Pasture Raised Eggs, A Vital Story
When do 108 square feet make a difference? When you are a Vital Farms hen, it makes all the difference in the world. 108 square feet is the space that every hen at Vital Farms is given to forge, roam and do hen stuff. If you are reading this number and thinking well that is not very much space for an animal they must be crammed into these fields think again. My personal experience will tell you a story that will have you seeking out the iconic black cartons with the pasture raised eggs inside!
These black egg cartons are where my story starts. As I was teaching myself about food, food production, and food quality I was always looking for the next step into getting as close as I could to the most natural foods. The practical side of me told me it was not always convenient as a food blogger to be running from farm to farm to gather all the fresh ingredients to make an omelet. So I wanted to bridge a gap of convenience balanced with real wholesome foods. These are the things I wanted to teach everyone, that healthy foods are convenient and that you could find food companies that are honest and transparent. This has proven harder than I imagined.
The Cool Egg Carton
I was shopping on a Sunday afternoon, and the store was jam-packed with people getting ready for the week. I was looking at eggs reading labels, looking at carton marketing and I came upon these adorable chalkboard graphic cartons. They said things like pasture raised, tended by hand, ethical eggs, happy hens and Vital Farms. Utterly skeptical that they could live up to the carton I had to buy them. Not for a reason you might imagine, it was the carton. I knew it would be gorgeous with my food styling and in my photographs. I posted a few photos on my Facebook page, and everyone had the same comment; what a great carton, how cute and are those local?
The next morning I whipped out an omelet with my pasture-raised eggs. The first thing I noticed is the bright yellow yokes and clean, clear whites. They were beautiful. They looked like eggs I had gotten from a local farm. Super fresh and beautiful in the bowl. Seemed impossible that they were from a large food producer. I hated to scramble them for my breakfast. I am pretty sure there were several more photos of that bowl. But I made the omelet and could not believe how delicious these eggs were. I am not an egg’spert, but they tasted different. I was sold!
So I explored VitalFarms.com website and I was very impressed with what I was learning. Still skeptical that they could live up to all the claims they were making but hopeful that I had closed one gap of convenience vs. clean natural foods from a food producer. A few weeks later I emailed Vital Farms and asked for an interview for my show “Lunch with Leslie” (click to hear see the interview). Dan Brooks the creative director told me all about the company and the egg production. It was fantastic! Seemed too good to be true. The more I learned, the more comfortable I felt leading others to Vital Farms.
An Egg’celent Invitation!
Fast forward a few years. I have stuck with this brand. I have been preaching pasture raised eggs and feeling good about telling the Vital Farms story as it unfolded before me. Then this fall, lucky me, I was invited on a small press tour to Springfield Missouri where I would get to tour a few of the “Small Family Farms” where they “Tended the Hens By Hand”. Could that beautiful black carton live up to its words? I was determined to find out.
Honestly there was a fear of bubble bursting my vision by visiting the farms. What if I was disappointed and felt like they were fluffing the cartons to make us feel better? What if I got to the farms and they were gross, and the chickens looked sick? What if the farmers seemed as if they didn’t care and this was all just a normal big business? Worst of all what if the eggs I had been backing for two years telling 1000’s of people to eat were coming from overcrowded, stuffed in barns chickens?
The drum roll moment had come. I was traveling in a van with four other food bloggers. It was a gorgeous fall day in middle America. We were chatting up a storm and enjoying our time away from our computers. The farmhouses and the sprawling land were surrounding us as we drove. We arrived at the first farm. I won’t lie I was little nervous at what I would find. The food production industry has a way of disappointing you when you scratch just below the surface.
As we pulled up the farmer was there to greet us. The hens were still in the barn. They return to a large temperature controlled barn every night at dusk, and the doors open at about 9-10 am in the morning. Being sheltered in the barn gives the hens a stress-free environment to lay their eggs, shelters them from the weather and protects them from nighttime predators. The ladies were waiting for the doors to be rolled up, that would include us blogger girls and the hens.
The Moment of Truth
We were required to wear protective suits, hairnets and shoe covers…not to protect us but to protect the hens from outside contaminants. You have a car full of women that make their living by being in photos, on live video feeds, and with selfies; it was brave to ask us all to put on that garb. These suits were the first thing that tipped me off that they were showing some serious love for these hens. We all suited up and walked into a large pasture that is about shoulder high with grasses, bushes and small trees. This is not a mowed field; chickens like to forage in areas where they feel safe. These plants provide that security. Remember that the carton says Happy Hens! This environment makes them happy!
The doors raise, and all you can see are these beautiful hens peeking out ready to greet the day, and us! As they exit the barn, they all have preferences. Some go right for the dust bath; some come straight to the pasture, a few looked like they needed some coffee to wake up…but they were all moving out to catch some sun and fresh air. They are not forced out of the barn, and they have access all day to return anytime they like. Hens are social animals, so they want to flock together. They are also particularly curious. I was filming a live show, and they came to hang out with me as I sat in the grass. They were thoroughly checking me out, but they made me feel welcome in their pasture.
One fear was erased, these were truly healthy happy hens that were producing the eggs I love to eat. Their feathers were so shiny, they were very clean, and every one of them looked perfect, but I wanted to see inside that barn!
Why Pasture Raised Eggs are Different
Each family farm that is considered a grower for Vital Farms eggs have about 8 acres for about 3000 – 5000 hens. Their pastures are in pie-shaped wedges around a central barn. Every few weeks they rotate the hens to fresh pastures. Each hen has all the choices in the world, stay inside the barn, go to the paddock (that is the area between the barn and pasture) or roam the pasture freely. Every day the barn doors are opened in the morning, and every evening the hens naturally return to the safety of the barn, and the doors are closed. The eggs are harvested daily without disruption to the hens. They have a simple automation system that moves the eggs gently to a packing station where the eggs are hand packed before they are sent to the egg processing facility that is also located in Springfield.
