Union Leader : Happy Hens Make Happy Egg Farmers

It is one of the great biological and epistemological conundrums of all time, so, for the record, let’s pose the question once more. Which came first?

The chicken or the egg?

For me, it was the egg, but that’s only because I started my tour at the egg end of the operation at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, a fourth-generation family farm that’s located in God’s country, which, technically speaking, puts it in Monroe, N.H.

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs evolved out of the Monroe egg farm started in 1949 by Les Ward, left, taken organic by his son-in-law Gerry Laflamme, right, who is now being assisted by his son Jesse. (Bob LaPree/Union Leader) If you haven’t had the pleasure, Monroe is up Woodsville way, a hamlet on the Connecticut River where the poultry-to-voter ratio is better than a hundred to one.

That demographic landslide is due to the presence of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Egg Farm, where, day-in and day-out, more than 100,000 hens go about their business – eating, sleeping, clucking, preening, grooming, roosting, pecking curiously at a visitor’s wedding band and yes, laying eggs – in roomy, airy, cage-free hen houses.

The newest hen house?

It probably cost more than your house.

It’s a quarter-million-dollar facility – actually more penthouse than hen house – where as many as 23,000 birds can spread their wings.

And they do, whenever the spirit moves them.

An eerie glow envelopes the thousands of eggs that are inspected daily by Nancy Bedell using the candeling method to detect cracks and other imperfections before the eggs are packaged for shipping. (Bob LaPree/Union Leader) “With some of the conventional, industrial egg farms, there might be 150,000 birds in the same space where we keep 23,000,” said Jesse Laflamme. “They’d have cages stacked 10 high. Not here. No cages. In this hen house, each bird gets 1.2-square feet of space, and when our hens group together – which they tend to do – it’s because they’re very social creatures.”

There’s a sociology lesson surrounding Pete and Gerry’s, and Jesse Laflamme, the new sales and marketing director, is Exhibit A.

Jesse’s great-grandfather, Robert Ward, ran his dairy farm on this land dating back to the turn of the last century. When Jesse’s grandfather, Les Ward, came back from World War II, he took over, but he also took a different direction.

“I didn’t have that much money when I got home,” said Les, 86, who flew dive-bombers off aircraft carriers in the South Pacific. “I figured chickens were cheaper than cows, so I bought 500 chickens.”

Years later, his daughter Carol brought her husband, Gerry Laflamme, into the business – he’s the Gerry in Pete and Gerry’s – and now their son Jesse, just 26 and only four years out of Bates College, represents the fourth generation on the farm.

He won’t get much use out of his degree in political science, but that minor in economics will come in handy because the numbers at Pete and Gerry’s are staggering.

On average, each of the 100,000 chickens lays six eggs each week. That’s 600,000 eggs per week. At 52 weeks per year, that’s…hmmm, carry the three…solve for pi…times the square of the hypotenuse…that’s more than 30 million eggs per year.

“And every single one is organic,” Jesse said.

That’s not just his say so. Both the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and the USDA say so, too, but what exactly does that mean, organic?

“It means our hens eat organic grain beginning in the second day of life,” he said. “We don’t give our hens antibiotics or medications, and there are no pesticides or herbicides used in the production of the grain that they eat.”

To illustrate his point, Jesse walked into the hen house – clucking chickens opened a path for him to pass – and he reached into one of the feed bells. They run off aluminum rods every three feet or so and they’re filled automatically, eight times a day. When he came back, his hand was full of a fine, golden power laden with black flecks.

“The flecks are flax seed,” he said. “The flax makes up about 10 to 20 percent of the seed. The remainder is organic corn, organic soybean and organic linseed, but the flax is what results in an egg that’s high in Omega 3 fatty acids.”

Nutritionists are increasingly high on the benefits of Omega 3. Some claim a diet high in Omega 3 can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and obesity and even ease arthritis pain. Besides organic eggs, other sources of Omega 3 include things like fresh, oily fish – mackerel, for example – walnuts or cod liver oil.

Me? I’ll take two eggs over easy, any time.

And life is easy for the hens at Pete and Gerry’s.

They’re a Hy-Line Brown breed, a cross between the Rhode Island Red and the White Leghorn. A day after they’re hatched at Hy-Line in Pennsylvania, they’re shipped to New Hampshire in climate-controlled trucks. They can come as many as 18,000 at a time, and upon arrival, they’re turned out in their own barn to eat, grow and mature.

It can take as long as 20 weeks for hens to start laying eggs, and when they do, the layout in Pete and Gerry’s barns makes it as convenient for the hens as possible.

In fact, back in October, the farm was honored with the “Certified Humane” label, which is issued by a Virginia-based veterinary and scientific watchdog group of the same name. That recognition certifies that an “egg, dairy, meat or poultry product has been produced with the welfare of the farm animal in mind.”

