The scale of production for the humble little egg is much more massive than most people realize. There are 394 million laying hens in the U.S. flock as of March 22, and they produce more than 8.6 billion eggs each month. And yet, only about 15% of these are organic.
Why is organic important? The organic label covers what the hens eat (organic, pesticide-free, non GMO feed) and where they live (in pastures with no toxic chemicals or pesticides). In addition to being healthier to eat, organic practices help ensure that the earth is healthier for generations to come because there are no pesticides to run off into the groundwater during rains or herbicides to contaminate other nearby fields.
However, it's worth noting that organic is only one piece of the puzzle. The label, unfortunately, doesn't guarantee that chickens have space to roam. Recently I talked to Matthew Sherman, the Chief Marketing Officer at Handsome Brook Farms, and he explained that the organic standard only requires hens be cage free, not that they have lots of outdoor space. He emphasized that in raising hens, it's important to combine organic with "pasture-raised" and as a result how the farm uses its land comes into play.
For more on why regenerative farming is essential to the future of sustainable agriculture, and the company’s recent B Corp certification, please see below for edited excerpts of my email discussion with Sherman and Kristen Wharton, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Handsome Brook Farms.
Christopher Marquis: Can you talk a bit about your specific B Corp certification process? What did you learn? Did you change anything in your operations as a result?
Kristen Wharton: As a young company, we did a lot of things that were part of the B Corp certification process… but we documented and formalized much less of it. For example, we have always donated eggs, but the process was haphazard by anyone who wanted to donate to whomever — there were no guidelines. Now we have a Philanthropic & Community Investment Policy & Procedure that has guidelines regarding to whom we donate & when we have charitable initiatives, plus our COO is now tracking the in-kind donations with a real dollar amount so we can see annually how much we donated. Best of all, we are much more focused on our giving so that it makes an impact.
The same holds true for things like hiring interns, onboarding and off-boarding procedures, DEI initiatives, employee wellness, etc. B-Corp pushed us to formalize and codify processes that were often there, but not written and fully evaluated.
On a more operational note, while we have always held the environment to be a part of our decision-making, now we have documented what is most important and created firm goals and processes to get there, which I’ll get into more below!
Marquis: You say that B Corp status is just the beginning — and that looking at it as an end goal could actually be dangerous for the future of our country’s sustainability. Can you say more about what you mean by this?
Matthew Sherman: Definitely. B Corp is an incredible certification, and we’re incredibly proud to be in the midst of other companies doing good work — whether that’s for their employees, their communities or the environment. That said, we don’t believe that reaching this goal allows us to stop and remain complacent. In fact, even B-Corp operates on a sliding scale in how it judges companies, and we have room to improve. But that is not always what the consumer sees. That is why, if we’re going to continue to improve the lives of those around us, we need to evolve our policies and set new, aggressive goals so that we continue to move forward beyond B-Corp.
This is especially true when it comes to sustainability — which is something that can always be improved. That’s why, along with this B Corp certification, we’re announcing a comprehensive series of next-step sustainability initiatives focused on Regenerative Farms (e.g. regen ag practices on all partner farms), Responsible Operations (e.g. 100% sustainable packaging), and Thriving Communities (e.g. reduce GHG emissions) to achieve by 2027. Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, we’re launching a Pasture Improvement Cost Share Program – created to incentivize/aid our small, family-owned and operated partner farms to implement sustainable systems that actually work for their specific needs and thrive for generations to come (rather than a cookie cutter, one size fits all approach that fails to prioritize what’s best for the farmer, and ultimately, the planet).
Marquis: Why is this certification important specifically for agriculture (+ eggs specifically)?
Sherman: When it comes to dangers facing our planet, climate change is right there at the top. Clearly, agriculture — if not handled sustainably — can be an enormous contributor to climate change. This is why B Corp certification is particularly important for agricultural companies and specifically those working with animals of any kind. Part of this B Corp certification is a commitment to more rigorously defined sustainability practices, something that is lacking in this space on a broader scale. If more major companies got on board with these commitments, we could start to see some real shifts.
