EGGS-POSE! Part 1

  Laying hens at Vitality farms in Corvallis, OR

 

Laying hens at Vitality farms in Corvallis, OR

A Comparison Report on Three of our Egg Suppliers 

Raising chickens for their eggs is no easy feat. The amount of time, energy, and resources that go into producing 1 dozen eggs is astounding – this truly is a food that we take for granted. In writing this article, I interviewed 3 different egg farmers (WAG, Phoenix and Vitality Farms) – and visited 2 (WAG and Vitality Farms).  This article seeks to provide useful information about 3 of our egg vendors and about egg farming itself, so our customers can make informed decisions about which dozen eggs they want to buy. 

Additionally, what started as an article about our egg farmers illuminated complex economies of scale in our organic farming industry – where small farmers are barely breaking even and larger farms backed by capital investors make organic food more affordable and accessible.   

“What kind of eggs are these?” 

When cashiers ask this question, most customers answer, “the cheapest ones”.  However, there is much to consider before choosing eggs solely based on price.  Both WAG and Phoenix Farms operate on a very small scale.  Due to their size, they purchase feed in smaller amounts, have less chickens, fewer employees and produce less eggs – their higher price reflects small farmers’ constant disadvantage. Both Phoenix and WAG have trouble breaking even on their organic eggs in the winter, when their hens lay half as many eggs and eat twice as much feed.  The two farmers also require “day jobs” to make a living and farm chickens as a side venture.  Souriya, owner and manager of Phoenix Farms, shared that even if he wanted to expand, it would be impossible.  The federal law regulates that any farm over 3,000 chickens must do annual salmonella testing, which costs $10,000 to test a batch of 1000 eggs.  This cost, Souriya says, would take them out of business.     

On the other hand, Vitality Farms is a large farm with over 3,000 chickens, selling organic pasture-raised eggs for $3.79 a dozen.  How do they do it?  In a word: money.  Vitality Farms is owned by Farmland LP, a real estate company based out of San Francisco whose mission is to “convert conventional farmland into certified Organic, sustainable farmland [and] demonstrate that sustainable agriculture at-scale is more economically viable than chemical-dependent commodity agriculture.”  Farmland LP is comprised of financial investors, real estate agents, and farmers who genuinely want to use their money to improve our food system.  Vitality Farms in Corvallis, previously a bankrupt grass seed farm, was the 1st farm that they acquired and are in the process of transforming.  

The difference between small and large farms is stark.  Vitality Farms employs 16 people on 1,000 acres, farming chickens alongside lamb, cattle, and compost.  This diversified farm has state of the art machinery, infrastructure, and access to resources small farmers can only dream of.  With the capital from Farmland LP, Vitality Farms is able to purchase 40,000lbs of wheat at one time, and has industrial machinery to mill their feed on site – this saves immense time and money, and as a result, the customer sees a lower price. 

Free Range, Pasture-Raised, Cage-Free 

But size isn’t everything – the living conditions of the hens are often the #1 customer concern.  With more and more labels that exclaim “cage-free” and “free-range”, how is one to know the difference?  The USDA does not regulate how the terms “free-range”, “pasture-raised”, or “cage-free” are used on labels. Farms that advertise these terms are not held accountable by anybody unless they choose to be certified by a Third Party such as, Food Alliance, Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare Approved.  

In most cases the terms mean the following: 

  • Cage-free: Birds live un-caged inside barns but generally do not have access to the outdoors. 
  • Free-range: Birds live primarily indoors, un-caged, with access to the outside.  However, “access to the outside” is not regulated and often refers to a small patch of grass outside of the barn that the chickens could go to, but never actually do.  “
  • Pasture-raise: Birds live primarily outside on open pastures. This term is unregulated, and the size and quality of pasture are open to interpretation.  

The Choice is Yours

With many different egg farms and varying prices, it might be hard to decide which eggs to put in your basket.  Do you want to support the small, local farmer that keeps his hens until they die of natural causes?  Or do you want to save a couple dollars, and buy eggs from the large farm with financial investors? In both cases, the chickens live outside on open pasture and eat organic feed.  This choice, however difficult, is a privilege and a right.  It demonstrates that the food we buy is a gesture of which businesses we want to support and that eating, if we want it to be, is a political act.

Did you know?

People’s typically sells 600 dozen eggs every week! Each egg contains 6 grams of protein, all 9 essential amino acids as well as a wide range of essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. The nutrients found in eggs help the body maintain and repair muscles, hair, skin, and nails, while providing long-lasting energy.  

In this chart, you will find more condensed information about 3 out of 6 of our egg vendors.  

Sources:

  • The Humane Society
  • Scott Conyers, Owner and Manager at WAG Farm 
  • Karen Neal, Farm Co-Manager at Vitality Farms
  • Souriya Khamvongsa, Owner and Manager at Phoenix Egg Farms