in.gredients Tours Vital Farms
We’ve been carrying Vital Farms pasture-raised organic eggs since the day we opened our doors in early August last year. We knew from their transparency, rigorous certifications, and of course, their robust taste and color that these were eggs raised right. But it wasn’t until recently when one of the in.gredients team members had the opportunity to take a tour of Vital Farms that we truly understood what made Vital Farms a quality operation.
Located south and east of the city in the McKinney Falls State Park area, this was the original farm. Since Matt and Catherine (a “serial entrepreneur” and free-spirited adventurer, respectively) purchased and cleared the lot back in 2007, the couple has grown their pasture-raised operation well beyond just these 10 acres.
Now they work with small family farms from California to Georgia in order to produce pastured eggs year-round (a challenge during the cold winter months of the Northern states and hot summer months of the Southern states). The high standards of chicken raising on display at this Austin farm – abundant grass, legumes, and insects available to the birds all day long; certified organic Coyote Creek feed to supplement the wild diet; plenty of outdoor space in which they can (and do) roam freely; a nighttime shelter with plenty of clean nesting boxes, etc. etc. — are the same guidelines required of all their organic pasture farms. They’ve gone to great lengths to certify each of their farms to this high standard, sometimes requiring 6 or more farm visits per year (compared to one visit per year for USDA organic certification). Founders Matt and Catherine made an appearance part way through the tour (they live about fifteen minutes from the site), so I actually had the opportunity to chat with them about their story, ethos, and the challenges of expansion.
This bucolic piece of land was an unrecognizable mass of weeds and junk when they first moved onto it seven years ago. “I had to rent a tractor to clear the tree-size weeds!” Matt told me. Since then, they’ve developed a way to humanely and sustainably produce pastured chicken eggs on a commercial scale, and from the looks of this model farm, they seem to be doing things right. When the tour began at 3 PM, hundreds of chickens were visible roaming about in three separate fenced pastures, each with one or two “MCUs”, or Mobile Chicken Units. The “girls” (as they liked to call them) laid their eggs in the MCUs (5-6 per week per bird, on average) in rows of nesting boxes, which were available to them at all times. It was clear that the birds were happiest outside (or under or on) the MCU. Some were even roaming outside the three distinct areas that were demarcated by the movable mesh fence. For this reason, and because the MCUs are not perfectly secured from potential predators, Randy (the farmer on-site and one of the tour guides) does nightly patrols for raccoons, foxes, hawks, and possums, all of whom have been known to pluck a chicken under the cover of night.
After taking a peak inside the MCU (lots of beautiful blue eggs in the nesting boxes!) and chatting about the joys and challenges of chicken raising (I overheard Matt and Catherine advising another tour attendee on the basics of raising chickens in your backyard), the tour came to a close. As sunset approached, I’m sure Randy and his assistant had a bit of work to do yet collecting all those eggs we’d just spied.
It was merely a few days later when Austin was hammered by those bellicose thunderstorms accompanied by immense rainfall that the farm, which borders Onion Creek, suffered its worst flood in its short but storied history. Waters rose rapidly and swept equipment, debris, and many things of value downstream. Thankfully all life – human and animal – was preserved by a responsive team that was able to relocate all of the ladies in time. Two of the tour guides – Randy, the farmer, and Brent the “Director of Logistics” – weren’t so lucky, unfortunately, and lost quite a bit. You can help Vital Farms raise funds for Brent and Randy by going here to donate. When you do, you’ll be supporting the people who are making healthier eggs (for people and planet) more available.