It isn't easy being green. But, for one New Hampshire egg farm, the long, difficult road to becoming an organic egg producer has reaped rewards by the dozen…literally.
The move to developing a socially and environmentally responsible egg farm wasn't easy for Pete & Gerry’s, which has been in the egg game since the late1800s. It was, however, their only hope for survival. When, in the 1990s, new technology allowed larger farms to ramp up production on regular farm-fresh eggs at a rapid pace, Pete & Gerry's was almost left behind. Instead, the company decided to evolve into an organic and natural company. Two decades later, the company sells more than 180 million organic eggs a year.
It was a bet the company wasn't sure would pay off.
"If you were a small farm and didn't invest heavily (in new equipment), you got left in the dust," said Jesse LaFlamme, president and CEO of Pete & Gerry's. "We were on the verge of losing the farm."
Eager to differentiate itself, the company began a sometimes painstaking three-year process of transitioning the farm to an organic environment.
"It was out of necessity that they started experimenting with organic eggs," LaFlamme said.
Several lean years followed, but the farm came out of the organic transition prepared to compete in the newly growing sustainable business marketplace, LaFlamme said.
The farm's conversion required replacing the standard battery cages, which housed hundreds of thousands of hens at one time, with cage-free barns that allow for ample roosting and scratch space.
In keeping with the natural commitment, the hens, which are raised on the farm from as young as a day old, are fed only organic feeds free of antibiotics, medications, pesticides and herbicides.
The feed also contains certified-organic flaxseed containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are passed on to the eggs. Every Pete & Gerry’s egg has nearly 10 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as regular eggs, the company says.
While the added costs translate to increased prices at the grocery store, consumers seem willing to pay more for eggs they perceive to be healthier. The company's transition came as consumers become increasingly interested in where their food is from and how it created.
"People are becoming much more aware of how their food is being produced," LaFlamme said. "It is a philosophical choice on how people want the food they eat produced."
As the demand for socially responsible products and services has grown, so has the demand for Pete and Gerry's organic eggs. By 2000, the eggs were quickly becoming popular with shoppers, and LaFlamme said the family realized the farm, which under its new format could raise only between 5,000 and 20,000 hens at a time, wouldn't be able to keep pace with demand.
To increase production, Pete and Gerry's created a unique business model that lets it partner with other family-owned farms to produce organic eggs. The local farms provide the building, utilities, day-to-day care and egg collection, while Pete and Gerry's provide hens, feed, flock management assistance, egg processing and marketing.
LaFlamme said his farm keeps a close eye on its partners to ensure the operations are on-target with the New Hampshire farm and the eggs are up to Pete and Gerry’s standards.
With family farms having a tough time surviving alongside their larger counterparts, LaFlamme said it’s nice to be able to give other local operations a chance at success without needing to expand.
"I am very proud to offer partnerships to families who just want to be farmers," LaFlamme said.
The eggs, most of which now come out of one of Pete and Gerry’s more than 30 family farm partners throughout the Northeast, are currently sold in stores in New York, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia.
Going forward, the company hopes to expand its partnerships to other parts of the country with an eye on bringing its organic eggs to consumers beyond the East Coast.
We certainly have aspirations to sell our eggs in all geographic markets," LaFlamme said.
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance business and technology writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.