Perspectives from John Brunnquell Ph.D., Founder and CEO of Egg Innovations and Blue Sky Family Farms
At S2G Ventures, we believe the food and agriculture system, with the right technology, incentives and partnerships, can play a major role in mitigating, and one day perhaps reverse, the warming of our planet. We see our future vision coming to life through the hard work of entrepreneurs and innovators every day. John Brunnquell, Ph.D., Founder and CEO of Egg Innovations, is one of those leaders and we are thrilled to share his story.
John founded Egg Innovations in the 1990’s as an offshoot of his family’s homestead, which dates back to 1913. He has spent his entire career in the egg industry and has specialized in ethical and innovative advancements in the production of shell eggs. His PhD thesis, based on a holistic analysis of the egg production cycle, includes classic poultry science, genetics and nutrition all in concert with sustainability and animal welfare. In short, a bird that is allowed to behave instinctively in its natural habitat produces a better egg that is better for the environment.
John is committed to bringing regenerative farming and humane practices to the egg industry. He has built a company unique in the egg industry. Unlike competitors, Egg Innovations owns the hens and provides management oversight of over 1,000 acres of pastures dedicated to laying hens. This level of test and control allows him to commercialize regenerative practices to ensure all production processes adhere to the four pillars of sustainable protocol: promote higher biodiversity; eliminate all synthetics on farms; construct multi-tier vegetation on pastures; and utilize ground covers.
You can find Egg Innovations on the shelf under the brand Blue Skies Family Farms, which recently launched a refreshed brand identity inspired by John's research and expertise in chicken behaviors. We caught up with John to learn more.
The signs of climate change are everywhere and it feels like we are at a tipping point. Why are regenerative practices important in the race against climate change?
Simply put, regenerative agriculture practices rebuild soil health. This in turn pulls carbon from the air which is driving global warming and stores it in the soil. Studies show we can actually reverse global warming if we achieve a critical mass of volume of soil being healed.
Tell us more about your regenerative practices and what it really takes to implement as a producer?
There is a lot more to soil health than just carbon. There is an entire ecosystem in a cup of healthy dirt. We have a lot of dirt with 1100 acres of pasture under our management and we use a variety of tools to care for that land. The first step is to establish a baseline as the starting point with soil sampling. From there we use multiple species of vegetation (grasses, shrubs and trees) in our pasture with multiple elevations both above and below the ground. The tactical issues are straightforward. The real issue is do you, as a producer, have the resolve and commitment to farm in a regenerative manner? If so the rest is straight forward. Measure, learn, adjust, repeat.
How do you as a producer think about measuring success of your regenerative practices?
At a high level I view success as being an ambassador and swaying others to make a commitment to regenerative practices. At a pragmatic level we measure soil organic matter and cation exchange capacity (CEC). For those non agronomists, CEC is a measure of ion exchange that influences factors like nutrient availability, pH, and structural stability.
How do you work with farmers? Why is your model different for them and how can they benefit from your regenerative initiatives?
We have over 50 contract growers. The first step is education. We have to first teach the “why” before we teach the “what”. Our model is different because we are vertically integrated and own the hens so we can implement new best practices easier than some other companies. The benefit to the farmer is multiple.
Better soil health of their pasture
More diverse pasture
More revenue. Both from us paying more and from some of the vegetation providing secondary income such as fruit trees.
Tell us about your recent PhD and research in Avian Ethology. How did that influence your perspectives on animal welfare and ethical egg production?
I recently graduated with a PhD in avian ethology or better said “hen behavior”. It was a capstone to a lifelong journey about welfare and laying hens. I have come to understand animals used in agriculture much better. They are sentient. They have emotions. They are in constant communication with their herd or flock mates. They are also hard wired to certain behaviors indigenous to the species. When you manage the animal consistent with this hard wiring you unleash significantly more of their genetic potential then when you manage them without welfare in mind.
We love the new Blue Sky Family Farms branding. What does it mean for you and Egg Innovations?
Thank you. We are very excited about the new branding. Keep an eye out for our Best Eggs Come in Blue ads featuring the chickens. The big challenge in the egg category is confusion about the variety and meaning of claims. The brand allows Egg Innovations to speak directly to consumers to clear up that confusion.
Several states have enacted legislation to migrate caged egg production to cage free. That is a good step but what does cage free mean? Many consumers have an image of cage free chickens running around in a beautiful green field under blue skies. That is just not the case. Cage free only means they are not in a cage. They are still in a barn and do not have access to natural light and fresh air. For consumers looking for eggs from chickens that do have the freedom to explore open pastures, they really need to be looking for either Free Range or Pasture Raised eggs.
The Blue Sky Family Farms brand can help consumers clear up this confusion, offering an opportunity to see and taste the difference of eggs that come from chickens that are free to behave naturally.
2020 has been a year of turbulence. The Covid pandemic has changed the food system and consumers habits in so many ways. What is your take on how consumer behaviors are changing?
Covid will have a lasting impact on many if not most aspects of our lives. From a food systems and consumer habits perspective there are a couple things to note.
With the need to social distance and stay at or closer to home, food buying shifted away from restaurants to traditional grocery, club, mass, and natural foods stores. After years of declines in cooking, families rediscovered the joy and quality family time around cooking and food preparation. While this will moderate to some degree when we venture out to restaurants again, cooking at home will continue to be more popular than prior to Covid. Food is after all about bringing people together to share a most basic need. Sustenance. We are however not sure about the staying power of sourdough bread though.
We also see consumers are seeking comfort in these uncertain times. One way food is playing a role in that comfort seeking is through consumers buying and serving products that are doing right and doing good. At Egg Innovations and with the Blue Sky Family Farms brand, we are very transparent about putting the welfare of our chickens first. We in fact are the only free range and pasture raised egg producer that owns our chickens and controls our pastures so we can truly ensure the best treatment and environment for our hens.. We believe chickens that are allowed to behave naturally like chickens lay better eggs. It is just that simple. The regenerative farming initiative is a next step. It will both further enrich the pasture environment for the chickens but also improve soil health and carbon sequestration. Good for people, good for the chickens, and good for the planet.
Where can we find Blue Sky Family Farms?
Blue Sky Family Farms eggs can be found at Natural Grocers, Whole Foods , Walmart, and Kroger divisions west of the Rocky Mountains including Ralph's, Fred Meyer, QFC, Smith's, and Mariano's. A lot more stores will be carrying Blue Sky Family Farms soon. For a complete and up to date list, consult our store locator.
The realities of climate change are ever more apparent. From record numbers of fires in the West, the highest water levels in 120 years in the Great Lakes, to devastating winds in Iowa and unprecedented hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. We cannot ignore the signs that we are at a critical moment in time. This month we share stories of entrepreneurs and innovations working everyday to build a better food system and deep dive into the climate solutions which give us hope for a better future. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to hear more.