WNC farmers crack into the local market for pastured eggs

TAKING THE FIELD: Madison County farmers Wendy and Graham Brugh, pictured with their chicken-guarding Great Pyrenees dog, Henrietta, recently scaled up their pastured egg business to start selling wholesale to local restaurants. They say many area chefs and diners want eggs from chickens that are free to roam and forage outdoors. “There’s a pretty huge market opportunity,” says Wendy. Photo by Luke Van Hine

There’s no forgiving this pun, and there’s no avoiding it, either: In the restaurant world, eggs are egg-sential. Aside from vegan establishments, eggs are a staple ingredient for businesses from breakfast and brunch joints to bakeries. And increasingly, in the Asheville food scene and beyond, diners want pastured, locally raised eggs.

“We do find that there’s a high demand for local eggs among Asheville-area restaurants. We have noticed the demand almost double in 2018 from what it was in 2017,” says Meghan Bosley, local foods promoter for Mountain Food Products. “Our customers that prefer local eggs like them to be pasture-raised and, ideally, fed non-GMO feed.”

That shifting market, though, presents some problems for the Western North Carolina-based food distribution company. “That is one of our challenges this year,” says Bosley. “Finding the supply for the demand we are seeing for local eggs.”

Cheaper by the dozen

Many of WNC’s small and midsized farms produce eggs, says Molly Nicholie, program director for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Local Food campaign. However, because profit margins tend to be tight with egg production, it’s most often seen as a way for farmers to diversify their offerings.

“Like in grocery stores, eggs are often a loss leader for farmers — a product offered at or below cost to attract customers,” she explains. “It is often difficult for smaller farmers to produce eggs at a wholesale price point that works for restaurants, so you have to have a producer who can scale up volume enough to make the numbers work.”

But for small farms, scaling up an egg operation, whether pasture-raised, cage-free or conventional, can be both costly and risky. (Note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no official regulations for “pastured” eggs, but the term is commonly used to describe eggs from chickens that have free access to outdoor pastures, grass and forage.) Constructing barns and fencing and purchasing hens and equipment can be prohibitively expensive. And when large numbers of birds are housed together, illnesses can spread quickly, decimating a flock.

“Both the initial investment costs and maintenance can be significant, so the risk of scaling up can be a deterrent to many growers,” says Nicholie

Hatching a plan

One local family-owned operation that has been able to manage such an expansion is Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill. For three years, the farm, which also produces pastured beef and pork, had kept a flock of about 700 laying hens in three mobile coops that moved continually around the 43-acre property (the farm also leases an additional 60 acres for cattle). The 250 dozen eggs produced each week were sold directly to customers at three area tailgate markets.

This spring, however, owners Wendy and Graham Brugh made the jump to wholesale. With help from a $6,000 grant from WNC AgOptions, they bought 2,000 Red Sex-link and Hy-Line Brown laying hens, which they moved into a newly constructed poultry barn. The facility has large doors that open automatically each day at dawn onto 5 acres of fenced pasture and woodlands that are divided into four fields for the purpose of rotating.

Walking into the Brughs’s chicken barn on a warm May morning, the air, which is circulated by a ventilation system, is a pleasant temperature with almost none of the expected odor of manure. Although the doors to the pasture are open, hundreds of the little reddish hens are hanging out inside, taking shelter from the sun.

Some are eating — Dry Ridge sources its feed from neighboring farmer Eddie Shelton, who grows and mills his own grain. Others perch on the elevated roosting platform that surrounds a line of laying boxes. Some stroll on the sawdust floor, clucking curiously at the humans invading their domain.

Beneath the laying boxes, a conveyor belt catches the eggs as they’re laid, eventually moving them to a collection room where they’re gathered twice a day and packed into plastic flats for washing and sorting in a different barn. “They’re laying about 1,850 per day right now, or about 92%,” says Wendy. She pauses thoughtfully for a moment and then reports with a grin, “There were 1,838 yesterday.”