And one particular animal, a 22-week-old hen, didn’t mind at all when Jesse picked her out of the cackling crowd and tucked her under his arm as we spoke.

Her feathers were full and lustrous, her comb and wattles were red and shiny, and she seemed to be emitting a contented cooing sound. As Jesse’s grandfather looked on, he smiled at both the sight and the sound.

“That sound like a happy chicken to you?” Les asked.

It did, and it matters. Part of the mission at Pete and Gerry’s – as at any other organic egg farm – is to create a stress-free environment for the hens. Stressless hens lay more and better eggs, and the proof was moving below us on a silent conveyor belt.

Red-curtained laying nests run the length of the hen house, which is lighted for 15 and a half hours per day to simulate the longest day of summer. The nesting rows are covered by tidy, aluminum roofs. When a hen feels the urge, she moves to a nest – “they go back to the same nest every time,” Jess said – and goes about her business.

The resultant egg rolls down a padded ramp from the nest to a conveyor belt that runs below the row of nests. Every 15 minutes, the belt eases into gear and the eggs, still warm, begin the uphill journey to the new processing plant.

At the top of the hill, the eggs, like students, are graded.

Then they embark on a journey through the Rube Goldberg-like egg-processing machine. They’re lifted, a dozen at a time, by soft, rubber suctioned fingers. They roll and turn on rolling plastic dowels. The undulating belt carries them through the washing stage – water temperature ranges from 110 to 120 degrees so the eggs don’t get cooked – and then the eggs are illuminated from below.

It’s an eerie light, and as she gazes down upon them, Nancy Bedell – looking a bit like an old-world fortune teller – inspects the eggs for cracks or flaws, inside or out. She weeds out those with cracks for later inspection, but the vast majority, having passed muster, move on to the sizing stage.

Jesse pointed to a computer screen on the sizer.

“You can see here that on this run, there were 7,545 Grade A eggs, and 15 percent of them were medium eggs. Normally, the mediums would run about seven percent, but this is a younger flock, so they’re laying smaller eggs. In about three weeks, they’ll start getting bigger and laying bigger eggs.”

Within minutes, the graded, washed, inspected, sorted and sized eggs are in the 45-degree cooling room. They’re already resting in their clear, plastic, 100-percent recycled containers – dozens and half-dozens – but they won’t be there for long.

“At conventional egg farms, the eggs can accumulate for a week before they even get to a processing facility,” Jesse said, “but we do everything right here, so if an egg was laid today, we want it on the grocery store shelf within 24 to 48 hours.”

It’s more than likely that Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs are available in a grocery store near you. Same goes for one of their subsidiary products, Nellie’s Nest, eggs that are cage-free but not organic.

“We’re in Hannaford, Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Market Basket, all the big stores,” he said, “and now we’re in the Costco Store in Nashua. It’s kind of an experiment for us, selling double dozens. We’ll see how it goes.”

This is how it goes for the chickens.

The average hen is a productive layer for about 13 months. When they reach that milestone, they’re sold to live-produce purveyors in busy ethnic markets, and a new shipment of chicks comes in to keep the cycle in place.

“Because they’re cage-free, they’re in great demand,” Jesse said. “Caged birds lose most of their feathers. They just don’t look right. Ours do, and customers who go to live-poultry purveyors – say in New York City – they’re Vietnamese and Cambodian or Hispanic immigrants who know what a healthy chicken looks like.

“Some people think we ought to keep them all as pets,” he said, “but it’s just not practicable. Selling the birds is part of the farm economy.”

How about this for an economical marketing campaign: Pete and Gerry’s uses the men and women (and the chickens) who work at Pete and Gerry’s to help sell eggs, as with whimsical chicken biographies on the underside of its packaging labels.    In another down-home touch, there’s a label for Jesse’s mom, Carol Laflamme, who runs the farm’s chicken hospital, and for farmer and miller Les Morrison, who produces the organic feed for Pete and Gerry’s across the river in Barnet, Vt.

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs newest chicken coop cost $1/4 million and houses 23,000 birds in an open, low stress enviornment. (Bob LaPree/Union Leader) Jesse’s grandfather gets his own label.

So does Jesse himself, pictured at the age of 10, perched on his bicycle (with his pet chicken, Nellie, in the front basket, of course) as he headed off on his honest-to-goodness, door-to-door, neighborhood egg route.

“The labels are fun for us, but it’s who we are,” he said. “Even with the name, back when they were going organic, they went back and forth, but everything sounded so corporate, so my mother looked at my cousin (Pete Stanton) and said, ‘You’re Pete.’ She looked at my father and said, ‘You’re Gerry.’ Why not call it Pete and Gerry’s?’

“It’s an image the customers appreciate,” said this fourth-generation farm boy, “but it’s not just an image. We’re a family farm. This is who we are.”