New Hampshire Egg Farmers Support Network of Family Farms to Tune of 500,000 Sustainably Laid Eggs A Day
May 24, 2012 | Noelle Swan
Jesse LaFlamme’s family has been farming eggs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for four generations. Once large-scale egg-farmers with chickens stacked in battery cages, today the family has become the largest producer of organic and cage-free eggs in New England.
The decision to convert to organic production and cage-free barns first arose as a business strategy. Struggling to compete with factory farms, Jesse’s father, Gerry LaFlamme, and Gerry’s cousin, Peter Stanton decided to tear out the cages that had been installed by their fathers and start over, targeting a whole new market under the name Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs.
Jesse says that Pete and Gerry had a sense that there was a market in New England for organic eggs, but tapping into it was risky business. Organic feed is costly and cage-free barns hold only a fraction of the chickens that battery cages can hold, meaning organic eggs had to come with a higher price tag.
It turned out that Pete and Gerry were right; there was a market for organic eggs that could support the higher overhead, but it was limited. They were producing more eggs than they could sell and decided to create Nellie’s Nest, an additional brand of cage-free eggs that they offer at a slightly lower price point. Nellie’s chickens “roam where they please” and are certified humane, just like Pete and Gerry’s, but they do not eat organic feed.
Before long, both businesses found footing and the company added a third brand of heirloom eggs laid by rarely bred heirloom chickens. Since, Pete, Gerry, and Jesse have partnered with 35 family farms around the northeast, producing half a million eggs every day, all packaged under the Pete and Gerry’s or Nellie’s Nest labels.
Jesse says that the company has made a conscious effort to expand, responsibly sourcing eggs from local farmers that adhere to the same standards. He says that the family routinely visits partner farms, and has contracted a poultry management service run by a family friend to monitor farms in other states and make sure that standards are being upheld. Eggs are processed in either New Hampshire in a facility run by Pete or in a partner facility in Pennsylvania.
What began as a pragmatic business decision has turned into a holistic philosophy of sustainable farming. When selecting packaging, the family looked carefully at several materials. The traditional cardboard found most often on supermarket shelves lost out to foam and plastic packaging that protects the eggs better and can be recycled more efficiently. A new air filtration system draws cold air from the outside to assist in egg refrigeration, cutting down on energy costs. Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs in the family’s nine barns further lowered energy costs. Soon the company hopes to install a manure composting system thanks to a Natural Resource Conservation Service grant. Pete and Gerry’s website says that the company strives toward 100% sustainability and is looking into producing renewable energy onsite and becoming a zero-waste facility.
Fostering Family Farms
Jesse talks about coming of age at a time when family farms all around the country folded and watching his parents’ farm nearly fall with them. “Organic and humane food has been like a reset button,” he says. “It has given people a chance to maintain a life in agriculture.”
Having gone through the process of converting their own 200-acre farm to organic and cage-free, Jesse says that his family understands the expenditure involved and strives to support other family farms in the process of growing their own business. The relationship between Jesse’s family and partnering farms can be more involved than a typical vendor-distributor arrangement. The family handles packaging and processing and in some instances supplies the hens. Jesse hopes that in the future, the family will be able to offer low or no-interest loans for family egg-farmers.
Making Financial Sense
Jesse says that the company is profitable “most of the time” but struggles with fluctuations in demand. People tend to buy a lot of eggs for baking in the winter and around the holidays. Demand drops drastically during the summer months while the hens keep on eating grain and laying eggs. Maintaining commitments to sustainability can carry additional costs. The company encourages customers to recycle their packaging, even going as far as paying for customers to ship it back to them where the family can recycle it at the farm’s expense. Fluctuations in the recycling market can affect this cost. As is often the case, maintaining economic and environmental sustainability is a delicate balancing act.
Jesse says that the company is still looking to grow its network of partner farms. Right now, the company is talking with farmers in North Carolina that could carry the Pete and Gerry’s and Nellie’s Nest labels into the southeast. Right now, the market is limited to New England, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. This year, the company will be expanding one of its processing plants to handle larger volumes faster. The new system will be able to package 40 eggs per second. Jesse hopes to expand distribution of liquid eggs and continue to grow the company as sustainably as possible.