Nellie's Free Range Eggs

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Category: Farming

"Nest Run" eggs just out of the egg packer on the farm

Adventure of the Egg – From Farm to Table

How does an egg make it from one of our Nellie’s small family farms to your home?

At the Farm

The journey begins in a nesting box, inside the barn, where one of our hens lays her egg. She will typically lay one egg per day, usually in the morning hours. From there the egg will slowly roll down the inclined, padded surface of the nesting box to the conveyor belt that runs the length of the barn. It will usually sit motionless on the belt until about 11AM when the farmer turns on the belt and gets ready to pack eggs in the packing room. The conveyor delivers the egg, along with several thousand others from that morning, to the packing station. A packing machine gently loads the eggs from the conveyor into plastic trays. The farmer, and if they are lucky a family member or two, run the packing machine, pull out any cracked eggs, and carefully stack the trays of eggs onto a pallet. Each pallet contains 900 dozen eggs. The pallet is then rolled into the adjacent cold storage room that is kept at 45 degrees.

On the Road

Once a week, one of our fleet of Nellie’s “Rooster Cruiser” trucks will turn into the farm and roll up to the small loading dock next to the cold storage room. At that time, the week’s worth of eggs, somewhere between ten to twenty thousand dozen, depending on the farm, will be loaded onto the truck. The truck will make a few more stops at other farms in the area until it is full and then proceed to one of our two processing plants in Pennsylvania or New Hampshire.

In the Plant

At the plant, the egg will now be rolled into our “nest run” cold storage area. When we are ready to run the eggs from that farm, the egg trays are loaded into our egg washer where they first go through an Organic citrus-based solution. Brushes do a gentle scrub before they get a sanitizing rinse.

At this point things get pretty technical as each individual egg is photographed and cataloged by the computer. The camera is looking for specs of dirt, cracks and other imperfections. It is also gauging the size of the egg so that down the line it will know to send them to the correct packing station for Large, Extra Large, Jumbo and so on. Each egg is also tapped lightly by a tuning fork at this stage to test for hairline cracks that the camera cannot see. Broken or otherwise problematic eggs are pulled from the line automatically. A little less than 1% of them are simply thrown out to become pig feed for other farms and other are sent to a “breakers” line where they are cracked into our liquid egg products. The intact eggs move up the line to the packaging station based on their size and are automatically placed into cartons, never being touched by human hands. From there they go into master cases and are put back onto a truck.

To the Store

From here, the trail can get a little complicated. Sometimes, our trucks will deliver right to a grocery chain’s central warehouse and they will redistribute them to their individual stores. In other cases, we might deliver them to an independent distributor to haul for us. And in some cases, we might even deliver our eggs to a big factory farm where they are “cross docked” and loaded onto other trucks that do individual store delivery. That’s because we don’t operate a big enough fleet to drive to individual stores, nor would we have enough eggs of our own to deliver even if we did. So in those cases where a big caged egg company is also the sole egg distributor for a given location, we have to “ride along” with them. That’s why you can see our trucks backed up to these mega farms. It’s not because we’re picking up eggs there, it’s because we’re delivering them there! Not an ideal situation, but for us, the only way to get our eggs where they need to go.

On Your Table

The final leg of the journey is from the store’s back room out to the egg shelf, and then home to your kitchen table. The typical time from nest to table is about 25 days. That is well within what USDA recommends for fresh egg consumption and still leaves plenty of time for you to store in your refrigerator before eating. We print the “Best By” date right on our carton as to when we recommend you consume the eggs by. But don’t worry, eggs are very resilient to spoiling and it’s possible to eat them beyond that date and be fine. We don’t recommend that of course, but typically you only lose a little bit of freshness. A good test if you’re not sure of an egg’s freshness is to drop it into a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s still fresh. If it floats, that means that the egg has had time to develop air pockets between the shell and the egg and it’s time to toss it.

Once your eggs are safely home from the store and in the fridge, it’s time to cook them up!  If you’re looking for recipe inspiration, here are some of our favorites.

