On a sunny afternoon at a 25-acre family farm near Paris, Texas, Matt O'Hayer is crouching in the mud to play with the hens. As he pets one, dozens swarm around him, clucking and cooing. He coos right back. "Hey, girl," he whispers. "Good girl." O'Hayer, the 62-year-old founder of Vital Farms, is checking in on one of the independent farms in his network of 120 that produce eggs to Vital's exacting specifications.
Moving inside the farm's chicken barn, O'Hayer meets thousands more hens, each of which lays an egg every 28 hours inside her own private nesting box. A conveyor belt runs underneath the boxes to catch the eggs, and as O'Hayer points out proudly, there's a dark curtain in front of each box: "Girls like their privacy," he says. At Vital Farms both the chickens and their farmers are treated differently. "People say chickens don't eat grass," laughs O'Hayer, clad in red flannel and jeans. "I've heard that for years. Whole Foods used to tell me that. They love it."
Early on, O'Hayer lured farmers by telling them they would earn as much as 35% more than conventional egg farmers while raising about 75% fewer hens. "We're not going to nickel-and-dime them," O'Hayer says. "We want to build a relationship." Today he routinely turns down farmers who want to join his network, many because they live outside a swath of land that stretches from northern Texas to Missouri and east to Georgia where livestock can be raised in grass year-round.
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