Outside in the field, the sight is odd and a little awe-inspiring: Hundreds upon hundreds of hens scurry in groups through the sunny grass and nearby shady woods. They are pecking at the ground, chasing bugs, hopping on low branches — being chickens. Each hen has at least 2 square feet of indoor space and 108 square feet of outdoor space, which is the gold standard set by leading U.S. pastured egg producer Vital Farms, Wendy says.

Good eggs

This freedom and its resulting access to insects and other forage are what make pastured eggs so attractive to consumers, especially progressive Asheville restaurateurs. The eggs’ strong shells and deep orange yolks entice the health-conscious set, as numerous studies have shown that eggs from hens allowed to forage in pastures contain higher levels of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A, D and E, than cage-free and conventional eggs. Those concerned with animal welfare are drawn to a setup where hens can access grass and sunshine.

Dry Ridge has already found as much local demand as it can currently meet and then some. Before the farm’s scaled-up flock was even laying this spring, says Wendy, Mother Earth Food agreed to purchase up to 200 dozen eggs per week, and a string of Asheville restaurants also jumped at the opportunity — so many that she had to turn some down.

Carson Lucci, owner of downtown Asheville’s Over Easy Café, had struggled off and on since the business opened 14 years ago to find and maintain a local source for the 4,500-5,000 eggs her restaurant goes through each week. Until recently, she had been buying pastured, non-GMO eggs through Farm to Home Milk from Queen B Farms in Mebane, about 30 miles east of Chapel Hill. But she’s now sourcing from Dry Ridge.

GOLDEN EGGS: Pastured eggs are in high demand with Asheville diners. Animal welfare advocates appreciate the freedom and fresh air allowed the hens, and the health-conscious are drawn to the eggs’ nutrient-rich orange yolks. Photo by Luke Van Hine

The price point is lower, she says, and she likes being able to buy all her eggs from a single WNC grower, particularly one that has such a strong focus on the welfare of the animals. She is not too bothered that Dry Ridge is currently not using organic or non-GMO feed, although the Brughs say they are aiming for that in the future.

“Organic is obviously ideal, but if we have to choose between organic and some other local options, then I usually prefer things to be local,” says Lucci. “I don’t want to get organic eggs from California.”

Lucci personally visits the farms she sources from to ensure that the conditions are sanitary and the animals are treated well. “Given how hard it has been off and on for me to source good quality eggs — and that is the backbone of our business — I want to make sure they’re what I want them to be,” she says.

Old World Levain Bakery co-owner Susannah Gebhart purchases the large quantity of eggs she uses twice weekly from Queen B Farms through Farm to Home Milk owner Jonathon Flaum. “We trust Jonathon and his sourcing,” says Gebhart, stressing OWL’s attention to quality ingredients. “We would happily work with other egg producers if we could get clean, consistent quantities/sizes of eggs delivered and at a price point that works for our customers and product.”

In setting up sourcing for his new restaurant, Sawhorse, chef Dan Silo knew for certain that he wanted to use pastured eggs produced humanely and sustainably by a local farmer. “When chickens are able to feed on insects and seeds they forage, the eggs they produce are much richer, more vibrant and have a much deeper flavor. And the yolks turn a beautiful deep orange,” he says.

Silo met Wendy Brugh at ASAP’s recent Business of Farming Conference and decided to source from Dry Ridge. “Their values align very closely with our own, so I felt great about supporting Wendy’s farm and her family,” he says. “Sawhorse is also a locally driven business, and we try to keep our money in the community in every way we can.”

He notes that his guests comment constantly on the high quality of the eggs he uses. “It’s an everyday occurrence at Sawhorse, and it makes me incredibly happy.”

Shell game

The Brughs say that of all their products, their eggs have the best margin — they sell for $5 a dozen at farmers markets and $3.33 per dozen wholesale. Within a month of moving the flock of 16-week-old chickens into the barn, Graham says, they started getting eggs, versus the extended time, land and resources required to raise cattle and hogs. “You get more bang for your buck.”

But Dry Ridge Farm is a rare bird. Very few operations anywhere near the Asheville area are producing pastured eggs on a wholesale scale. So why aren’t more WNC farmers taking a crack at the market?

“There’s a pretty huge market opportunity,” says Wendy. “And it’s something with known variables, one product. It’s really consistent.”