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Nellie’s Free Range Small Farms Outdoor Access Policy

About a decade ago, we made the decision to stop growing our home farm here in New Hampshire to meet the rising demand for our eggs and to instead partner with dozens of small, family farms that need a market for their free range eggs. That was a great decision, for many, many reasons that I’ve touched on in this blog, but it is also considerably more complex than just building more barns on our property. These are independent farms, spread across the country. So it is vital that we have a great relationship with them to insure that our high standards of quality and humane animal care are never compromised.

One of the ways we do that is by having an Outdoor Access Policy that each farmer agrees to adhere to. Why? Well here’s a little fact you may not know. It’s much safer and easier for a farmer, even conscientious ones like ours are, to keep their hens inside the barns. The flock represents their family’s livelihood, and without their flock, and the eggs they lay, that livelihood could disappear. So naturally, they want to protect it. And while the pasture is something hens clearly enjoy, it’s not as safe as being inside. Threats include predators like foxes and weasels, Avian Influenza from passing migratory foul, cold weather, and even rain and standing water. Hens are a bit like kids, they don’t always know what is good for them and can easily become sick by too much exposure to chilly, cold weather or rain. On top of all that, the farmers want them to learn to lay their eggs in the nesting boxes inside, otherwise, the labor to collect the eggs becomes untenable. So for all these reasons, it can be tempting to keep the girls inside. Most of our farmers enjoy seeing their hens in pasture every day so much, they don’t need to be encouraged to open up the doors, but to make absolutely sure that all our flocks are getting the same humane treatment, we have our policy.

Some of the stipulations include:

  • If the temperature is below 45 or above 93 degrees Fahrenheit, we recommend keeping the hens inside.
  • If there is rain, snow or standing water, we recommend keeping them inside until it clears.
  • During the short period when the hens are laying their first eggs, the farmers need to train them to lay in nests to ensure they do not lay eggs outside.
  • During high-risk periods where a disease like Avian Influenza is a known hazard for that area, in consultation with our team of experts, we may request that they keep the flock inside.
  • Lay times – most of our hens become accustomed to laying in the morning hours. In order to accommodate laying in nest boxes rather than pasture, they may keep the flock inside during the morning lay hours.

They must record their decisions and any exceptions to normal outdoor access due to the above conditions in log books that our auditors can review each week.

This is one of the many ways we are working to help restore human-scale agriculture back to a country with 320 million mouths to feed. It’s a balance between doing everything we can to help the farmers be successful and reduce their risk, while at the same time insuring that we’re farming in a way that is moral and responsible.

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Is Pasture Raised Better than Free Range?

-By Jesse Laflamme

At Nellie’s, we recognize that the egg aisle is a confusing place.  We hope that over time, our brand can earn your trust so that instead of having to understand every industry term out there like cage free, free range, or pasture raised, that you can simply reach for our package with confidence because you know we’re doing the right thing for hens, farmers, and for you. My family has been raising chickens for three decades.  We have the hard won expertise that comes from doing something for a long time and constantly improving on it as you go. I think that makes our company very unique in the egg industry. We hope that our customers come to understand that we care so much about our hens that if there was a better way to raise them —­ we’d be doing it.

For many decades, the egg aisle has been almost entirely caged eggs coming from hens living truly horrific lives. Finally, after years of advocacy and the growing awareness of consumers about this barbaric form of agriculture, things are beginning to change. We expect that caged eggs will be a thing of the past within the next 10 years.  That’s great news for chickens, and for all of us. But, it also means that there will now be lots of less scrupulous companies trying to jump on the bandwagon. In most cases, this will be the former caged producers now producing cage free eggs, but essentially using the same industrial approach they used in the past. It will represent a marginal improvement in hen welfare, because they will finally be able to move around. But the facilities where they are raised will in no way represent what a consumer would consider to be a farm in terms of scale, crowding, cleanliness or transparency.

On the other side, there is also a group of companies competing to persuade customers that our Certified Humane Free Range standard, which you can read about here, is somehow not sufficient or adequately humane.