Now get me inside that barn and let’s see what’s going on. We first get the quick hands-on experience of gathering the fresh eggs. They come through a small opening on a slow moving conveyer belt. I was asked if I wanted to pack a few eggs…um yes, please! I felt a little like Lucy packing chocolates. The eggs were hot from being freshly being laid. I was amazed at how clean they were. I remember gathering eggs from my grandmother’s hen house they were never this clean. I would find out why very soon because the next stop was being able to go inside the barn where the hens were. I packed a few dozen, and for some reason, I felt like I could have just done that the rest of the day. There is something about being so connected to our food and the thought that what I was a piece of the puzzle of feeding America and it felt very cool.
So far so good, I was impressed with what I saw and how transparent Vital Farms was being with us. I am part of the “press”, I could easily tell a very different story if things were not so awesome. While I was packing eggs and learning about the “smart” barns that measure temperature, feed levels, water levels, ventilation and many other things other members of the tour were going two by two into the part of the barn where the chickens are kept safe. As they exited, they were all smiles and even boasting of being able to hold one of the “girls on grass” which is the loving term Vital Farms uses for their hens.
I was the last one to enter the barn. The smell was strong and took a moment to take in. The hens are farm animals after all, so I didn’t expect a red carpet and roses. There were still plenty of hens in the barn chatting, laying and feeding. This is what I love about this whole system, the hens get to do what they want when they want to do it. That even makes a human happy to live in those fantasy conditions and these hens are living in hen heaven on earth.
The girls are loud and chatty and even more so because there are three blue suit wearing humans in their barn. Also very curious. Now was my time to really get up close and personal with these Vital Farms girls. The farmer that gave us the tour gently picked up one of the beautiful brown hens and asked me if I wanted to hold her. YES! She was warm and soft and shiny. She acted as if she was enjoying our interactions. As I held her, more hens gathered at my feet, and I am pretty sure they were all jealous! I took a quick video and being curious she reached over and tried to give me a hen kiss…actually, she was attracted to my eyelashes and wanted to see if they were real. They are!
Inside of the barn was so clean, especially compared to how many hens lived there at night. I was surprised to learn there was no hay or straw in the long private laying areas. This is why the eggs are so clean when they come through to the packing area. The hens are not wading in chicken poop. They are not stressed because there is tons of room for them to move around. The lighting is soft, and the barn is warm and comfortable. The watering system keeps fresh water circulating. This barn is hen Shangri-La, and the outside pasture is their playground! I was so pleased with everything I was seeing.
Anyone Would Be Impressed
As I left the barn I felt an overwhelming sensation that I finally met a food grower that not only met my expectations but had exceeded them. Everything on the carton, on the website, and social media was true! These were truly happy hens that are pasture raised and tended to by hand on small family farms. But to go one step further they don’t brag enough. The farmers love their girls. In the conversations that I had with the actual farmers, not some marketing executive of the company but the actual farmers, the farmers talked about the pride of ownership and how they loved and enjoyed their girls. They were happy to answer even the toughest questions. Like what happens to the hens after they pass their laying age. With great remorse, the farmer replied, “that will be a hard day, this is our first set of hens, and we have not had to retire a flock yet.” I could tell that they were pained by the idea. The tough answer is, the hens are slaughtered after they are retired, and there is no retirement home for them, yet! They used to be donated for protein to people in need overseas, but that program is no longer available. Now they are not used for food or repurposed in any way. However, there are some ideas for some new legislation that would allow the hens to be repurposed into other products. Stay tuned for that news. Maybe you have something in mind, and you can help revitalize a system of repurposing?
Now before you get all down in the mouth about the news that they retire the hens, please keep in mind that these hens have lived a glorious life compared to other laying hens in commercial egg production. These hens have access to a minimum 108 square feet of space throughout their entire lives. I don’t even think my office is that big! The factory produced laying hens are only given about the size of a piece of notebook paper. If you think free-range eggs are ok, remember there is no real definition in the US of how much space the term “free range” actually is. The term cage-free means nothing at all other than the laying hens are not in a cage but rather stuffed beak to beak in dirty, toxic environment. Plus all Vital Farms hens produce eggs in an environment that is Certified Humane Raised and Handled. They have a good life and that is why their eggs are the only eggs I recommend.
The Adventure Continues
As my tour of Vital Farms growers continued we visited two more farms for a total of three. Each one was different in landscape but consistent in the way the girls are raised and handled. Each farmer was clearly filled with pride for the great work they are doing. I am not sure that they grasp how much this means to people like you and me. People want food that is coming from animals that are humanely raised and handled. Food from happy animals and not sick, caged and poorly treated animals. After all, when you eat food from an animal that is mistreated, I believe that circle of mistreatment is perpetuated when we buy and consume that product. I choose not to be part of that circle. I choose to support growers and producers that genuinely care about their responsibility to their animals and the people their animals feed.
It is with great relief that that iconic black carton lived completely up to all of its claims. I can say without reservation that this is a food product that you can not only trust but that you can feel good about supporting. You can feel awesome about feeding your family and yourself Vital Farms Pasture Raised Eggs. If I had not witnessed it with my own two eyes, I might have always doubted it. Thank you Vital Farms for blazing the trail of being a food grower we can trust! I hope you set a precedent that other food producers will strive to live up to!
This is NOT a paid advertising for Vital Farms. I received NO compensation for writing or posting this story. These are heartfelt reviews of a product that I feel good about supporting and sharing with the G2K community. Vital Farms graciously gave me full access to their growers and pulled back the veil on food production. I am grateful for the opportunity to help them tell their story! XO, Leslie Nance Author/Blogger
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