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Eggs on a Mission: Vital Farms leads the way with ethically produced eggs from Springfield plant

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Vital Farms Inc. began with a simple mission: produce food humanely and let birds be birds.

From its humble start as a small farm in Austin, Texas, with 20 hens, the pasture-raised egg distributer has scaled to partner with 150 farms in nine states.

Today, its year-old Egg Central Station in Springfield processes and packs between 1.2 million and 2 million eggs each business day, and 2018 companywide sales exceeded $100 million. All of its eggs are processed in Springfield.

President and Chief Operating Officer Russell Diez-Canseco said sticking to its roots has allowed the company to grow and cultivate the demand for its product.

“People want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” he said. “They want to know more about their farmers.”

Vital Farms’ model relies on small, independent farms to raise hens with year-round access to the outdoors, rotated fields and at least 108 square feet for each bird.

The company worked with Humane Farm Animal Care to establish the guidelines for its hens, or girls, as the company affectionately calls them.

“We helped develop the standard in the United States for what great animal welfare looks like for pasture-raised birds,” Diez-Canseco said.

Husband-and-wife founders Matt O’Hayer and Catherine Stewart started selling the eggs produced by their hens at Austin-area farmers markets until Whole Foods discovered the company and offered O’Hayer a $100,000 producer loan in 2009, said Vital Farms spokesman Scott Marcus.

Now, the company sells its eggs to 10,000 retail and food service companies, including Walmart, Target, Whole Foods and Lucky’s Market stores nationwide, as well as MaMa Jean’s Natural Market and Price Cutter locally.

Vital Farms dominates the pasture-raised market nationally, Marcus said, as it sells 70 percent of pasture-raised eggs, which as a segment only represents 3 percent of eggs sold nationally. According to data analysis firm PitchBook, the private company with 22 shareholders is valued at $136.1 million.

Farm fresh
Back in 2016, Reggie Rice said he wanted to start a farm to make a living off his land in Buffalo. He discovered Vital Farms in his research and was hooked.

“They value the welfare of the birds over the profit of production,” he said. “It does make a better product, and you can go to bed every night knowing the animals you are charged with are taken care of.”

Rice’s 80-acre Buckskin Acres Farm produces an average of 9,000 eggs daily from its 10,000 birds.

He said his birds are outside by 8:30 a.m. and remain in his fields until dusk.

“People really want to know where food comes from. You can see exactly where their eggs are coming from and how they’re treated,” Rice said, comparing the transparency of conditions with commercial farms. “They don’t want the outside world to see the living conditions of those birds.”

Nearly 85 percent of egg-laying hens are kept in a conventional caged environment, according to the United Egg Producers. But the organization said that trend is shifting. To keep pace with consumer demand, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service suggests 75 percent of hens nationwide should be cage free by 2026.

Diez-Canseco said Vital Farms’ model is to work with independent farmers who sign multiyear contracts.

“The challenge for small, family farms in this country for decades has been it takes a lot of money to scale. Bigger and bigger agriculture companies drive cost down and it’s harder for smaller family farms to compete,” he said. “We took the part that really lends itself to scale, which is the packing of the eggs and the selling of the eggs ... and we created an opportunity for the small family farmer to continue.”

Growth in Springfield?
Since Vital Farms opened Egg Central Station in Springfield in August 2017, Diez-Canseco said it allowed the company to expand its egg volume by 50 percent year-over-year.

“We were looking in the Ozarks frankly because the majority of our farms are within a couple hundred miles of Springfield,” he said. “We really very quickly figured out that Springfield was the place for us.”

The company invested $17 million in its 82,000-square-foot plant at 2007 N. Alliance Ave. in Partnership Industrial Center West.

Now, the company is exploring expansion. The final location has not been selected, but Diez-Canseco said Springfield is the likely choice.

Diez-Canseco said Vital Farms would like to build a new facility by the end of 2021 to increase its egg production capacity to 35 million weekly.

The company employs 68 at the Springfield plant, with less than a 2 percent turnover rate, said Vice President of Operations Jennifer Gregg. She said the company would likely add 25-27 positions locally if the expansion in Springfield is finalized.

Marcus said Vital Farms’ base wage is $13 per hour.

“These are great jobs that provide a solid wage in a production environment,” said Ryan Mooney, senior vice president of economic development for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “They’re a really quality employer. They were looking for a community that they could connect with, and I think that’s really what they got.”

Change of pace
Vital Farms took a different approach with its Springfield plant.

“Most egg facilities are not like this,” said Alex Sanchez, the company’s food safety and quality assurance director.

He pointed to the cleanliness of the facility, the windows in the factory and the environmentally friendly motion-detection lights.

Truckloads of eggs arrive at the facility daily and remain in a cooler until they are ready to process, Sanchez said, noting the majority are conventional pasture-raised eggs, roughly 30 percent are non-genetically modified organisms and 20 percent are organic.

Crew members move pallets of 10,080 eggs at a time to the sanitizing station, where the eggs are washed, dried and go through an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, Sanchez said.

Each egg is carefully inspected for cracks twice, he said, through machines that take 16 photos of an egg to determine visible and under-the-shell cracks or irregularities.

Sanchez said it takes just four minutes for an egg to be processed and packaged.

Just before packaging, each egg is weighed and sorted into categories, from small to jumbo. Sanchez said the company sells large and extra-large eggs, and it sends most of its medium eggs to a third party that hard-boils them for sale.

Eggs that make it to packaging are paired with the latest issue of Vital Times, which highlights a bird of the month. Currently, it’s Fabulous Fifi.

Eggs that don’t fit the size specifications often are donated. Marcus said since 2017, Vital Farms has donated 8 million eggs to Ozarks Food Harvest.

Diez-Canseco said the Springfield plant has the highest rating for the Safe Quality Food Institute and recently became SQFI’s second Select Site, which means the facility opens itself up to unannounced audits.

“We are, I think, pretty rare in terms of the level of investment we made in food safety and sanitation, as well as worker safety,” he said.

At Lucky’s Market in Springfield, the store sells 120 dozen cartons of eggs and roughly 60 packages of Vital Farms’ butter each week, said Rachel Bryant, assistant grocery manager.

Diez-Canseco said Vital Farms started selling salted and unsalted butter three years ago, and sales make up about 8 percent of company revenue. This year, it added the hard-boiled eggs and a specialized type of butter called ghee.

The eggs retail for $6.49 per dozen.

“If we run out, customers get a little angry,” Bryant said with a laugh.

“We try to keep extra in the back. It just sells so well here. They have a customer loyalty.”

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