Outdoor Space Isn’t An Arms Race

The Certified Humane Free Range standard was developed by scientists and animal welfare experts. It calls for 2 sq. ft. of outdoor access on grass per hen. Now, this may not sound like much if you imagine a bunch of hens all occupying their own little 2’ X 2’ patch of grass. However, it’s important to note that this is just an average over a huge flock, and that not all of the hens use the pasture space at the same time. Not even close. Hens are actually a lot like people in this regard. Whether it’s cool outside, hot outside, or a perfect 70 degrees, a great many of them would simply prefer to be inside at any given moment. In fact, in a typical flock, there are hens that never want to leave the barn. It’s safe, comfortable, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and there’s fresh water and feed. As a company, we don’t force hens to go outside. We give them ample ways to access the outdoors, and then let the hens decide. If you spend time watching our girls, you will see a steady stream of hens entering and exiting the barns. At any given point in time, the hens that are outside have far more than 2 sq. ft. apiece. And they are very social birds, so while they don’t wish to be crammed into giant warehouses, or tiny cages, they do want to huddle into little groups and cliques to cluck about whatever is on their minds. So there is always more grass and dirt areas open than occupied.

Pasture Raised brands are advertising that they offer from 35 sq. ft. to 108 sq. ft. per hen and suggesting that 2 sq. ft. is insufficient. More is not better in this case. More is just more. And it costs the farmers more to own and maintain that extra space for no discernible purpose that we can see. Agriculture land is scarce and expensive, so forcing small farm families to operate and maintain an excess of it just to brag about how much square footage each hen gets seems insincere and gratuitous to us.

There is a category of very small farms that can make the larger space work economically. But those are typically mixed use, hobby-style, micro farms that exist in a completely separate economic climate, selling to farmers’ markets, CSAs, and to their local area at considerably higher prices. Mainstream grocery distribution requires a higher level of efficiency in order to even get on the shelf. So we support this other style of farm wholeheartedly, just as we support backyard chicken coops, but they are a very small piece of the larger change we seek.

Our bottom line at Nellie’s is first, what is right for the hens? We believe that we understand that better than anyone in the industry and follow the independently audited standard set by Humane Farm Animal Care for Free Range. Second, we want to do what is right for our farmers, and that means helping them raise hens humanely without undue costs. Third, by doing the latter, we can deliver great eggs to our consumers at a reasonable price

It is an exciting time to be in the business of producing humane, ethical eggs. In my lifetime, I have not seen the industry change this dramatically or quickly. Over the next year, we believe many more consumers will begin to decide what they think a reasonable egg farm should look like. We believe that a small family farm producing to the Certified Humane Free Range standard is the best way to meet our country’s egg demands in a humane, sustainable way. We don’t believe that means there is no such thing as too much space for hens, and we’re pretty sure the hens don’t either. So we will continue to try to balance the needs of hens, our farmers, and our loyal customers as best we can.

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Cage Free Tipping Point

It was just two years ago that we thought we might never see the day. Only about 10% of eggs produced were cage free or free range. The rest came from Dickensian factory farms with millions of birds on site, all mercilessly crammed into tiny cages.

Farms like Nellie’s were sounding the alarm, loyal customers like you were heeding the call, and there were even a few vague pronouncements to convert to cage free… eventually, by big companies like Costco. But that was about it. It still seemed a long way off that we would have more than a fraction of our eggs coming from cage free farms.

Then came the McDonald’s announcement that they would convert over the next decade. A few of their fast food competitors matched that, and then suddenly it seemed every major restaurant chain in the country made their own announcement. Yet, because eggs were only a small part of their menus in most cases, the vast majority of caged production was still going to feed the much larger grocery retailer part of the market for the foreseeable future. So real progress, but still largely the status quo.

And then to many people’s surprise, Albertsons, the second largest grocery company in the U.S. (2200 Safeway, Albertsons, Shaw’s, Pavilions, Star, and Vons stores) announced they would go 100% Cage Free within 10 years. The very next day, Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer (3400 Ralphs, Dillon’s, Fry’s Food Stores, Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Smith’s Food and Drug, and QFC stores) also announced. Soon after, Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant Eagle) followed. Add Costco, Trader Joes, BJ’s, Target and seemingly more every day – it is truly a tipping point in the industry. It will take a few years to get there, but there is no turning back now.

We are positively thrilled by this! It is vindication of years of hard work and advocacy by those supporting humane farming practices.

