Hatching a New Plan
Meet the company proving that this breakfast staple can be farmed responsibly on a large scale.
On an egg farm near Fort Wayne, Indiana, 20,000 hens live in avian luxury. The “girls” cavort on more than 10 acres of pasture, pecking into the foliage for insects and scratching their toes into the fertile soil. There are shrubs to roost in and shade trees for protection from predators. “It’s like a park,” says John Brunnquell, founder of Egg Innovations, one of the country’s largest producers of free-range and pasture-raised eggs.
These diverse, utopian pastures aren’t a norm in the commercial egg industry—even amongst those that prioritize animal welfare like the 54 other Midwest farms his company works with. But the investment they made on the Fort Wayne farm to convert to regenerative agriculture—replanting and restoring their hens’ stomping grounds—has made them the first company in the U.S. to commercially produce eggs that are also better for the planet.
While egg production doesn’t have as large a carbon footprint as, say, cattle ranching, the impact of agriculture and
food systems in general looms large— accounting for an estimated quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. And many experts argue that we can’t tackle global warming by just curbing these emissions. We must also draw down carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. One of the most promising ways of doing this is through regenerative agriculture, which involves practices such as restoring native plants, no-till farming and integrating animals—like those free-wheeling chickens—to provide nutrient-rich fertilizer for the soil. Healthy plants and soils are able to draw carbon from the atmosphere and trap it underground. In a 2020 white paper, researchers at the Rodale Institute concluded that adopting regenerative practices on all crop and pasture lands globally could sequester 100% of current annual carbon dioxide emissions from human activity.
This spring, five Egg Innovations farms (including the one in Fort Wayne) raised hens regeneratively on pastures enhanced with about 30 species of carbon-sequestering grasses and ground cover, shrubs and fast-growing fruit and nut trees. “The enriched pasture is going to give the chickens places to hide, but it’s also going to become carbon negative,” says Brunnquell. Over the next few years, the company plans to replant more of its farms and routinely test soil samples to see how these changes are working. Given that Brunnquell’s whole operation includes more than a million laying hens, the benefits could be big.
A Trend to Invest In
Of course, Egg Innovations is only one company. But the Rodale Institute, a leader in organic farming, has witnessed a recent influx of other major food manufacturers like General Mills, Hormel Foods and Danone adopting regenerative agriculture policies.
Currently, Egg Innovations is on track to produce 2.5 million “regenerative eggs” in 2021, sold under the company’s Blue Sky Family Farms brand at Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores. At a cost of up to $1 more per dozen than organic eggs, Brunnquell knows that he’s taking a big risk in the competitive egg market. Still, a growing number of consumers care about the sustainability of their food. “It’s step by step,” says Rodale Institute spokesperson Margaret Wilson. “If we can help the climate through regenerative farming and help chickens have better lives, then we’re getting that much closer to a healthier planet.”