If you ever buy organic groceries, you are no doubt familiar with Pete & Gerry’s eggs — the largest free range egg producer in the country, in a consolidated industry dominated by Big Ag. Jesse LaFlamme returned to his family’s farm after graduating from Bates College in 2000, helping accelerate changes that would ultimately save the farm from going under. Today, Pete & Gerry’s currently supports a network of 125+ small family farms.
LaFlamme hails from a multi-generational farming family. When he realized that big agriculture and the consolidation of the egg industry was about to put their small New Hampshire farm out of business, he and his family made the decision to return to their roots. With Jesse’s help, in 2003, Pete & Gerry’s became America’s first Certified Humane® egg producer, and in 2014, they were the first animal farming B-Corp. The company produces Pete and Gerry’s organic brand — the #1 organic egg brand in the country — and Nellie’s certified humane free-range eggs, the #1 free range brand in the country. Both brands are sold by major food chains like Publix, Giant, Kroger and Meijer.Each is the fastest growing major brand in their category. Their combined 2016 sales are expected to approach $200,000,000.
LaFlamme shared five tips for growing a sustainable business with Forbes.
- Respect and listen to the consumers of your product.
LaFlamme highlights the importance of customer feedback, especially when promoting an eco-friendly product: “The voices of consumers who are driving the growth of sustainable and humane products are the compass that a company like ours must follow.” LaFlamme notes, “These consumers are learning, evolving, and becoming more engaged every day. They consider all the practices that go into creating a product before choosing to purchase for themselves or their families. A sustainable company must understand consumer expectations, as they evolve, and deliver on them.”
- Be transparent and honest.
Consumers are hungry for brands with an authentic story. That means telling the truth. LaFlamme explains: “With authenticity, you must be prepared to have your consumers see both the good and the imperfect, and remain honest about it. We find that consumers typically have a great deal of respect for transparency, even if the answer to the question they’ve asked isn’t what they had hoped.”
- Small is big.
“When it comes to food, people instinctively know that care and sustainability are more likely to be found on a family scale farm,” says LaFlamme. “This is why we have chosen to grow our business exclusively by partnering with other small family farms, rather than by making our own farm bigger, or engaging with Big Ag. When we were up against factory farm competitors in 2000, we turned to other family farms that aligned with our values. To date, we have built a network of over 125 partner family farmers across 13 states who are taking care of their hens in accordance with our high standards for Certified Humane Free Range, thereby producing a better egg for hens, farmers and consumers.”
- Be an industry contrarian.
This tip might seem counterintuitive, but LaFlamme explains: “Change is happening in our category because the industry has fundamental flaws in its business model. Cost cutting, consolidation, and a relentless drive for scale have brought the industry to battery cages and factory farms. Over the course of the last 50 years, it was decided that ‘normal’ would be to keep up to nine hens in a wire cage the size of a microwave, and then keep 250,000 or more hens in each barn, on a factory farm with millions of hens. During this time, the industry lost sight of everything but the cost cutting. How can a dozen eggs cost less by weight than a bottle of water? Now consumers have a window into “standard” industry practices, and they want their eggs to come from a different model. In our case, we are turning consolidation and scale on its head.” By going against the grain, LaFlamme has built a brand that commands consistently higher prices while protecting both animals and the farmers caring for them.
- Focus on mission.
“Build your brands and company on a mission that you fully believe in, your employees believe in, and most importantly, your customers can believe in,” LaFlamme advises. “The mission of the business may not be the reason people buy your product, but it should be the reason they can believe in who you are and in your brand.” He adds that this is even more important internally than externally. “For your employees, a strong mission is critical; anyone can work at a job, but not everyone is fortunate enough to work on something that is meaningful, that offers them a sense of pride and accomplishment. The mission of your business should be the engine and the fuel that keeps you moving ahead, even during difficult times.”
In addition to his top tips, LaFlamme’s actions convey lessons about how to succeed with green products. He demonstrates that being brave and generous can pay off in spades. When he and his family decided to “tear out the cages and try organic egg farming” in the late 1990s, cage free and organic eggs represented less than 1% of the egg industry. In fact, the entire organic market was practically non-existent. “It was in that environment that we made the scary decision to dive headfirst into the unknown and switch to doing what we knew was right, going organic and free range,” he recalls. As demand for his products grew, LaFlamme decided to partner with other small farmers to achieve the scale needed for success. Together, they have changed an industry.