“If nothing goes catastrophically wrong,” Graham quickly notes.

“There’s always the possibility of catastrophe if something happens with 2,000 birds,” Wendy agrees. “It could be something like the fans stop working for a few hours in the summertime — less so for us, because we’re pastured, so they can go outside.”

But keeping hens outdoors presents its own challenges. Measures have to be taken against predators. Exposure to wild birds can result in increased risk of diseases such as avian influenza. Even weather events can be an issue.

WALKING ON SUNSHINE: Barn doors that open automatically every day at dawn allow the 2,000 laying hens at Dry Ridge Farm free access to grassy and wooded fields during daylight hours. Photo by Luke Van Hine

“We lost over 100 of our laying hens because a tornado touched down on the farm about three weeks ago,” says Daniel Dover, owner of Darby Farms in Union Mills. Dover, who has been keeping pastured laying hens for about 12 years, moved his operation to Rutherford County in 2017 after years of farming in Georgia. He still markets most of his eggs to accounts in Atlanta, but he’s working to transition to the Asheville market, where he’s started selling to a handful of restaurants

Dover says that with his flock of 3,000, he also has to guard against predators. And he’s extremely selective about where he buys his young birds after once having to euthanize an entire flock when new arrivals from a hatchery brought with them the extremely contagious mycoplasma gallinarum.

But he’s not too concerned about wild birds introducing illnesses. “I think that’s a very overstated fear, just because I haven’t had any trouble, ever.” He’s more worried, he says, about disease being spread by visitors to the farm and the proximity of industrial-scale poultry houses in his area.

But fear of contagion spread by wild birds prompted at least one local farmer to choose the cage-free path, where hens roam freely in barns but have no (or very limited) access to the outdoors. Mike Brown, owner of Farside Farms in Alexander, has been in the wholesale egg business for close to 25 years, selling to a multitude of local restaurants and grocers. He used to let his hens outside, he says, but since seeing a fellow farmer in Leicester lose his entire pastured, organic egg operation to an illness introduced by wild birds, he’s playing it safe.

He now keeps his flock of 3,000 hens inside multiple barns, focusing on giving them high-quality feed that he mills himself. Brown mentored the Brughs as they prepared to scale up their pastured egg business. “I worry for Graham and Wendy that they may get a disease with these chickens, and if they do, it’ll bankrupt them,” he says. “They’re playing with a loaded gun.”

The sunny side

But some believe playing that game of chance has positive impacts beyond orange yolks and happy hens. Dover says the main reason he chooses to keep his hens on pasture is because it’s a sustainable way to farm and steward the land.

“In a barn scenario, you’re accumulating all this excrement into one spot, which becomes a liability for the water table and the air quality and so forth. But if you have them out on pasture, the land takes care of it as long as you move them,” he says, noting that every three days, he transitions his flock to a new section of pasture.

He says that as the chickens roam, they simultaneously clear out pests, fertilize, aerate the soil and spread beneficial bacteria. After his hens roamed and foraged in one of his hay fields, he says, this month he harvested seven bails of hay per acre where other farmers had previously only gotten four per acre.

“That just tells you the benefits that go beyond the health benefits of the eggs and the humane nature of the environment they’re in,” he says. “It’s multifaceted. There are probably some things I don’t even know about how it’s helping the environment.”

But Dover cautions other small-scale farmers who are looking at moving into the pastured egg market that diversification is key. “Don’t just do eggs. Make sure you’re balancing it with lots of different things, [maybe even] holding an off-farm job to help offset your learning curve. Because it takes a while to become profitable doing this, buying the infrastructure and the hens and all that stuff,” he says.

The scale-up was a huge investment for Dry Ridge Farm, and the Brughs are careful to point out that they were extremely fortunate to be able to come up with enough personal seed money to make the leap in one season rather than expanding incrementally over several years. “Such farm projects are difficult to get financed conventionally,” Wendy says. “Access to capital and land is a definite barrier for many farmers.”

Any further expansions at Dry Ridge, she adds, will require outside financing. “Hopefully, our business will eventually allow us to mentor other farmers and help them gain access to capital for their own farm projects.”

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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