Vital Farms: Raising the Ultra-Organic Egg

Vital Farms sells the most humane eggs in the business, with hens raised on pasture—not inside cages. But can conventional farms afford to make the switch?

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Matt O’Hayer puts it simply: “The most tortured farm animal in the world is the laying hen.” Most conventional egg-laying hens are kept in tiny battery cages that can give each hen less space than you’d get with a standard sheet of A4 printer paper. While battery cages are being phased out in some states, including California, the life of a cage-free bird isn’t much better, with birds kept crammed in warehouses that allow them little more space. Even in many government-sanctioned organic egg companies, hens only get occasional access to the outdoors.

That’s what O’Hayer is trying to change. He’s the co-founder of Vital Farms, a small, Austin, Texas-based network of family-owned farms that supplies pasture-raised eggs and poultry. Pasture-raised means just that—the hens spend most of their time outdoors, eating organic feed and pasture grass, moved inside only at night or when they’re actually laying eggs. Each hen gets at least 108 sq. ft. of space (which in New York might make for a decent studio apartment). The result is a much more humane egg—and according to O’Hayer and his customers, a better tasting one too. “The hens get enough space to flap their wings and have their natural behavior,” he says. “They get to act like a chicken.”

Vital Farms, which was founded in 2007, is growing fast, with revenue hitting $4.9 million last year—much of it through the Whole Foods chain. That’s prompted some conventional eggs farmers to change their ways and join the Vital Farms network. But shifting a conventional egg operation to Vital Farms’ more organic than organic method isn’t easy or cheap. O’Hayre notes that it takes at least $25 a hen to make the transition, and it can’t be done overnight. That’s why Vital Farms has turned to crowdfunding to help raise money to allow one farm in Georgia to go pasture. If the campaign, which launched today on the When You Wish site, helps raise the profile of pasture-raised eggs, all the better. (You can access it here.) “We know it’s hard to get Congress to do anything” on animal welfare, O’Hayre says. “At the end of the day it’s going to be consumer education that makes the difference.”

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