Growing up on the same New Hampshire farm that my great-grandfather worked a hundred years ago gave me an appreciation for family farming that has stayed with me. I learned to raise chickens by working on the farm, and I knew from the beginning I wanted a humane farm with organic produce.
One of the great strengths of a family business is the immediate access that the next generation has to shape the course of the business. A successful second-generation family business will be stable in most instances. While business stability is a virtue, innovation and hunger for growth are equally crucial for long-term success in the current business climate. The third generation can be the driver for change and reinvention.
For two generations, Pete & Gerry’s had operated as a regional conventional egg supplier producing a commodity; however, as our industry consolidated, we remained small and lost our ability to compete. Pursuing the only option for survival, my parents began to transition our business away from commodity egg production and into niche organic egg production.
I joined the family business in the early stages of the transition and felt as though I had an immediate connection to our small but growing consumer base. I believed in what we were becoming. As the third generation to run our family egg farm, I had the opportunity to influence the direction and growth of the business at a very pivotal transition. I came into our business with a perspective more aligned with our consumers than with our industry.
Can farming benefit the environment and the economy?
Running this business without sacrificing my commitment to small-scale farming, organic foods, humane treatment of animals, and sustainability has been a consistent challenge. But by producing eggs sustainably and ethically, we’re doing exactly what our customers expect of us. To be sustainable, farming must focus on energy and environmental conservation. Having a sustainable food supply for our children and grandchildren depends on it. Small family farms can lead the way to more sustainable agriculture.
But the quest for profitability has made farming very energy inefficient; farms use a lot of energy. Farming has become more focused on productivity and mechanization than conservation. Farming has also been environmentally insensitive. The overuse of pesticides has created pesticide-resistant weeds and insects. The overuse of commercial fertilizers has created a deficit in nutrients and micro-components in the soil, which then requires more fertilizers.
And like any business, farming also generates a lot of waste—from packaging to animal waste. This impacts both energy use and the environment.
In addition to providing safe nutritious foods, small farmers live on their farms and preserve the surrounding environment for future generations. And because they have a vested interest in their communities, they’re more likely to use sustainable farming techniques to protect natural resources and human health.
So rather than becoming a large, centralized farm, Pete & Gerry’s has recruited small family farms to join us as suppliers. We have grown from one small family farm with two flocks and a small regional market into a multi-million dollar business producing eggs in partnership with more than 50 family farms producing eggs for us in seven Northeastern states. They’re all good, hard-working people who are committed to family farming.
How can one small farmer make a difference?
The first step is for all of us to become aware of our energy use and our environmental impact. Then take successive steps to make changes. Farmers can set an example as responsible stewards of the land. We can conserve energy, protect the environment, and still make a good living.
At our farm we’re using energy conservation to lower our energy costs and improve profitability. We switched from incandescent to fluorescent lighting in all our buildings. We turn off the barn lights during the day and use natural light from windows instead. We installed a digitally controlled cooling system that uses outside air to dramatically reduce our energy costs for cold storage. And we schedule our deliveries to coincide with pickups from our family farms to save fuel.
Our goal is to become a zero-waste facility. We installed a cardboard compactor on site so we can recycle cardboard waste. We recycle our plastic cartons. We compost our hen manure using an in-vessel composting system and share it with local farmers for their fields.
I take pride in my small part in making the world better for all of us. As an organic farm, our requirement for organic feed keeps farmers in business raising organic grains. I like knowing that a few thousand acres of corn or soy will not receive pesticides or commercial fertilizer to feed our hens. And I look forward to not having the rubbish truck come to our farm, and instead send all waste back to our suppliers. Collectively taking small steps is how small family farms can make a difference in the environment, local community, and economy.
Does humane farming cultivate good business?
We’re also finding that good animal husbandry is good business. I’ve learned from working with chickens over the years that these birds have definite behavioral preferences. A humane cage-free environment with plenty of good food and water causes our hens to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Chickens in cages simply can’t act like chickens. They’re very social creatures that like to congregate in groups with a pecking order. Most hens choose an area within the henhouse to eat, roost, scratch, and lay eggs; and then they pretty much stay in that area.
Humane farming does not have to be inefficient. Pete & Gerry’s combines chicken behavior knowledge with the latest technology to compete with the larger factory farms. Smart use of automation benefits our efficiency and productivity, which is essential as our business is spread over multiple small family farms. Pete & Gerry’s Organics strives to create a natural, low-stress environment for our chickens. Humane farming pays off because humanely treated animals are healthier.
Is food production moving towards a community model?
Although investing in small family farms and humane certification is more expensive than consolidated factory-farm production, it lets family farmers hang on to their land and livelihood. Pete & Gerry’s creates opportunities for small family farmers to produce eggs from humanely treated hens in a long-term partnership premised on strict standards of sustainability for the environment, the local community, and the well-being of the animals involved.
Food production is controlled by what people buy. As consumers become more aware of farming techniques, they can encourage humane animal treatment by the way they shop. They can show they’re willing to pay a little more for humanely treated animal products.
We believe this model is the future of sustainable food production—small farmers producing food that is efficiently distributed to families who cannot or choose not to produce their own food. The bottom line is simply that we provide better food while treating the animals in our care with dignity and respect. That’s good for our animals; it’s good for our communities; it’s good for the future of small family farms. And that’s good business.