What’s so great about 108? Well, it’s catchy, for one thing. But it also happens to sum up everything that makes pasture-raising hens for eggs so good in so many ways. It may sound like a random number that we’ve picked out for its rhyming properties, but there’s actually some pretty solid science behind it, and once you understand that, then all the great things that flow from this magic number all start to make sense too.
Let’s wind back the clock a little and start to see how we got to this point.
Until the 1940’s and 50’s, there really wasn’t such a thing as large scale chicken farming in the US. Urban populations were relatively small, so a lot of people still lived close to traditional farming communities, where pretty much everyone – not just farmers – would have a handful of chickens running around their yards. Although they were kept primarily for their meat, with all the pickings that these hens would find, they also provided a steady supply of delicious, farm-fresh eggs as well.
But it wasn’t until farmers were able to fortify feed with antibiotics and vitamins that egg-production as an industry took off: the addition of synthetic vitamin D meant that they no longer needed real sunshine to stay healthy, and cheaper antibiotics allowed farmers to crowd birds by the thousands into increasingly cramped indoor spaces while treating them for the inevitable diseases they would contract in such close quarters. Keeping a large number of animals in confinement was also much more efficient for the farmers. The ancestral chicken’s natural ability to turn it’s egg-laying into hyperdrive in the presence of an abundance of food became the farmer’s greatest asset: provide a steady supply of feed and get a steady supply of eggs.
At this low point in man’s relationship to the trusty hen, things began to change. People realized that these factory eggs were less healthy and less tasty than the eggs they remembered from their childhood. In Europe, governments began to outlaw caged operations, setting cage-free standards as an ethical minimum. The US was slower to react, and still to this day most every state still permits conditions bordering on barbaric, with close to 90% of all eggs sold in the US coming from hens kept in confined squalor.
Slowly but surely, consumers began to seek out alternatives. First cage-free, then free-range became familiar terms, though, to paraphrase the words of Inigo Montoya, they may not mean what you think they mean. Free-range in particular, a term with a very precise definition in the more highly regulated European markets (where, for the record, it means that birds must get meaningful access to 43 sq.ft. of outdoor space), became the epitome of misleading marketing-speak. Even under USDA regulations, there are no minimum space requirements and free-range birds need only be ‘provided’ with access to the outdoors. Nothing in the regulations stipulates what this outdoor space need look like, so wipe those visions of grassy meadows from your mind! That’s not to say that all free-range birds have less than you imagine, just most.
Enter pasture-raising. At first a loose combination of traditional backyard and ethically minded farming with no real definition, the benefits of pasture-raising were immediately obvious. Happy hens running around outdoors, eating grass and critters, with… hold the phone, these eggs taste like actual eggs – rich, bright, fluffy, delicious! It was like an epicurean epiphany, a glorious sunrise of the forgotten golden yolk. We’d become so used to a pale imitation, that this was somehow a surprising revelation. Give a hen plenty of fresh air, green grass, sunlight and freedom to run around, being true to her nature, and you’ll get back a constant supply of precious gifts. Sounds so simple really.Taking a lead from food revolutionaries like Joe Salatin and Michael Pollan, and with all the encouragement they needed from the folks at Whole Foods, Matt, Catherine and Jason, as Vital Farms, started to shape what pasture-raising should be – to understand the parameters that make it work as a system, and to create a set of standards that could be applied and followed anywhere where hens could have pretty much year round access to genuine outdoor pastures.And that’s where the numbers come in.You see, running a farm is not just a question of letting the birds out on grass and waiting for the eggs to roll in. It may seem simple, but you have to take care of the long term as well as the short term, the land as well as the hens. From their years of experience in real free-range farming, our cousins in Europe were able to provide us with real data to use, data that allowed us to find the right balance of great nutrition for the girls (with all the fresh grass they need) and a sustainable ecology for the farmland that ensured it’s ongoing productive viability.The density of hens that they calculated came to 1,000 birds for every hectare of pasture – not that this entire hectare would be used at all times: since the hens, shall we say, provide nitrogen rich fertilizer as they forage, it’s actually better to use a few sections of the pasture at a time, staying on any given section for 7-21 days, depending on the season. So although they are not roaming the full extent of their pasture, the areas lying fallow are re-growing naturally, and we don’t need to add pesticides or herbicides either.With pasture-raising, the land stays healthy and chemical free, the farmer makes a better, cleaner living, the hens get to be outdoors, running around, and the eggs they lay are tasty and nutritious (higher in vitamins and good stuff, lower in the bad stuff). It’s a win win win win win.And that magic number? Simple – 1 hectare is just under 108,000 sq ft, which means that every one of those 1,000 birds is getting 108 sq ft of outdoor pasture. When you look at all the amazing benefits that flow from a system that provides this much space as a bare minimum, you can see for yourself what’s so great about 108!Any less than that, and it wouldn’t be pasture-raising.