Chances are you're stocking up on fresh, locally produced eggs this holiday season, for everything from the turkey stuffing to pumpkin pie. So for thousands of choosy consumers, the barn fire last month at Pete and Gerry’s, the organic egg producers based in Monroe, New Hampshire, came at a terrible time.
But there’s a silver lining for local farmers who want to tend chickens.
On Oct. 28, when fire destroyed one of the nine barns at Pete and Gerry’s headquarters, Gerry’s son and company co-owner, Jesse Laflamme, was very sad.
“It was certainly a tragedy for the hens, and it was one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced," Laflamme says. "But it’s not necessarily a tragedy story ... I think it’s more of an opportunity story."
An opportunity, he means, for more farmers all over the northeast to join the nearly 100 that are already tending hens on their own properties for Pete and Gerry’s. These contract farmers build huge barns — enough to hold about 20,000 hens — to company specifications. A production manager makes frequent inspections. The farmers sign multi-year contracts to supply the eggs. With that financial predictability many are able to secure bank loans or economic development funds to get started.
John Miller, in Lyndonville, joined the Pete and Gerry’s flock just a few months ago. He and his wife call their farm Bird's Eye View.
Visitors to his brand new barn have to wear protective gear, like plastic booties, to keep bacteria at bay.
Inside, 20,000 chickens perch on low railings. There are no cages. They can hop down onto a walkway covered with shavings, walk, munch on grain in troughs, and drink water from tiny spigots sticking out of long pipes.
There are too many hens to name, of course, except for a few especially productive ones.
“Yeah, I got a few names. Old Faithful and Old Glory…” Miller says, chuckling, as he casts his eye over the brood.
Old Faithful is out of sight, possibly laying an egg in one of the little laying alcoves.
“It’s a privacy thing,” Miller explains, “so they want to go behind the red curtains. It’s just automatic for them. They know where to lay.”
Their smooth brown eggs go onto a conveyer belt to a room where Miller packs them into pallets and stores them in a cooler. A Pete and Gerry’s truck picks up over 100,000 eggs each week — about 18,000 a day.
Miller says he is grateful to Pete and Gerry’s for helping him keep a family farm, and hand it down to his son, who is now fifteen.
“I probably can do it for another 10 or 15 years and then he would be the next generation,” he says.
Which is how Pete and Gerry’s began, as a small family farm, before they became one of the nation’s fastest-growing organic egg businesses.
As the price of non-organic eggs rises, in part because of an avian flu outbreak in huge mid-western factory farms, more and more consumers are turning to cage free eggs. That means that Pete and Jerry’s is looking for more contract farmers to join their fold.