cage, but hens may still be confined in narrow enclosures.

Cage-free hens may not ever see the light of day.

Similarly, "free-range" means that hens must have access to the outdoors, but the length of time they are allowed to roam free—and the amount of space they have to roam—can be small.

Experts say the term to look for instead is “pasture-raised.” That is where Vital Farms, the only national pasture-raised egg producer, just might be changing the game. Austin-based entrepreneur Matt O’Hayer and wife Catherine Stewart, along with co-owner Jason Jones, have turned the single chicken coop and 50 hens they undertook in 2007 into a multistate operation that supplies, among other retailers, Whole Foods Markets across the country.

“Everything we do is based on one approach: the humane treatment of animals [and] ethical food production,” says Dan Brooks, director of communications for Vital Farms.

Brooks says sustainability—along with scalability—were non-negotiables for O’Hayer when he was approached by Whole Foods about supplying eggs for his stores. Vital Farms clearly has scalability covered: A year ago the company had 15 farms. Today? Forty-five, in Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and most recently, a chicken-friendly operation in California.

With regard to sustainability, Vital Farms is a leader among the brands in the supermarket’s egg display. Its hens are 100 percent pasture-raised, thus chickens can choose to be outside all day, every day, if they want. They live—grazing the fields, munching on wild rye and onion, and fertilizing as they go—the way hens are supposed to. The small amount of feed hens receive weekly is pesticide- and GMO-free. This inspiring video further details Vital Farms' practices.

Vital created an organic farming handbook for its farmers, several of whom have moved to pasture-based systems after using factory farming techniques to produce eggs for the big poultry companies, Brooks says.

“Suddenly,” he adds, “they can walk around the farm with their children, playing with the chickens. We provide a more sustainable market for the farmers.”

To find the Vital Farms egg retailer near you—and they’re in a growing number of supermarkets as well as natural foods stores—check out Vital's Amazing Egg-Finder.

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