Most people across the globe, from many different walks of life, have at some point in their life sat down to eat a serving of eggs. Specifically the eggs of a chicken, which is the most commonly found bird on the planet…
For John Brunnquell, a third generation egg farmer, the raising of chickens and distribution of their eggs was a well-engrained way of life from the very start. With an office about 400 yards away from the very farm purchased by his grandfather in 1913, John Brunnquell has put healthy eggs and ethically raised chickens at the forefront of his family business.
“After college I came back to a small egg farm with about seven thousand chickens,” he says. “They were in cages at the time and I was trained classically in the egg industry that, ‘cages were good and here are all the reasons they’re good,’” said John.
Presented with many possible paths for the future of the egg industry, John spent the next two years, from 1985 to 1987, figuring out exactly which path he was going to take. One of the paths John was exploring was to build a large, competitive, commercial megaplex with a few million birds and put all of his focus in the commodity side of the business.
“In 1987, premium eggs didn’t exist,” he explained. “Things might have been available at small markets or there might have been an organic farmer in a local area, but really as a category it didn’t exist, and that sort of resonated within me the entrepreneurial spirit,” said John.
Before the small family farm could expand into a sprawling business, John decided to put his focus into this notion of premium eggs and offer something that wasn’t being offered by anyone else. With cholesterol being the issue of the 1980s, powered by a famous Time magazine cover of a frowning face made from breakfast food, John worked with the University of Wisconsin to secure patents on the first methodology for reduced cholesterol in an egg. Coming to the table with a way to reduce the cholesterol in an egg by twenty-five percent in the face of the anti-cholesterol campaign of the 80’s was a huge step forward for John.
“Nobody knew me, John Brunnquell; nobody knew our farm. But they knew cholesterol was an issue and there was a land grant university that had a patent. So very early in my career I was in the board rooms of the industry,” said John.
So for the next ten years, John focused on the nutrition side of the industry, including working on new patents for fat reduction in eggs. During this time he was selling his nutritional egg to different buyers, making trips to see these customers in person. One of the major buyers at the time started to regularly ask about cage-free eggs, but they were not on the table yet.
“I would say, ‘no, we don’t have cage-free eggs and steer him back to what I had to sell him,” John explained. After several meetings in which buyers were asking more and more about cage-free eggs John decided to ask, “’If I had cage free eggs, would you buy them?’ and he told me, ‘well yeah, I’ve been trying to get you there for two years.’”
The decision to pursue not only his patented nutritional eggs but the idea of cage-free chickens set John Brunnquell out on a journey of exploration. He wanted to reevaluate everything he had been taught to try to look at the way chickens are raised and how the welfare of chickens is considered.
“I walked into a cage-free barn in the early 1990s and it destroyed all of my preconceived notions and training about welfare,” he shared. “So everything I thought I knew about welfare of chickens and why they were good in cages went out the window; I couldn’t cross a hurdle looking at these birds that could walk around and say they had a worse life.”
This brought John down the path of pursuing his PhD in avian ethology, a doctorate in bird behavior that he will be finishing in the coming months. He wanted to give birds better lives while understanding the science of avian welfare, so studying for his PhD made the most sense. Rather than take on a warm and fuzzy outlook in regards to the birds that may amount to just cheap talk, John has dedicated part of his life to understanding what welfare means from the perspective of the animal. He felt that his company, Egg Innovations, was very uniquely poised because it possessed the intellectual knowledge that would now be combined with a passion for welfare. This would allow the company to bring something to the industry that had not been there before.
In the 90s, Egg Innovations became the first significant company to raise cage-free birds and then in the early 2000s started letting the birds outside, becoming the first significant company to go completely free range. This gave Egg Innovations the perfect jumping-off point to start expanding on the definition of animal welfare and innovate the buildings that housed the chickens so that they were designed with the indigenous behavior of birds in mind.
“The story of Egg Innovations is really the story of a journey and that journey is not complete. We strive every year, every day, to keep pushing the envelope of what welfare can be available on a commercial basis,” John explained.
Today, Egg Innovations is always working on ways to not only improve upon the philosophy of ethical farming but also on how to bring down the cost of production to make its product available to more consumers while ensuring living wages for its farmers. At Egg Innovations, there is a substantial amount of control over the conditions in which the chickens are raised, ensured by performing all aspects of egg farming in-house. Egg Innovations raises its own chickens, operates a feed mill, and owns and operates its own egg grading plant. In partnership with farmers, Egg Innovations works on contract production so the farmers provide the building, the utilities and the labor while Egg Innovations provides the birds, the feed, the farm supplies and the transportation.
Standing now as a large and dynamic organization comprising approximately sixty farmers, 100 employees and some 1.4 million birds, Egg Innovations’ ethical products reach from coast to coast. Going into 2019, the company will be introducing the first commercial laying flock, the technical term for a poultry house, that will have no beak trimming or debeaking of any kind. For years this had been used as a preventative measure to stop birds from harming each other or themselves; now for the first time in the United States, Egg Innovations will be doing away with this practice as it continues to strive for more ethical farming techniques.
Another broad initiative for 2019 is to use modern technology to bring more information to the producers so they can make better decisions on behalf of the animals and on how the farms should be run.
“If you define the group of producers by ‘100 percent of their birds are allowed to go outside every day’ we’re the largest in the nation. There are bigger companies that let some of their birds go outside, but what differentiates us is that all of the birds go outside, we do it at a commercial capacity that allows large retailers to bring that product to market, and we serve all forty-eight [contiguous] states,” said John.
In a world that has slowly but surely been reevaluating its impact on animals and the environment, Egg Innovations is proudly sitting at the top of the heap and continues to climb above and beyond its own accomplishments. The company motto of “Ethical Eggs for the Humane Race” is undeniably well-deserved and certain to continue ringing true in the years to come.