Of course, as we have cautioned before, this does not mean that the folks who used to produce millions of eggs a day on cruel industrial-scale farms have turned over a new leaf. It just means they have yielded to the marketplace to no longer produce in the cruelest possible way. They are now busy tearing out their battery cages and replacing them in buildings of the same scale with huge metal enclosures called combi-aviary systems. That allows them to keep the hens in a big cage (albeit a cage that at least lets hens move from place to place vs. the old tight confinement) as well as occasionally open small doors near the bottom that provide access to the floor level – but significantly not to the outside. Birds labeled cage free, do not get to go outside as a rule. And there is no real oversight that the cages even have to be opened at the bottom on any regular basis. There is no overcrowding standard. And there is no one allowed into these facilities to check if anything is really humane about them.

Again, we salute this significant step forward for the welfare of hens. But most consumers would still be alarmed at the scale of these places and the density of hens crammed inside. Some facilities will have between 500,000 and a million birds in a single “barn.” And they will continue to have to feed the hens antibiotics to ward off the spread of disease that is common to overcrowded agriculture operations.

At Nellie’s, we will continue to produce ethical Free Range Eggs on small, independent farms. That means we go the extra mile in every area of animal welfare, food safety, and the welfare of our farmers. Nellie’s is Certified Humane, which means we get inspected by the most respected third party non-profit certifier (Humane Farm Animal Care) every year. It absolutely costs more to farm this way. And our loyal customers have always believed it to be worth it. Thank you.

 

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Cage Free ~ Is the Tide Turning?

It’s that time again for New Year’s resolutions. And a few big companies are doing it. McDonald’s is doing it over the next decade. Burger King, Starbuck’s, Panera and Taco Bell plan to be there by 2017. Dunkin Donuts, General Mills, Costco, Michael Foods and even Royal Caribbean have all made announcements recently. They are all going cage free for their eggs. Evidentially, Corporate America has finally gotten the message that their consumers don’t want inhumane treatment for the animals that produce their food; thus the beginning of the end for a horrific practice may be at hand.

This is mostly great news. Currently, 90% of the eggs sold in the U.S. still come from “farms” (read: massive warehouse complexes) full of “battery cages” where hens spend their lives in disgusting enclosures the size of a piece of writing paper, stacked high, one on top of the other. And that will continue to be true for quite a while yet – years in all likelihood. But, change is on the horizon. The European Union simply banned these systems years ago. California has also done it. Massachusetts is considering it. Until the practice is altogether banned in the U.S., there will still be a market for the cheapest possible eggs, which means tiny, cramped cages.

It’s also true that while big egg producers are seeing the writing on the wall and are either building or converting space to cage free production; that new “farm” of theirs probably still isn’t what consumers think a farm should be. The caged producers have not turned over a new leaf. They will continue to try to deliver the cheapest eggs possible to the marketplace and are simply adjusting to, at the most basic level, society’s increasing discomfort with their worst practices. For example, a new facility being planned for “cage free” production in Texas will house up to 3 million birds in a single location. This is not going to be sustainable, human scale farming, not by a long shot. True, the birds will have a bit more freedom of movement, but only within what are essentially just bigger cages (yes, that can be considered “Cage Free” by the USDA) and they will never have access to the outdoors with dirt, grass or sunshine.

Truly humane farming requires a higher standard. At Nellie’s we are Certified Humane Free Range by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) organization, the highest standard of care in the industry. Certified Humane Free Range means there are no cages of any type in our barns, big or small. Our hens have access 24-hours a day to feed, fresh water, fresh air and places to nest and roost. Because they are not in over-crowded situations, we do not need to add antibiotics to their feed to avoid the spread of disease. They also can go outside via easily accessed doors to adjacent pasture and field (outdoor access may be limited when either weather conditions or risk of things like Avian Influenza warrant it).

McDonald’s will probably continue to buy their eggs from giant industrial egg factories so that they can continue to put an Egg McMuffin on the menu for the artificially low price of $1.00. Nellie’s eggs are produced by independent, small family farms. This is the only model that is sustainable for the future of agriculture after society’s failed experiment with farm industrialization.

We salute the decisions by McDonald’s and others to respond to their customer’s concerns and make long overdue changes to their egg supply. However, the improvement is still just a small step toward truly humane, and sustainable farm operations. To know you are buying humane, free range eggs from a responsible, human-scale producer, look for the Certified Humane logo on all your eggs.

