It made sense to Robert Brown when he first thought six years ago that a happier chicken would lay a tastier egg.
The problem is, it costs more to keep a chicken happy than it does to just keep it. So Brown had to figure out how a farmer could keep those hens happy and still make a profit on the process.
His answer was a marketing concept called Nest Eggs--eggs laid by free-range chickens fed a chemical-free diet and marketed as an extra-cost, ecologically sound, better-tasting alternative to traditional eggs.
The eggs are produced under contract with Brown's Food Animal Concerns Trust. All are laid by hens that have free run of their barn or barnyard, and none get chemicals or pesticides in their feed.
"The result is better eggs with plump yolks, firm whites that aren't runny and thick shells," Brown said. "Eggs produced this way also taste better."
By contrast, Brown said, "nearly all the eggs available in supermarkets are produced by huge factory operations where the hens are caged, confined to extremely small spaces and often drugged."
Those conditions, he said, produce stress and predispose the hens to diseases. As a result, some producers routinely put antibiotics and other drugs in their chicken feed. Others add insecticide to prevent flies from breeding in the chicken droppings under the cages.
Brown said he hatched the Nest Eggs scheme in 1984 "because we knew typical egg factories are very hard on the hens and because we wanted to demonstrate that farmers could make a healthy profit producing eggs according to FACT's humane standards," Brown said.
The price of humane treatment, however, is more than chicken feed.
Phil Wubbena, who produces eggs for Nest Eggs at his farm near Forreston, Ill., says his free-range chickens take three times the barn space they would if they were caged. They also get a special diet made up mostly of farm-ground whole soybeans and corn, a feed that costs substantially more than a normal fowl diet.
"Just like we say, 'You are what you eat,' an egg is what the chicken eats," Wubbena said. "The result is in the taste. My eggs taste better."
Consumers obviously are willing to shell out extra cash, whether for animal-rights concerns or simply for the promise of better taste. Despite the fact Nest Eggs cost at least $1 per dozen more than regular eggs, sales have been booming.
Last year, more than 700,000 dozen Nest Eggs were produced and sold, compared to 94,000 dozen as recently as 1987. Brown says about 5.75 billion eggs of all types are produced annually in the United States.
About 50,000 hens lay eggs for FACT at six approved farms--four in Pennsylvania, one in Maine and Wubbena's in Northern Illinois.
Each farmer has a different arrangement with Nest Eggs, but each receives a premium price for the product, Brown said. The average is about 20 cents gross profit to the farmer on each dozen eggs sold to FACT, compared with 7 cents or 8 cents per dozen for eggs sent to market through other distribution channels.
The brand currently is available at some stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Maine, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
FACT also produces free-range veal at its farm in Maine.
"FACT is primarily concerned about inhumane factory-farming methods, many of which can contaminate the food supply with drug residues or can lead to human health problems such as food-borne diseases," Brown said.
"Unlike other organizations addressing food safety issues, FACT puts its farming ideas into practice, acquires direct farming experience and demonstrates that humane production of safe foods can provide money-making opportunities for family-owned farms."