Nellie's Free Range Eggs

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Jesse Free Range Post Shot

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.

13 responses

  1. Kate says:

    I was so pleased to find humanely raised eggs provided by Nellie’s free range eggs that also are responsibly priced. Thankfully Winn-Dixie offers them. Thank you for doing what is right and not letting greed influence your practices. I am a loyal customer. Your eggs are excellent, with a deep yellow yolk and great taste.

  2. heather chase says:

    I love that the health & happiness, of your hens is important. As an animal lover who has a flock of 10 hens – I find the better they live – the better they produce and for customers- quality is important.Thank you all for not just being great business people but putting great thought into the care of your hens. I love your company as it is local too.keep up the fantastic job

  3. Trudi Kovach says:

    When consumers are more aware of the food source they choose based on what distributors are willing to share about conditions surrounding their practice, it brings with it so many gains. Its my hope that Nellies continues to set the industry standard. Thank you for sharing your example with us.

  4. Rona says:

    As an egg eating vegetarian knowing I am not contributing to animal cruelty I thank you…

  5. Mark Mirsky says:

    Just bought my first dozen of Nellies eggs and I look forward to breakfast tomorrow. It makes perfect sense to me, that a happy, healthy Hen is going to produce a better egg. I used a coupon from the paper, a $1.00 off. Makes it a little easier. I hope I can get additional coupons down the road. And I am thrilled the hens are being treated humanely.

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Thanks for giving us a try, Mark! We hope you enjoy our delicious free range eggs!

  6. Beth says:

    People who haven’t raised chickens have no idea what cute little characters they are. I had chickens for many years and there’s no way I’ll ever support a factory chicken farm. The only way to stop the abuse of these pleasing, innocent little creatures is to stop giving money to factory farms, and drive them out of business. I’m a loyal Nellie’s customer and suggest anyone who wonders about the difference in factory farm eggs and Nellie’s crack open some sample eggs and compare color and form!

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Thank you Beth! We love our chickens, they are wonderful!

  7. Peggy Darras Lintner says:

    Well written article, Jesse. As a former chicken raiser for many years, I agree with everything you said. I’m happy to buy Nellie’s eggs knowing their chickens are well taken care of!

  8. Audrey says:

    You don’t need to climb on the backs of small farmers to sell your eggs. Pasturing chickens is the farthest thing from wasteful. I honestly question how your pasture stays so full and green, I have never in my life seen a fenced area for chickens that actually looks like that. Maybe if the chickens are only in it for the pictures. Chickens destroy whatever land they are on, they are vigorous foragers. Most small farmers who are pasturing use chicken tractors for this very reason. So the birds actually have access to fresh pasture every day. Its called Holistic Management, look it up, its the future of farming. Free Range is just a stepping stone. I congratulate you on what you’re doing, much better than cage free. But trying to make it sound like pastured is wasteful? Really? It makes you sound ignorant, and you have a lot of good info on your website. Its not a matter of more space, its a matter of fresh space. Because there is just no way you can have a grassy pasture if theres chickens in it all the time. You either rotate the pasture or the chickens, so which one are you doing? Do your chickens have access to more than one pasture? Or do you rest the pasture by keeping them inside the barn? Im sorry but Im a farmer who can’t be fooled by a couple cute pictures. Thanks, no hard feelings.

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Thanks for your input and thoughtful response Audrey. First, let me say that we think there is room for all kinds of farms, from small, multi-use farms with crops and a variety of animals to backyard chicken coops for families or neighborhoods. We fully support all efforts to bring back a human scale to farming. Unfortunately, we, as a country, have a very long way to go still. Due to the economic disadvantage they face in a system that favors industrialization, more small farms go out of business every decade than start up. We also believe in an absolute baseline level of humane animal care best represented by the Certified Humane standard. Our goal as a company has been two-fold: provide a market for small egg farms (our typical farm is operated by the immediate family members alone) and to put a humane product on the shelves at a price that consumers are willing to pay. While that price is considerably higher than factory farmed eggs, it is still within reason for most American’s food budgets.

      That’s why we suggest that while there is nothing wrong with a pasture raised standard of 108 square feet, based on my experience as a 3rd generation egg farmer, we find our hens (and our pasture) do quite well with less. Our hens do turn the area of pasture next to the barn into dirt with their digging and dust bathing, but that almost always leaves a vast expanse of grass pasture left over for those that want to venture further afield. Please note that our operations are mostly egg laying farms and we are not trying to fertilize fields with hen manure for the purposes of growing crops as you are likely describing with Holistic Management. Again, those are great little farms which we fully support, but they represent a business model that would not allow us to put cartons on shelf for less than $10 a dozen. We seek to fill that part of the market that is willing to may more for ethical eggs, but may not be willing to pay that price, or perhaps doesn’t have access to those type of eggs to begin with.

      We do not claim to be the complete answer to our country’s agricultural problems or necessarily every person’s choice for eggs. But we do feel that we are a very significant driver of change away from the deplorable state of the egg industry as it currently exists. Thanks again for your comments.

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  10. Mama T says:

    My family has been eating Nellies Eggs for several years now since we’ve cleaned up our diets and become more environmentally aware. We love the better taste of Nellies eggs along with the more humane treatment of hens. We even have your T-Shirts in my favorite shade of purple. I am working on getting a dozen more for our local Veterans. I do have a question however, on what the hens are fed due to trying to fix my health issues in A more natural way than prescriptions that cause side effects. I had heard that corn (usually fed to chickens) is a Genetically Modified food and that due to moldy conditions of storage can cause inflammation in the body that can cause arthritis, joint pain, cancer, asthma, copd,etc. So what do these cuties eat when they’re not out foraging for bugs in the grass?

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