“My guitar is under the bed, next to all the rifles,” said Robert Kraft, manager ofAustin’s Vital Farms. It stands to reason that an egg farmer-short story writer-carpenter-voiceover specialist-fugitive recovery private detective-jazz singer-heavy equipment operator-guitarist would stash all his long, thin possessions under the bed of his two-room trailer. Kraft’s factotum job history is all true. You could know his voice and face from anything from a ubiquitous Time Warner commercial to live shows with Glover Gill and Tosca. I asked him why he’s with Vital Farms. “This is my first steady day job in about ten years,” he said. “I wanted to get into something different than ad work, something that was tangibly beneficial to the world as opposed to making pretty music, something that helps people and educates people about where our food comes from.”
You find Vital Farms onBrandt RoadinSoutheast Austin. Austinites who may, in their checkered pasts, have sufficiently angered the parking gods are likely familiar withBrandt Roadand associate it with memories of dodging the pit bulls that protect Assured Towing in order to recover their vehicles. My recent visit toBrandt Roadwas decidedly more bucolic than the previous one. Flocks of Bovans and Hy-Line Browns clucked with what sounded to this reporter’s untrained ears like chipper unconcern. It may have been wariness or conspiracy but decidedly not angst. The farm is a long, sparsely-treed field that spreads along the tree-lined floodplain of Onion Creek.
Upon my arrival, I hitched a ride across the field with Mr. Kraft on a lipstick-red Kubota en route to witness the most important function in a pastured chicken operation: moving the birds to fresh pasture. “The whole crux of the pasture raising operation is the grass,” Kraft told me on the bumpy ride across the field. “The grass makes a special product, the dark colored yolks, the viscosity of the yolks, the flavor, it all has to do with the birds eating grass.” The forage component is only about one third of their diet—the other two thirds is an organic “layer ration” made primarily of corn and soy.
He was quick to point out that “pastured” is distinct from “free-range,” which in the egg context has very little if any legal definition and is often employed primarily as a marketing term. In this context, a “marketing term” is a marketing term for a “lie that may be printed in good conscience” on a package. “Free-range,” according to Kraft, “signifies that there is an outdoor area available to the birds which is seldom used.” Whereas “pastured” birds, while also lacking legal definition, is sort of the opposite: birds that live outdoors but have access to indoor space.
“This is nativeTexasgrass. What comes up now is buffalo, winter rye, fescue, and various winter crops,” continued Kraft. “There is a slight variation of the flavor and color of the eggs during the course of the year depending on what the chickens are eating. The French chefs have a term for a winter pastured egg. It’s something that’s really sought after. They know an egg that has been on winter pasture is distinct.”
What this means for the farmhands is that they spend their days conducting a veritable game of musical chairs for the birds, where the pens are moved around every few weeks in order to provide fresh grazing. Each pen consists of a solar-powered low-voltage fence (for the birds’ protection from land-borne predators), about 400-500 hens, a shade shed that looks like a small set of bleachers with a roof, and a MCU—don’t you know, a Mobile Chicken Unit. The MCU looks like a verySouth Austin, galvanized version of the Jawa Sandcrawler droid factory where Luke Skywalker purchased C-3PO and, reluctantly, R2-D2. The MCU is the “coop” where the hens lay their eggs. Why? “They have a special set of specifications in their mind as to where they want to lay their eggs, and we try to make sure the nesting boxes fulfill their requirements,” said Kraft. Part of that is removing other options, like low bushes or other cozy, inviting spots inside the pen.
When the pasture inside the pen has been taxed, Kraft and company enlarge the fence to encompass a fresh, adjacent pasture area, drag the shade shed and MCU into it, then chase the birds somewhat comically in that general direction and close the fence off behind them. The used land then has time to regenerate, and the birds have a few weeks’ worth of forage at their disposal. Voila. Pastured eggs.
We adjourned to the processing trailer, a truck trailer housing a Rube Goldbergish egg-sorting machine. “The eggs get candled then go through a solution of organic egg wash and water, then it rinses, dries, sorts and grades them,” said Kraft. “These little kickers kick them out according to weight. It’s an old piece of junk—we get several months of good work out of it and then it breaks down for a month while I run around the country looking for parts.” What then? “We just get a few pairs of nice ladies’ exfoliating gloves that are available at your finer establishments and hand-wash the eggs in a bubbler I made from a freezer compressor and perforated piece of PVC.”
He cracked open an egg. “See how the white holds together like that?” Kraft said proudly. “Grass makes these really thick orange yolks. Dessert chefs like these very much. The yolk stands up a little more. If you treat the birds better and you feed them the right things, you get this premium product. Our ethos is if you’re going to ask an animal to give you food, you owe that animal the best possible living conditions you can provide it.” He paused. “You hear how quiet it is here? If you’ve ever heard the egg farms like down in Gonzales, the birds are just screaming. It’s like something out of Dante.”
We adjourned to Kraft’s home, a mud-spattered trailer. The juxtaposition of eggs and trailer trash brought to mind the sadly overlooked Oscar-grade performance of Edie Massey merrily warbling “Oh, the egg man, the egg man!” in John Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos. Alas, it was Cloris Leachman’s year. Inside the trailer preenedAndorra the cat. I suggested that this was acush assignment for a cat. “She has a pretty good life if she can stay out of the clutches of the coyotes,” said Kraft. The same could be said for the chickens. “The object is to allow the birds to live as natural an existence as possible. There are downsides to that, they have to sleep outside in the cold but it’s not anything they can’t adapt to. They sleep in big groups and their body heat keeps them warm. The electric fences keep 95% of the predators away. We had a coyote who figured out how to jump the fence and he killed a lot of chickens until I was able to hunt him down. The large hawks will occasionally take a chicken. That’s the balancing act of letting them live naturally.”
“We’re the only provider of this product in the country—a real organic pasture-raised egg that is available in various markets. We’re in about 200 Whole Foods stores, about to be coast to coast.” Something didn’t add up. Kraft had said that the Onion Creek farm would max out at 2,500 birds, producing some 2,200 eggs per day. How could such a small farm with a built-in production ceiling play ball with UNFI, the Whole Foods distribution company? It turns out that Vital Farms considers the Onion Creek farm to be a “flagship” farm—true enough, the next day Whole Foods was coming to film a short segment. The vision of Vital Farms’ owner Matt O’Hare is to set up a network of small farms across the sun belt—the only region that allows for year-round pastured eggs—to service various regions, effectively adding sales range without adding food miles or over-scaling the farms. They already have a satellite farm inArkansas, a large egg farm that primarily supplies Wal-Mart which Vital has contracted to set up a 5,000 bird pasture operation according to their specs. Two additional contract farms are coming online soon nearBastropand Lockhart.
Kraft indicated that Vital cares about theAustinmarket as well. “We want to service the community that nurtured us. We had a lot of local accounts but due to the drought our production went down and we weren’t able to service them properly. We lost some clients and I’m in the process of re-building that.” Vital Farms has recently re-joined both theSunsetValleyand Downtown Farmer’s Markets and their eggs are available at Wheatsville Co-op, Asahi Imports, and Farm To Market.