When the sun rises, so does egg farmer Tom Giovagnoli. On a recent morning, he is up frying eggs for breakfast in his farmhouse in central New Hampshire. Well-tanned and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, he moves to the porch to drink his coffee. The hens he raises on behalf of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs wander from the barn to the fields, as the Belknap Mountains stand in the distance. Soon, Giovagnoli takes a mere 100-foot walk from his back door to the barn. “I have a pretty easy commute,” he says, smiling.
Giovagnoli, 55, steps lightly through the barn, scanning the floor for stray eggs. He pats the red hens, occasionally picking one up, all while singing, “Sweet little chickens, sweet little girls.” This is his morning ritual. “You keep the girls happy,” he says, “and they’ll be healthy. They’ll lay eggs.”
Giovagnoli has farming in his blood. His father was a farmer, so Giovagnoli grew up raising hogs. As an adult, he worked for 30 years as a diesel mechanic, while rearing three sons on his own. When he began to prepare for retirement, Giovagnoli saw a Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs posting for contract farmers. “I thought that would be a great retirement job, get me back to my roots,” he says.
So in 2015, he bought some land and built his farmhouse. Now, a few years later, he and his sons work a bustling 200-acre egg farm.
Caring for roughly 20,000 hens may sound intimidating, but the farm is a fraction of the size of commercial egg farms, where 63 companies with at least 1 million hens each produce 86 percent of the country's eggs.
"What you think you’re getting, you’re getting. You buy an organic, Certified Humane® egg from Pete and Gerry’s in the store, and you think the birds are outside frolicking in the grass. And, that is what’s actually happening."
Giovagnoli is proud to offer peace of mind to those unsure if labels like “organic” and “free range” live up to their promises. “What you think you’re getting, you’re getting,” he says. “You buy an organic, Certified Humane® egg from Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in the store, and you think the birds are outside frolicking in the grass. And, that is what’s actually happening.”
In 2003, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs became the country’s first Certified Humane® egg farm, the gold standard, under the auspices of Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit which aims to improve the lives of farm animals. All hens on Pete and Gerry’s Organic Egg farms are free to explore acres of fields and have access to fresh water at all times. They are provided a safe, clean barn and are fed organic, hormone-free food.
Jesse Laflamme, the chief executive for Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, is a third-generation farmer. His grandfather founded the company more than half a century ago in Monroe, N.H. Today, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is the No. 1 organic egg brand in the United States, working with over 50 small, independently owned farms.
“It’s our mission to help small family farms become viable again by getting their eggs to market, which is the opposite of what’s happening in agriculture in general,” Laflamme says.
While most other egg brands offer short contracts, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs gives its farmers 10-year contracts. These longer contracts create more financial stability for farmers. Giovagnoli’s regret? That he didn’t start earlier. “If I’d had this farm back when my sons were young, I would have been able to spend so much more time with them,” he says.
"It’s our mission to help small family farms become viable again by getting their eggs to market, which is the opposite of what’s happening in agriculture in general."
At 7:30 a.m., Giovagnoli’s son Andy, 29, arrives. In the packing room, the pair monitor equipment that places fresh brown eggs into bright blue flats to be transported off the farm.
In addition to the grass, leaves and insects they forage, the hens eat organic, non-GMO feed that’s free of antibiotics and growth hormones. They hurtle through the fields and into the barn to get their fill. A few minutes later, a straggler peeks from behind a bush before scrambling in.
By 9:15 a.m., Giovagnoli can tend to other farm projects, while the hens spend the rest of the day outside, a luxury in modern farming. “Most egg-laying hens never see the light of day, let alone get their feet on the ground, in the dirt, in the grass,” Laflamme says.
And happy hens make delicious eggs.
"You keep the girls happy, and they’ll be healthy. They’ll lay eggs."
“You can taste the difference,” Laflamme says. “You also see it. The hens are able to get outside on the range, and they’re picking up pigments from grass and higher quality grains and higher quality corn that actually make the yolk darker.”
As the sun dips toward the horizon, the hens peacefully wander back into the barn, exhausted from a day of exploring, before settling in to sleep. Giovagnoli won’t stay awake for much longer either, as he sits down for the first time since morning. But he doesn’t mind. He loves the freedom farming brings: making his own schedule, spending quality time with his family and working from home.
“I don’t have much to complain about,” he says. “Life is good.”