“We are seeing an evolution in the egg industry, and in retail where our pasture raised eggs are going from being a novelty to mainstream in large grocery chains,” said Betsy Babcock, who along with her husband Bryan began distributing pasture raised eggs from Handsome Brook Farm locally in 2008 and now have national distribution in leading stores, including Whole Foods, Kroger and Harris Teeter.
“Our farm is the fastest growing privately held egg company in the US” thanks to pasture raised eggs being one of the fastest growing segments in the dairy case, claims Babcock, who noted that Handsome Brook Farm currently works with 40 farms, but will expand to 60 by the end of the year. That number will double again by the end of 2016, she added.
The specialty egg category still has a long way to go to catch up with demand for eggs from caged hens, which currently account for 85% to 90% of industry, but Babcock says the quality taste of eggs from chickens, like hers, that are able to roam grassy pastures and forage for food is helping to drive the segment’s fast growth.
She explained that her hens, and those on the farms with which she works, have at least 55 square feet of pasture at a time and more than 108 square feet when the pastures are rotated. This is compared to the 1.5 square feet of space required by organic and free-range and the 1.2 square feet for cage-free eggs.
“Pasture raised chickens have plenty of room to exhibit natural behavior. They come inside to sleep, rest and nest but they have multiple giant doors to go in and out, as well as perches and places to scratch and take dust baths,” she said.
And that freedom to roam translates to a better tasting egg consumers notice, Babcock claims.
“The yolks are very bright orange, and the whites are very thick. … They taste richer, buttery or more eggy,” she said. They also have a higher nutritional content, she added, pointing to a study conducted by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science.
The study, published in 2010, found compared to eggs from commercial hens, those from pastured hens had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain Omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids and 38% higher concentration of vitamin A.
Controlling costs and managing supply
Raising pastured, organic eggs is more expensive than mass producing eggs from caged hens, but Handsome Brook Farm is vertically integrating its business to help manage costs and make their eggs as affordable and accessible to as many people as possible, Babcock said.
The farm recently acquired its own organic feed mill, which will allow it to control the cost of feed by buying a year’s worth of corn at a time at a discount, Babcock said.
“What that does is locks in the price of feed so our farmers know for the entire year their grain price. It also is good for our retailers because the price of our eggs will not flux over the year,” she said.
She also noted that because Handsome Brook Farm is privately held it is not under pressure to increase egg prices to meet profit goals.
“Profits are important, but not vital to us,” like is providing humane treatment for the chickens, she said. This flexibility also allows the firm to not price gouge consumers during shortages, such as the most recent one caused by the avian flu, she said.
Expanding exposure, education
Moving forward, Babcock said Handsome Brook Farm is expanding its reach beyond retail to enter food service supply.
“The grocery chain is our primary channel, but in the past year we started to do industrial customers, including a group of private schools in New York and some restaurants,” she said.
The expansion incrementally increases sales, but it also increases trial by new consumers and creates a touchstone for educating more people about the value of pasture-raised eggs, which in turn will fuel future growth, she said.