-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.