Vital Farms chickens are each allotted 108 square feet of outdoor space. (Courtesy of Dan Brooks/Vital Farms)
In 2006, Michael Cox, a chicken farmer in northwest Arkansas, faced a choice that many farmers do: Grow or die. His family had been raising chickens for three generations, first for agriculture behemoth Cargill and then for themselves. Even with 800,000 laying hens, Cox was not big enough to compete: “If you’re growing or dying,” he said, “we were planning our funeral.”
Cox, who was then 25, switched some of the family’s production to organic, which brought premium prices. Then, in 2009, he heard about a Texas startup called Vital Farms that wanted to produce pasture-raised eggs and sell them across the country. “Here were guys doing something completely different,” Cox remembers. “It was just crazy enough to work.” He signed on to raise 5,000 chickens.
I write about Vital Farms’ success in this week’s Washington Post. Since 2009, the company has nearly doubled in size each year. What started as a farm outside Austin with just a few thousand birds now works with about 60 farms and produces 1.5 million eggs every week. The eggs, which cost from $4.99 to $8.99 a dozen, are sold across the country in Whole Foods Markets and other natural-foods grocers, as well as in some mainstream stores, including Safeway and Kroger.
Vital Farms’ national distribution lets consumers who live in cold climates like the Northeast have access to pasture-raised eggs year-round. (Chickens can’t graze on pasture if there’s no grass.) Moreover, it is proof that companies don’t have to compromise on animal welfare, or on how much they pay farmers, to compete in the marketplace. “We set out to build a big business without compromise,” said Jason Jones, Vital Farms’ president. Added founder and chief executive Matt O’Hayer, “Our job is to show people that an egg is not just an egg.”