CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — A decade ago, a couple running a dairy business in Northern California visited a Mennonite farm where the owner had used a flock of laying hens to teach his children business principles and instill values like responsibility and care for nature.
They returned home and bought 150 hens for their boys, Christian and Joseph. “My parents told us, you and Joseph are in charge of keeping these 150 birds alive,” recalled Christian Alexandre, who now heads the family’s egg business.
What started as a parental effort to instill solid values has become the mainstay of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms. Within five years, Christian and Joseph were tending 1,500 hens and had a deal in place to supply eggs to Whole Foods stores in Northern California. Christian remembers Walter Robb, co-chief executive of the grocery retailer, showing up at one of his football games.
The rusty red chickens foraging in the fields outnumber the cows 10 to 1 — and the roughly five million eggs they will produce this year command prices that make organic milk look cheap. “The egg business has kept the dairy going for several years,” Blake Alexandre, Christian’s father, said.
Members of the Alexandre family at their farm in Crescent City, Calif., earlier this month. (Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
Alexandre Kids Eggs produces pastured eggs, which on their farm means that the hens live in housing that allows them to spend much of the day in open pasture. While still a minuscule portion of the roughly 75 billion eggs produced in the United States each year, pastured eggs like theirs are one of the fastest-growing category of eggs in America today.
Consumers have grown more aware of the conditions under which many of the nation’s laying hens live, thanks to undercover videos from animal welfare advocates and, more recently, photos of hundreds of thousands of dead birds being tossed out of hangar-size barns after outbreaks of avian flu.
Pastured eggs from hens allowed to roam about help to address some of those concerns about how foods are produced and the impact such systems have on the environment, animal welfare and health and nutrition.
“The egg market for probably the last 30 years has been a very sleepy category,” said Betsy Babcock, a proprietor of Handsome Brook Farm, a pastured egg business with operations in 41 states. “What we’ve seen over the last year or so, though, is a revolution, with pastured eggs going from being a niche-y segment in the natural food market and Whole Foods to being a thriving business in places like Kroger.”
Not all eggs labeled “pastured” are the same — there are no federal regulations governing use of the terms “pastured,” “free range” or “cage-free” on egg cartons.
Thus, the Babcocks’ production regimen for eggs labeled “pastured” is somewhat different from the Alexandres’, which in turn is different from the operations of Vital Farms, another large pastured-egg supplier.
Hens producing pastured eggs may indeed live in lush pastures — or they may merely have access to a patch of dirt outside their barn. Eggs labeled “cage-free” typically means the hens that laid them were free to move about inside a barn kitted out with an aviary system of roosts, nests and feeding stations — but with no outdoor access at all.
“There’s quite a range of operations among businesses that label their eggs pastured,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which publishes the Organic Egg Scorecard, a ratings system.
Cornucopia is updating its egg report, thus Mr. Kastel and his team have recently visited egg farms around the country, hoping to clarify the terminology used on egg cartons. Its highest rating will go to egg businesses like the Alexandres’, where most of the hens are outside in mobile housing during the day with access to fresh pasture.
“To get the very best eggs, consumers need to do their homework,” Mr. Kastel said. “Despite federal organic law that requires access to the outdoors, many of the leading organic brands come from giant henhouses with as many as 180,000 birds, offering nothing more than a tiny screened porch.”
In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure requiring egg producers to provide more spacious living conditions for laying hens. Eggs imported to California from other states also must come from hens housed to the same standard.
In the meantime, major food businesses like Taco Bell and Panera Bread have made commitments to require the eggs they use to come from cage-free environments, which are a step beyond the colony cages that are the minimum needed to meet the California regulations.
Finally, after the avian flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of laying hens this year, some major egg producers decided to replace at least some of their conventional housing with cage-free systems.
Costco began reducing its sales of conventional eggs in 2007, according to Craig Wilson, its vice president for food safety and quality assurance. “It just seemed to us at the time that battery cages were going to go away, and anyway, they’re not a good thing,” Mr. Wilson said.
In August and September of this year, which are not particularly big months for egg sales at Costco, the grocery chain sold 516 million eggs, he said.
Just 39 percent of those eggs came from birds housed in conventional systems. About 30 percent came from hens housed in colony cages, and the rest were from birds in cage-free systems or raised organically, free range or pastured.
Only 1.5 million eggs sold in August and September were from pastured operations like the Alexandres’, who have been Costco suppliers since 2014. “Could we rely on that kind of production for the nation’s egg supply?” Mr. Wilson said. “No. But our members just love them and so we do our best to support their desires.”
Costco, in fact, has inspired the Alexandres to double the number of laying hens they have over the next year
Their egg production system lives side-by-side with the milk business that Blake and Stephanie Alexandre started with when they bought the first 572 acres here, just eight miles south of the Oregon border and about a mile from the Pacific Ocean on land where giant redwood trees once grew.
The mild climate — the temperature fluctuates by only 11 degrees throughout the year — is ideal for outdoor hens, and rotating chickens and cows in pastures has a number of benefits for livestock and soil. Chickens, which are natural foragers, peck at cow patties to extract fly larvae and in the process help distribute manure around a field (as well as keep the fly population to a minimum). “They’re our best manure spreaders,” Christian Alexandre said.
That helps fertilize grass for the family’s 3,500 dairy cows, which are managed organically, to graze on. Vanessa Alexandre, who graduated last summer from California Polytechnic University, is immersing herself in the dairy business and recently struck a deal to provide milk from the family’s herd of 100 percent grass-fed cows to a large grocery business for its private label yogurt, which is made from milk from grass-fed cows. She plans to increase the number of cows raised solely on grass, rather than on grass and feed, as well.
The farm has nine chicken flocks, each typically numbering about 3,500 birds. The flocks are somewhat smaller now after a bout of cholera wiped out about a third of the hens last spring.
The flocks are rotated to new pastures every Tuesday and Friday, leaving behind a section of field shaved as close as a chin in the morning. The pasture then is left alone for a month or so to allow grass to regrow before cows are returned to it.
The hen barns, made from tin reclaimed from the farm in Southern California where Mrs. Alexandre grew up, and heated by solar panels on the roofs, move around on wheels. Christian Alexandre designed the barns, basing the design on the picturesque caravanlike coops he first saw as a boy on the Mennonite farm.
The barns are split in the middle and separated, to give the birds ample room to walk in and out. Nesting boxes hover over a wide canvas belt that catches the eggs as they are laid. Some of the farm’s 85 employees turn hand cranks each morning to move the belt, collecting the eggs at one end and delivering them to a facility where they are washed, inspected and packed.
Roosts for the birds slope up to the rafters of a barn. Very few birds were inside the barns on a recent visit, but they all return at night. “The best thing about chickens is you don’t have to herd them,” Blake Alexandre said.
The eggs sell for as much as 53 cents each — Christian Alexandre declined to reveal the profit margin. Costco sells 18 of them for $9.49 and is working with the family to reduce the price.
Handsome Brook, which grew out of a bed-and-breakfast farm that the Babcocks opened after they retired from the health care business, contracts for eggs with about 50 farms in 41 states that have some 250,000 hens in total. Its production, about 82 million eggs this year, dwarfs the Alexandres’ — and it plans to have 120 farms under contract next year, more than doubling its production.
Each farm houses an average of 5,000 birds in a barn on a 12.5-acre pasture, Ms. Babcock said. The chickens are fenced off in a section of that pasture until they have pecked the grass down to dirt; then they are moved to another section.
“We’re seeing 100 percent year-over-year growth in sales in the stores where our eggs are sold,” Ms. Babcock said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big business.”