Demand Creates Opportunity for Maine Farmers
by Diane Schivera and Jean English
Consumers’ demand for organic and cage-free eggs surpasses the supply that Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs and Nellie’s Nest Cage Free Eggs can offer, so for the first time in about two decades, a company is coming to Maine in search of growers to raise laying hens and replacement pullets for the brown egg industry. Currently Pete and Gerry’s raises most of its own replacement pullets, although Thornton Brothers in Bryant Pond, Maine, raise some.
Jesse Laflamme of Pete and Gerry’s (which also produces and sells Nellie’s Nest Cage Free eggs) in Monroe, New Hampshire, spoke about his family’s four-generation business and its needs at a meeting of the Maine Alternative Poultry Association at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January. The engaging young man, a 2000 graduate of Bates College, and son of Gerry and Carol Laflamme, said that this farm started selling organic eggs locally in the ‘90s. Now they have seven barns and don’t want to build any more, but the business has been growing about 30% per year for the last six years, so they’re looking for contract growers. They built a new plant in 2004, where they now process up to 2 million eggs a week; and they’re putting in a large compost system for their hen manure this year, with the goal of selling bagged organic fertilizer.
Not only does the farm offer organic eggs and cage-free eggs, but they were also the first egg farm in the United States to receive Certified Humane approval. The company’s cage-free eggs are high in healthful omega-3 fatty acids, since the hens consume either whole flaxseed (at 2 to 3% of their feed) or crushed flaxseed (at 7 to 8% of their feed). Laflamme cautioned growers not to give hens too much flaxseed; the resulting eggs will taste fishy and can bring complaints from customers.
Pete and Gerry’s eggs are sold in recyclable, #1 plastic cartons made from recycled soda bottles, and Laflamme noted that this brings more customer inquiries than any other aspect of their operation. “We tried marketing in pulp cartons, but people just passed them by,” said Laflamme, adding that the recycled plastic cartons, from a factory in Montreal, take less energy to produce than pulp cartons.
The cage-free eggs are not organic and retail for about $1 less per dozen than organic. Sales of cage-free eggs are growing faster than sales of organic. Hens that are raised organically have access to the outdoors and receive organic feed, while those raised cage-free do not. Both get vegetarian feed, and neither group receives antibiotics.
Their newest aviary, a 72- x 300-foot structure, has four levels of platforms on which hens can freely move. “The floor level has feed and scratching areas, the second level has nests and water, and the top two levels have enough perches for all the hens to stand or roost,” according to the company’s Web site (peteandgerrys.com). Such multi-platform poultry aviaries have been used in Europe for over 15 years. Laflamme cheerfully described the scene in the new barn, with chickens passing one another in flight and jumping from level to level up to 9 feet high. Built by Dutch manufacturer Jansen Poultry Equipment, this is the first such structure in the United States, with a humane and more natural environment than traditional hen houses. Laflamme’s family plans to install winter gardens alongside the buildings where the hens will enjoy an extended scratch area in the winter.
The barns are kept at 60 to 70 degrees in the winter, just with heat from the hens and good insulation. The super-insulated walls are made from foam core panels, and the attic is insulated with cellulose with borax (a rodent repellent).
Hens lay eggs in community nests that are away from the very bright lights of other parts of the aviary. Laflamme and his father (Gerry) designed and built some of these community nests and got others from Europe. “It’s like a long doghouse,” said Laflamme, with a slightly sloped floor covered with a special type of “Chicken AstroTurf” from Solutia, Inc., in Missouri (solutia.com). It comes in 3- x 50-foot rolls, has holes in it (so it’s self-cleaning) and acts as a scratch surface. Hens lay eggs on the AstroTurf, and the eggs roll onto a conveyor belt. They lay well for about 13 months, and then produce fewer eggs that lack quality while, at the same time, they eat more grain. At this point, hens are either shipped to a processing plant in New Jersey that makes broth, or, if they’re well-feathered, they’re sold live to markets in New York and New Jersey for people who prefer to slaughter their own birds.
Pete and Gerry’s is looking around New England for people to raise hens. “Small farms would be perfect,” said Laflamme. They now have one farm in New Hampshire raising pullets and are talking with one each in Vermont and Maine. They also work with a few growers in Pennsylvania – “Amish and Mennonites who weathered the egg industry consolidation. They’re taking the old equipment out and doing cage-free eggs now,” said Laflamme.
Pete and Gerry’s distributes its eggs as far away as Pennsylvania and would like to be able to bring its trucks back full of eggs to be processed in its plant. Ideally, they’d be able to pick up eggs at a central location that housed 5,000 to 20,000 hens. Laflamme suggested that several growers could each raise 500 or so birds and consolidate the eggs to reach the 5,000 mark.
Various contracts are available. Growers can own the hens and sell the eggs to Pete and Gerry’s; or a farmer can build or renovate a barn and supply electricity, and Pete and Gerry’s supplies everything else (hens, feed, sawdust, etc.) and pays the farmer between $.215 and $.25 per dozen, (depending on the barn situation) to care for the hens and collect the eggs. Growers can raise cage-free or organic birds. “If a sound poultry barn exists,” said Laflamme, “there are systems that are relatively reasonably priced” for such a barn. A complete system, with feeders, waterers, etc., could cost $100,000.
In their own operation, they’re using 18 or 19 pounds of grain to get a bird to 20 weeks of age, the age at which it starts laying.
Raising replacement pullets is less labor intensive but requires more attention to animal husbandry and to detail than raising laying hens. Pete and Gerry’s supplies day-old chicks; they pay for shavings, grain and heat; and a technician from Pete and Gerry’s does the vaccinating. The chicks are raised in big, tight barns with feeding and watering systems. A propane-fueled stove is usually used to keep the barn at 90 to 95 degrees for the first week, and then the temperature is lowered 5 degrees per week until it’s in the 70s. Each pullet eventually needs about 1 square foot of space, and Pete and Gerry’s is seeking growers who can raise 5,000 to 20,000 at a time.
Anyone who is interested in this business should get in touch with Jesse Laflamme ([email protected] or 1-800-GET-EGGS) and arrange to visit Pete and Gerry’s barns to see what they’re doing and to look at sample contracts. Growers – preferably those who have had some experience with poultry – would then have to build (or have) a proper barn, get suitable equipment, and work out the logistics with Pete and Gerry’s for picking up eggs.
Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or [email protected].