Often, children leave the nest of the family home, never to return. But while Jesse LaFlamme, CEO and President of Pete & Gerry's Organics, definitely flew the coop, he's come home to roost once again... and to bring changes and improvements to the family farm that raised him.
"I always wanted to live here in New Hampshire," Jesse says. "But when I was younger our family farm did not have a very promising future."
The farm was his father's, an egg farm in Monroe, New Hampshire. The town of about 800 people was home to both Jesse and the family farm when he was growing up, but things were slowly changing, and the family farm wasn't sure it would be able to keep up.
"We were a small conventional egg farm operating in a segment of agriculture that I believe has changed more dramatically and more negatively than any other. In the last 40 years, egg production has become more industrial, less animal welfare friendly, and more concentrated than any almost any type of farming. We were a small farm in the shadow of Decoster’s Maine egg operations, and it was only a matter of time before we would be put out of business."
Jesse decided to venture to Bates College in Maine to pursue a degree in Polticial Science and Economics. But instead of joining the ranks of his peers, when he finished his degree in 2000, it was homeward bound for Jesse. The family farm would never be the same.
Change is Good
Jesse knew that he would have to change the way the farm was run; and for him, this meant going organic. "We started by experimenting with organic in a small original barn that my Grandfather had originally built in the 1950’s," Jesse says. "Soon, we realized that our farm had hope and a future, and we started tearing out all of the cages from our other barns and renovating them with nests and slats for our organic hens. We also started building new barns, but we soon realized that in order to keep up with demand, we would need to make our farm huge, and we believed, and still believe, that our customers do not want to see mega-farms."
Luckily, Jesse's background, both as a fourth-generation farmer and through his university coursework, helped him to find a solution. "A large part of my value system and my understanding of the world was shaped by my time at Bates College and my study of international political economy and relations," he says. And with that in mind, he decided to forge partnerships with small family farms.
"[They] are really only interested in taking care of their hens and being farmers," Jesse says. "We provide a stable income and grade and package their eggs along with ours. We see the impact that this opportunity is having on smaller family farms and young families, and growth and support of these family operations has become central to our mission."
And, it's working. Since 2000, not only has the company been promoting and helping 30 family farms to distribute the eggs they produce, but they have come to be seen as one of the leaders in humane, environmentally responsible and sustainable egg production.
Jesse is not only a strong believer in small family farming, but also in the organic movement. "Our conversion to organic held a promise for growth and success, and it was how I wanted to farm," he says. "We do not keep a single hen in a cage, and we never will."
Whereas some farmers, especially those on smaller farms, find the regulations of organic farming restrictive, Jesse is a strong believer in the system. "I think that the USDA organic label still holds the most credibility with consumers, and we are very grateful that the program exists. We do not find it too constrictive, and we are actually proponents of strengthening the rules of the program in terms of outdoor access for the hens and welfare standards for the hens."
Jesse feels a personal link to organic farming as well, "I do not want food exposed to pesticides and chemicals in my diet, or my children’s diet. No one can convince me that these chemicals are safe, there are no acceptable residual levels for my family or for our environment."
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to home. Jesse was raised on the family farm, and he has seen the ways in which their practices are threatened. Wanting to keep these farms around and functional has influenced the way Jesse does business for the better.
"We are also losing family farms in this country, and certainly farms that can be operated on a scale that consumers would recognize as a 'family farm,'" he says. "Organic farming is a “reset button” to counter the negative changes to agriculture."
This friend to farmers, family farms and hens has also forged an important relationship with his consumers. "I try to have as much contact with our consumers as possible, through social media, or by talking to them directly. In my opinion, I can’t spend enough time talking to our consumers."
By helping people to understand what conventional egg farming looks like, Jesse hopes to open their eyes to the humane practices of the farms he runs and supports. And customers are happy to talk to him as well. "[The] consumers who buy organic want to know where their food came from, how it was produced, and who produced it. These consumers are willing to support family farms and animal welfare. The importance of this cooperative relationship between consumer and organic farmer cannot be understated; it will allow for smaller farms to thrive and for young farmers to succeed, now and in the future."
Today, Jesse's farm produces Certified Humane®, cage-free organic and natural eggs, sold under Pete & Gerry's and Nellie's Nest brands. The hens are fed grain free of antibiotics, medications, pesticides and herbicides. They are committed to finding new, resourceful methods for organic farming and bringing only the best to their customers.
As Jesse himself says, "I believe passionately in what we are doing as a farm and a business, and I know that I share the beliefs, views, and values of our customers."