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An Interview with Michael Cox, family farmer, Arkansas

Matt O’Hayer, (Left) Michael Cox, (Center) Jason Jones (Right) family farmers
Matt O’Hayer, (Left) Michael Cox, (Center) Jason Jones (Right)

 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in living in Summers, AR. on the farm with my dad. I just turned 30 last week. Now it’s time to grow up! Currently my wife Courtney and our two boys Tate and Jax live on our Holcroft farm, which is where we have our Vital Farms production.
How did you start chicken farming? What did you do before this?

I was raised in the egg business. My grandfather oversaw Cargill’s egg operation until his retirement and my father began with a contract to produce for Cargill in 1981. My father broke from Cargill and produced as an independent farmer in 1984. From that he grew into a vertically integrated company with pullet production, laying production, feed mill, processing plant, and trucking. I grew up around the farm. I was often into trouble with my siblings and had to pack eggs for punishment! I still hate packing eggs to this day. I have never had a job off the farm. One year into college I dropped out to work full time on the farm. In 2001 I started Arkansas Egg. We were a caged egg producer.
Why do you think it’s important to raise animals using organic feed, an environmental consciousness and humane conditions?

At one time my father had 2.5 million hens. When I began I had around 800,000. That’s small stuff compared to the big guys in the industry. Today you have farms with 605,000 birds in a single barn and 6 million on a farm. To me, the number is for shock value. A small cage house with 30,000 birds has the same conditions as the largest of barns. We converted into organic production for several reasons. One, we had old, run down facilities which helped me see first hand the environmental and welfare issues that accompanied (a conventional) style of production. Second, the market for this production was stable compared to the conventional side. We could obtain the margins we needed to do a lot of things differently, the right way.

Conventional egg production is a great example of how over the last 50 years, the focus has been on cheap food at all cost. Most consumers demand it. Look at prop 2 in California. 60% of citizens voted for it. Only 5% of consumers support it at the store by buying a cage free egg. That’s an astounding voter disconnect. In 1950 it took Americans 2.5 hours of work on avg. to pay for 1 dozen eggs. Today it takes a fraction of that time. Americans spend less on food than any other nation and they get what they pay for.

We began transitioning to organic production in 2007. Today we are 100% organic, cage free and pasture roaming. For us its about two distinctly different advantages. One is the living conditions and overall welfare of the birds compared to traditional cage production. The second is that by being Certified Organic, our consumers can know with certainty they are getting a food that fits their lifestyle or diet needs. These two items are big issues to consumers today.

 

 

What do you see happening to family farms in your area and the U.S. in general?

As food production focus has been on cheap foods, there is a direct trend to what’s happening on the family farm. Farming in general has a grow or die mentality. Small farms are dying as new, larger ones take their place. In one generation, a family farm that made a living on a small dairy herd and a small barn of chickens is gone. Today’s family farms typically are sustained with a job in town. It takes hundreds of thousands of chickens or 100’s of cattle in a herd to make a living.

Our contract farms that produce for Vital Farms are making a better living raising a fraction of the birds they once did. We get over one hundred calls a year from producers wanting to know if we are looking for more contract production. A shift to sustainable farming practices (with a focus on animal welfare) is dependent on the consumers’ willingness to pay more for that item and understand why it costs more. Organic farming has been a breath of life into small farms across the country. It creates an environment where the focus is on doing the right thing, not the cheapest thing. As a result the products cost more to produce and net more income that sustain this method of production.
How did you meet Jason and Matt? What attracted you to Vital Farms?

How I met Matt and Jason is a funny story. I became interested in pasture egg production in 2009. After only a few weeks of thinking hard about how I would peruse this, Matt called me out of the blue about buying some feed from our mill. Before that, I had heard of Vital Farms but knew nothing of them. We talked for 30 minutes on our first call and it ended with a planned visit to Austin the next week. I have felt good about our relationship from the first call. We are very excited about the opportunities ahead.
What do you like to do besides farming?

Outside of working I enjoy hunting and fishing and spending every minute possible outside.