By David Ansel
Photography by Robert Kraft (self-potrait) and David Ansel (mobile chicken unit)
“My guitar is under the bed, next to all the rifles,” says Robert Kraft, manager of Austin’s Vital Farms. It stands to reason that an egg farmer/short-story writer/carpenter/voice-over specialist/fugitive-recovery private detective/jazz singer/heavy-equipment operator/guitarist would naturally stash important possessions under the bed of his two-room trailer.
And though the factotum’s voice and face have been featured on everything from Time Warner commercials to live shows with Glover Gill and Tosca, he’s pretty content with his low-profile egg gig at Vital Farms. “This is my first steady day job in about ten years,” he says. “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 them about where our food comes from.”
Vital Farms is located just down Brandt Road in Southeast Austin. Those who have sufficiently angered the parking gods are likely familiar with Brandt Road and the associated pit bulls that protect Assured Towing. But a recent visit to the area is decidedly more bucolic than last remembered, with flocks of Bovans and Hy-Line Browns clucking with chipper unconcern.
Upon my arrival, I hitch 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 notes. “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 foraged component is only about a third of their diet; the remaining two-thirds is an organic layer feed made primarily of corn and soy.
Kraft is quick to point out that pastured is distinct from free range, which, in the context of poultry, has very little if any legal definition and is often used primarily as a marketing term. Free range, according to Kraft, signifies that there is an outdoor area available to the birds that is seldom used, whereas pastured birds, while also lacking legal definition, means that the birds live outdoors but have access to indoor space.
“This is native Texas grass,” continues Kraft. “What comes up now is buffalo, winter rye, fescue and various winter crops. 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 pastured method means farmhands spend their days conducting a veritable game of musical chairs as 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 landborne predators), about 400–500 hens, a shade shed that resembles a small set of bleachers with a roof and a mobile chicken unit (MCU) that looks like a galvanized, very South Austin 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 nest. “[The hens] have a special set of specifications in mind as to where they want to lay their eggs,” says Kraft, who also notes that although they try to make sure the nesting boxes satisfy the hens’ requirements, they do remove other options inside the pen, like low bushes and cozy, inviting spots.
When the pasture inside the pen has been depleted, Kraft and his helpers enlarge the fence to encompass a fresh, adjacent grassy area. They drag the shade shed and MCU into the new space, then chase the birds (somewhat comically) in that general direction and close off the fence behind them. The used land then has time to regenerate, and the birds have a few weeks’ worth of new forage at their disposal.
The eggs are collected and sent to the processing area—a truck trailer housing a Rube Goldbergesque egg-sorting machine. “The eggs get candled, then go through a solution of organic egg wash and water,” Kraft says. “Then [the machine] rinses, dries, sorts and grades them. These little kickers kick them out according to weight.”
Kraft refers to the sorting machine as “an old piece of junk” that they get several months of good work out of until it breaks down for a month while he runs around the country looking for parts. When that happens, Kraft says they simply “get a few pairs of nice ladies’ exfoliating gloves that are available at your finer establishments” and hand-wash the eggs in a bubbler he made from a freezer compressor and a perforated piece of PVC.
Kraft cracks open an egg. “See how the white holds together like that?” he says 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 philosophy 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 pauses. “You hear how quiet it is here? If you’ve ever heard the noise at some egg farms, the birds are just screaming. It’s like something out of Dante.”
“The object is to allow the birds to live as natural an existence as possible,” Kraft continues. “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 ninety-five percent 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—organic eggs from real pasture-raised chickens that are available in various markets,” Kraft says. “We’re in about 200 Whole Foods [Market] stores, about to be coast to coast.” Yet how can such a small farm with a built-in production ceiling of 2,500 birds producing some 2,200 eggs per day play ball with UNFI, Whole Foods Market’s distribution company? Kraft says that the Austin farm is to be a flagship model—the vision of Matt O’Hayer, co-owner of Vital Farms. O’Hayer, along with partner Jason Jones, is planning a network of small farms across the Sunbelt—the only region that allows for year-round pasture raising—to service various regions, effectively adding sales range without adding food miles or overscaling the farms. There’s already a satellite farm in Arkansas, a large egg farm that primarily supplies Walmart, and two additional contract farms are coming on board soon near Bastrop and Lockhart.
Vital cares about the Austin market, too. “We want to service the community that nurtured us,” says Kraft. “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 rebuilding that.” Vital Farms has recently rejoined both the Sunset Valley Farmers Market and Austin Farmers’ Market, and their eggs are available at Boggy Creek Farm, Wheatsville Food Co-op, Asahi Imports and Farm to Market.
Though the opportunities may have been plentiful during the tour, thankfully Kraft and company steer completely clear of the expected chicken- and egg-related puns. There are no “Eggstraordinary” Recipes, “Eggstravaganzas” or “Eggcellent” Employee Awards. Never once do we discuss which came first or why the road was crossed. Much like the business’s mission itself, a visit to Vital Farms is a remarkably sensible experience. Happy chickens lay delicious eggs; hardworking people put them in cartons. The end.