Vital Farms began with one small family farm and a simple goal in mind: to give laying hens the highest quality of life possible. We knew that if we did that, then everything else would follow – sustainable land use, beneficial relationships with the farmers that we work with, and ultimately an amazing tasting egg. This approach is part of our ‘stakeholder model’, and it informs every decision we make.
But, farming is not always as straight forward as the picture postcard of hens roaming in fields of flowers. There are biological realities, and there are economic realities, and oftentimes the two of those collide. We’ve prided ourselves of never taking the easy way out, and doing what we can to change our small corner of the farming world whenever we see the opportunity.
Last year for example, we invested significantly into an initiative which is seeking a viable solution to end male chick culling. Although this has now been spun off into a separate business, it was an important project for us to invest in and undertake, and we’re hopeful that our industry leadership will contribute to a more humane way of handling chicks at the beginning of their lives.
When female chicks do grow up and come to our farms, we think they live just about the best life possible for a laying hen to have – acres of open pasture, fresh green grass and the freedom to come and go from comfortable barns as they please.
But as the amount and quality of eggs our hens lay decline with age, the economic realities of farming mean that those summer days must eventually draw to a close. In our early days, when Vital Farms had just a couple of farms located near urban areas, we’d simply place an advertisement on Craig’s List and find homes for our retiring ladies with backyard farmers. Today, due to the rural locations of our family farms, that method no longer makes sense. So when retirement time comes, the farmers that we work with have little choice but to ‘retire’ the flock en masse. That currently means just one thing – and not to sugar coat it – the flock is euthanized, either on site at the farm or at a nearby slaughter plant. And while we conduct this process as humanely as we are able, the end result is still, unavoidably, the same. If we ever suspect any of our farmers or support crew failing to adhere to our standards, we conduct thorough investigations and take the necessary corrective measures. That is indeed something we discovered had happened recently with a third party contractor, who as a result was immediately terminated.
We consider the end of our hens lives as sacred as the rest of their time with us. In the past we have been able to offset this forced retirement through donations of the birds to overseas food programs, but for a number of reasons, including a plant closure and current FDA restrictions in the wake of devastating Bird Flu outbreaks this option is now very limited .
Which is why we are excited as a company to be embarking on a renewed mission to figure out the absolutely best way to treat hens at the end of their laying life. We’re seeking input and advice from experts across a variety of fields, and around the world, to gather best practices, assess the most viable alternatives and determine what works the best for the hens, the farmers and the communities at large.
There’s no idea we’ll leave unchecked! Whether it be sanctuary farms, humane euthanization methods or the donation of living hens to food aid programs, we are going to be as thorough and as ethical in this investigation as we are with all of our farming practices.
Says Russell Diez-Canseco, President and COO of Vital Farms, “We want to know that these wonderful creatures that we hold stewardship for have been given the best conditions possible, from the time they are hatched as chicks, to the end of their lives.”