At Nellie's, we recognize that the egg aisle is a confusing place. New terms and labels have been showing up on egg cartons over the last few years, and we understand that it can be overwhelming to sort through understand what each one means for the hens, farmers, and consumers. With so many people talking about cage-free, free range, grass fed, pasture raised, and whether pasture raised eggs vs free range eggs are best, it's enough to make anyone's head spin!
Luckily, our farms have been raising chickens for many decades. Over the years, we've gained expertise that only comes from doing something for a long time, and we're constantly improving on it as we go. This is one of many things that sets Nellie's apart from others in the egg industry. It's our hope that each time you're at the grocery store, you can reach for the purple carton with confidence because you know we're doing the right thing for our hens, farmers, and for you. And by helping you navigate all those confusing terms in the egg aisle, we hope to show you why we're so proud to do what we do.
What does cage-free mean?
For many decades, the egg aisle has been almost entirely made up of caged eggs coming from hens living truly horrific lives. Finally, after years of advocacy and growing consumer awareness, things are beginning to change. We expect that caged eggs will be a thing of the past within the next 10 years, and that cage-free standards will be the norm. That's great news for chickens, and for all of us.
However, we're not expecting everything to be perfect once caged eggs disappear from the shelves. We don't doubt that there will be a handful of less scrupulous companies trying to jump on the bandwagon. In most cases, former caged producers will switch to cage-free while still cutting corners and using the same industrial approach they have in the past. So what does cage-free mean, anyway? In the egg industry, it means that hens cannot be enclosed in cages, but these standards don't require hens to have any amount of outdoor access. This shift to cage-free will represent a marginal improvement in hen welfare thanks to additional room for movement within the barn, but it's not enough: the facilities where cage-free hens are raised in no way represent what a consumer would consider to be a farm in terms of scale, crowding, cleanliness or transparency. So if cage-free isn't the best option, then what is? This brings us to the question of pasture raised eggs vs free range eggs.
The Certified Humane Free Range standard
Part of how Nellie's has worked so hard to earn your trust is by adopting the philosophy and practices of Humane Farm Animal Care's Certified Humane Free Range standards. These standards were developed by scientists and animal welfare experts. There are many different requirements for becoming a Certified Humane Free Range farm, but one of the most important - and most contended - is outdoor space.
How much space do free range hens have?
All farms producing free range eggs under Certified Humane standards must provide at least 2 square feet of outdoor access on grass per hen. Now, this may not sound like much if you imagine a bunch of hens all occupying their own little 2' x 2' patch of grass, but it's important to note that this is just an average, and it's incredibly unlikely for all of the hens to be in the pasture space at the same time. In fact, it nearly never happens.
Hens are actually a lot like people in this regard. Whether it's cool outside, hot outside, or a perfect 70 degrees, many of them would simply prefer to be inside at any given moment. It's safe, comfortable, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and there's fresh water and feed available at all times. As a company, we don't force our hens to go outside. We give them ample ways to access the outdoors, and then let the hens decide. If you spend time watching our girls, you will see a steady stream of hens entering and exiting the barns. This means that at any given point in time, the hens that are outside have far more than 2 square feet each. Hens are also very social birds, so while they don't wish to be crammed into giant warehouses or tiny cages, they do prefer to huddle into little groups and cliques to cluck about whatever is on their minds. Even on the brightest and sunniest days, there are always more grass and dirt areas open than than there are occupied.
Pasture raised vs free range
Pasture raised is a fairly new term in the egg industry, and although it isn't regulated by the USDA, its use has become increasingly popular in the past few years. Most pasture raised producers claim to offer anywhere from 35 to 108 square feet per hen, and that's just about where the differences between pasture raised and free range end! To put it simply, pasture raised just means more space. The question is, is that extra space always necessary?
Are pasture raised eggs better than free range?
In the case of outdoor space on family farms like ours, we believe that more isn't necessarily better. More is just more in some cases! Since there's the potential for a lot of farmland to go unused in pasture raised scenarios, farmers often have to absorb the cost of owning and maintaining that extra pasture. And when you're a small family farm, those extra costs can make a big difference.
There is a category of very small farms that can make the larger space work economically, but in general, those aren't the farms producing the eggs we see at the grocery store. Instead, they're typically hobby-style or micro farms that exist in a completely separate economic climate and sell their pasture raised eggs to farmers' markets, CSAs, and their local community members at considerably higher prices. And while this is a wonderful option for those who can afford to support those hyper-local farms, mainstream grocery distribution requires a much higher level of efficiency in order to even get on the shelf. So, while we support these kinds of farms wholeheartedly (just as we support backyard chicken coops), they make up a very small piece of the larger change we seek.
Why choose Nellie's Free Range Eggs?
Our primary goal here at Nellie's is to do what's right for our hens. With many years under our belt and close relationships with fantastic organizations like Humane Farm Animal Care, we're confident that we understand these wonderful, curious creatures better than most producers in our industry. Second, we always want to do what is right for our farmers, and that means helping them raise hens humanely without unnecessary costs or negative impact on their land. For us, following Certified Humane Free Range standards is the best way to do right by both our hens and farmers. And in turn, we have the privilege of delivering high quality free range eggs to consumers at a reasonable price.
It's an exciting time to be in the business of producing humane, ethical, free range eggs. We're thrilled to see more and more consumers putting thought into their vision of or preconceptions about egg farming. And we truly believe that our success proves that this is the best way to meet our country's egg demands in a humane, sustainable way. We hope that when you reach for the purple carton, you can rest assured that we're always putting our best feather forward, striving to balance the needs of our free range hens, our farmers, and our loyal consumers as best we can.