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Bird Flu Forecast: Cloudy

This is an update on the Avian Influenza (AI) Outbreak of 2015. For those that are just catching up to this story, this is perhaps the worst episode of AI in U.S history and certainly in the past ten years. Millions of hens, primarily in the Midwest and West, have had to be destroyed to stem the spread of the disease. AI, or “Bird Flu” is carried by migrating flocks of wild fowl like ducks and geese. It is not harmful to them, but it is deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys. The wild birds spread it by landing on, or near, farms, and then they can spread the virus to hens, even to those confined in cages in big agricultural facilities. Only about 10% of hens in the U.S. have actual access to the outdoors like ours, yet the other 90% of industrial caged facilities have been some of the hardest hit. One facility in Iowa had to destroy over 5 million birds. No one is exactly sure about all the ways that it may spread. Theories range from careless workers who carry the virus in on their shoes or clothing as they enter an enclosure to pond water that is infected and then used for the birds to drink. Conventional egg prices have skyrocketed as a result of the loss of over 40 million laying hens in the U.S. this year.

At Nellie’s Free Range we have yet to lose a single bird to AI. There are probably several reasons for this:

  • Our small family farms are primarily on the East Coast and the heart of the outbreak has come via the Mississippi River Flyway migration route.
  • Our farmers are small, family business owners who are in their barns every day and follow a very rigid biological safety protocol.
  • During the worst months of the outbreak we kept our free range hens in their still quite comfortable and roomy barns as advised by the USDA and Humane Farm Animal Care, our certification agency on humane standards.
  • Some good luck.

Caution remains the order of the day going forward. Cooler weather in the fall, combined with the return migration of wild fowl over farm areas, could very well lead to new outbreaks. So while we have been able to let our girls out a bit in the summer sunshine during July and August, we will continue to be extremely vigilant about following all safety guidelines until we are certain that the risk has passed. Hopefully, that will be next spring, but none of the experts are quite sure yet what we’re dealing with, given how severe the current outbreak has been.

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Chickens, Farmers & Partners

Recently, chickens have been in the news, and not always for great reasons, such as with bird flu and the attention inhumane practices have received after California passed Proposition 2, forbidding the use of battery cages for producing eggs.

Another news story about chickens that we’ve noticed is about farmers who work under contract for big meat poultry companies. The arrangement works like this: the farmer owns the land, structures and equipment. The poultry company sends them chickens and the feed necessary to raise them. The problem comes when the company continually demands that they modify their facilities in various expensive ways, but do not support that with higher payments to the farmers. Furthermore, they apply a “tournament system” whereby if your birds don’t grow as fat on the same feed as a neighboring contract farm, your payments will be cut and you can even be terminated as a contractor with little notice. Finally, if a farmer requests a change to their facility to improve the quality of life for the birds, they will often be told no and can be subject to additional sanctions, inspections, or pay cuts. This is a fairly ruthless, but still quite common, course of business in the industry.

Nellie’s Free Range Eggs also works with independent, small family farms to produce our eggs. But there are some very significant differences with how we do business with our farmer partners.

First of all, our farmers are partners, in every sense of the word. They are offered guaranteed prices to follow the strict guidelines for Certified Humane farming.

Second, we do not use a tournament system to constantly weed out our less efficient farmers. Instead we sign long-term contracts and do not penalize them for production issues that are not in their control, and will instead lend them a hand. We send our farm technicians to their homes to help them with issues that affect production like lighting, airflow, and temperature in the barn. We never pressure them to increase production by doing something that impairs the welfare of the hens, or the family that tends to them.

Third, instead of cutting corners, we continually work to improve conditions, such as our recent accomplishment of getting 100% of our farm partners on a Certified Humane Free Range standard. This is the opposite of the approach some of these other companies take. We are a Certified B-Corp, which means that we seek to meet a triple bottom line of financial, social welfare and environmental standards.

In the past decade of farming under our current partnership system, we have never terminated a farmer for poor financial performance and we have never had a farmer sue us, or leave us because they were unhappy with the partnership. That’s something we’re very proud of.