Marquis: Can you discuss your commitment to regenerative practices? How does this play out in your operations both daily and over the long term?
Wharton: While our handsome hens are far (read leaps and bounds) gentler on the earth than high impact factory farming and using conventional chemicals, they can also be mildly destructive if not watched closely (thankfully, on our farms, they are)! An example: While not exclusively grass-eaters, hens love to pick away at pasture grasses day by day. Their sharp little beaks also tend to peck at plants, grass, and soil in their quest to explore, which can quickly deplete a once vibrant plot of vegetation into bare dirt. This is especially true near to the barn, where rain run-off can also contribute to soil erosion.
With that said, a big part of our regenerative role at HBF is to balance out the impact of our hens on Mother Earth. Some examples include: Restoring grass and plants on a regular basis while also taking preventative measures to avoid overgrazing—this means not only planting fresh shade trees and shrubs, but rotating the space in which the hens graze (“rotational grazing”). It can also include restoring soil health by planting “cover crops” to avoid having bare soil exposed (which can lead to soil erosion) & installing proper gutters and downspouts to help water flow gradually away from the barn, avoiding erosion.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, we’ve just announced a series of goals to achieve by 2027 - the first of which is tied to regenerative agriculture. Our goal here is to advance regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of the farmers in our network using the supporting tactics mentioned above, plus others like hen manure management, on-farm workshops, and implementation of renewable energy sources.
Marquis: What's next as far as sustainability practices at HBF? How do you make sure your farmers can achieve new goals you set?
Sherman: This series of goals for 2027 in our core focus. In addition to to advancing regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of the farmers in our network, we working toward 100% sustainable packaging by increasing the post-consumer recycled content in hybrid cartons, changing our jumbo egg cartons from plastic to pulp, and partnering with How2Recycle for carton labels and using minimal and thoughtful sourcing of virgin fiber (i.e. never from high conservation value forests).
We’re also taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 10% across our supply chain by partnering with 3rd party reduction strategy advisors and defining Handsome’s carbon accounting methodology.
To ensure that our farmers can meet these goals without it being a major burden to them personally, we’re simultaneously launching a Pasture Improvement Cost Share Program. We work with 100+ small, family-owned and operated partner farms, and every single of one of them is unique. This cost share program allows each farm to take stock of their terrain, their infrastructure and their hens and invest in exactly what they need to meet the goals we’ve set. This is important, because goals set without aid or issued with a one size fits all approach often means they fall flat. Customization is key for efficacy here.
Marquis: What do you hope to see from other egg producers/farmers when it comes to regen ag & sustainability?
Sherman: First of all, a commitment to evolving along with a growing body of research is incredibly important. We’re not claiming that we have all of the answers at any given time, but we have a team here that is focused on staying on top of new learnings about regenerative agriculture and sustainability more broadly so that we can adapt accordingly.
On this note, oftentimes sustainable solutions are… well, not so sexy. I’m talking about adding quality gutters, planting grasses, managing hen manure — these aren’t initiatives that are photogenic or that you’ll see highlighted in the headlines.
That said, I’d love to see more people talking frankly about what these real environmental commitments look like to help raise awareness and educate those who are unfamiliar with what it takes, and why.
Finally, at the risk of sounding cliché, one aspect that’s really lacking when it comes to farming & egg production, specifically, is transparency. Labels are confusing (and often meaningless), and this is intentional in order to mislead consumers into thinking they’re making responsible choices. I’d love to see more commitments to (and regulations around) transparency across the board (i.e. being clear about what things like “cage free” and “free range” actually mean, and eradicating meaningless labels like “all natural”). This way, consumers can become more active in selecting the brands in which they want to invest, thereby supporting sustainable initiatives with their dollars.