John Brunnquell wants to let chickens be chickens.
Left on their own, the birds strut outdoors, scratch the ground for insects and groom their feathers in clouds of barnyard dust.
As president and founder of Egg Innovations, Brunnquell oversees the welfare of 1.4 million chickens being raised on 70 family farms that follow organic farming practices. The Warsaw company is among the largest organic egg producers in the country.
Brunnquell is now in a position to expand the number of farms he can influence.
In March, he was elected president of the Organic Egg Farmers of America, which has about 200 members and represents about 80 percent of U.S. organic egg producers. The trade association’s main role is education – of farmers and consumers.
Each spring, members gather in St. Paul, Minnesota, to learn about the latest in ventilation, nutrition, regulation and pasture management.
Choosing to operate by organic principles doubles the cost of producing eggs, Brunnquell said.
Some shoppers are willing to pay about twice as much for eggs because they worry about animal welfare, he said. Others prefer the flavor of eggs laid by pasture-raised birds. And still others are concerned about the health effects of exposure to fertilizers and pesticides.
"The phrase I hear people say is: ‘If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, why would you put it on your food?’ " he said.
A farmer’s life
Brunnquell, 53, grew up on a small, traditional farm, where caged chickens ate mass-produced chicken feed and laid regular eggs.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Brunnquell followed in this father’s footsteps, focusing on the cost of production by measuring how many eggs were laid versus how much feed was eaten.
Animal welfare didn’t enter into his calculations.
Then, people started paying attention to how the chickens were treated, and Brunnquell latched onto the trend.
"That’s as much a personal interest as a responsibility I feel for the birds I oversee," he said.
Brunnquell has studied the history of egg farming. After World War II, when chickens were caged for the first time, farmers reported higher production, he said.
But, he added, those increases actually were spurred by better nutrition in chicken feed, which was also evolving at the time.
"We kind of fooled ourselves that the cages must be good," he said. Chicken’s productivity and health improves, he said, when you "let chickens be chickens."
As Brunnquell learned more, he wanted to enhance his farming practices with academic research. After he visited his first cage-free barn, there was no going back.
Brunnquell launched his organic operation with one barn about 20 years ago. He moved the company to Warsaw from Wisconsin in 1999.
Paul Brennan, executive vice president of the Indiana State Poultry Association, described Brunnquell as a leader in organic egg production and an early adopter of new approaches to production and marketing.
Brennan said Brunnquell is a problem-solver who is dogged in the search for better ways to produce organic eggs.
Jacquie Jacob, the University of Kentucky’s extension project manager, agreed that Brunnquell’s operation is on the industry’s leading edge, typically adopting improved practices before they’re mandated by government regulation.
"He believes that you get the best production if you treat (chickens) right," she said, adding that he has offered his facilities as places for researchers to test their best theories.
Egg Innovations, which employs about 70, uses an integrator model to work with farmers.
The company owns the chickens but pays farmers in five states to raise the chickens on their land.
The eggs are sold under the Blue Sky Family Farms brand and are available locally in Kroger and Wal-Mart stores. Brunnquell hopes to add Meijer and Marsh stores to the company’s retail outlets.
Each chicken produces eggs for 12 to 18 months before it’s sold to be used in flavorings, including bouillon cubes.
During their productive months, the birds are allowed to roam outdoors. Their natural diet is supplemented by organic soybeans for protein and organic corn for energy and pigment for the egg yolks.
Farmers using conventional practices keep chickens in relatively small cages and feed them various other products, including animal byproducts such as bone meal from slaughtered animals.
Although tension can exist between organic egg farms and conventional egg operations, Brennan doesn’t think it has to be that way.
The head of the state industry group represents farmers with about 26 million egg-laying hens.
It’s true that describing the characteristics of organic farms almost requires contrasting them with descriptions of conventional farms. But not everyone is bothered by conditions at mass operations, he said.
Some people can’t afford to be bothered.
Brennan, a Fort Wayne native, got interested in food production because he was concerned about people who don’t have enough to eat.
Farming operations have to maximize efficiency to lower costs, noting eggs are an important source of protein for many families living in poverty.
Paying a premium
Demand for cage-free eggs continues to grow.
Among the companies pledging to use only cage-free eggs are Starbucks, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Nestle and General Mills.
Most companies are phasing in the change because of limited availability.
It’s not easy to ramp up organic egg production quickly.
If conventional egg producers tried to convert to organic operations en masse, there simply wouldn’t be enough existing farm land or available organic grain to support them, Brennan said.
But Indiana, the third-largest egg producer, is big enough for both types of farms, he said.
Brennan welcomes organic operations – and their premium products – in his organization.
"There are people who are happy to pay that," he said of the eggs priced as high as $5 a dozen. "And they should be able to pay that."
Those people don’t include Brunnquell’s father, Paul, who shakes his head in disbelief at the idea of consumers paying twice as much as they have to for groceries.
"My dad loves me to death," Brunnquell said, "but he’ll never buy my eggs."