Family Farm Crusades For Free-Range, Organic Farming

The largest producer of free-range eggs in the US is trying to expand ethical egg production by raising $80,000 through a crowdfunding campaign – enough money to transform a conventional chicken farm into a pasture-raised operation.

Vital Farms, founded in 2007, is a network of 15 family farms based in Austin, Texas – it’s the biggest supplier of organic eggs to Whole Foods, and more recently broiler chickens. It was just ranked by Inc. magazine as the fastest growing private food and beverage company in the US with about $5 million in sales for 2011.

They are trying to grow – and spread the practice – by adding more free-range farms to their network.

Free range chickens produce 100% organic eggs. Allowing chickens to roam freely and eat organic feed – as opposed to typical feed which is laced with GMOs and pesticides – has been shown to produce healthier eggs. 

Vital Farms uses no chemicals in the chickens’ food or on the  pasture they live on, which also means no harmful runoff enters rivers and ultimately the ocean. ceans. Rotating pastures each week fertilizes the land and gives it time to rest.

Very few hens get to live this way in the US. Roughly 95% of egg-laying hens, which produce 80 billion eggs a year, are kept in cages that are barely big enough for them to turn around. There are plenty of other heinous practices that make these operations extremely efficient, which we won’t go into here. Even when eggs are labeled "cage-free," they most often come from chickens that are crammed into warehouses, where they lay eggs on a conveyor belt.

"Four percent of laying hens live in so-called ‘free-range’ conditions, but they are still raised in barns with 100,000 other hens," says Vital Farms. "There is no “range” to speak of; these birds never breathe fresh air or see a blade of grass. Even organic laying hens are for the most part, raised indoors, and do not roam outside or forage grass like our hens."

True free-range farming costs more than a factory farm – Vital Farms estimates that while one person can manage 100,000 conventionally raised birds, he or she could only handle about 2,000 hens in the pasture model. That doesn’t include the start-up costs, which include land, mobile fencing, upgraded housing and new water and feed structures (egg-laying hens need an organic feed ration to stimulate production). Vital Farms estimates the costs to convert to a family farm are about $25 per hen.

If its crowdfunding campaign on the When You Wish website is successful, that would pay to convert one family farm in Georgia to pasture-raised. As of this writing, they have raised about  10% of their goal, with 60 days left in the campaign.

Caging birds is illegal in the European Union and in California, and controversy is growing over the definition of "cage-free." In early October, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued California egg producer Judy’s Family Farm Organic Eggs (owned by Petaluma Egg Farm) for inaccurately portraying how it raise its hens. While the company’s packaging suggests the animals are pasture-raised, aerial photos of the farm suggest they actually live in factory-style sheds, according to the lawsuit.

For more information about the differences between pasture-raised farming and other cage-free methods, check out this video.

Here’s the crowdfunding website:

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