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Sunday, 01 October 2017 17:08

Betting on the bird: Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch expands amid push for organic, cage-free products

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Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch has outpaced its peers in terms of organic and cage-free egg production, which accounts for 60 percent of its operations. The company wants to move all of its egg-laying hens to cage-free environments by 2022. Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch has outpaced its peers in terms of organic and cage-free egg production, which accounts for 60 percent of its operations. The company wants to move all of its egg-laying hens to cage-free environments by 2022. Courtesy Photo

SARANAC — One West Michigan producer of eggs plans to capitalize on the growing U.S. market for cage-free and organic products.

With its humble roots as a farm in Saranac, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch has grown into one of the country’s largest egg producers. All told, Herbruck’s manages 9 million hens across 1,100 acres in Ionia County and distributes its eggs nationwide. The company also manages an additional 1,400 acres of farmland.

With eggs now deemed a healthy food choice by medical professionals, the staple has steadily risen in popularity among consumers in recent years. However, many customers — particularly the millennial generation — are demanding more ethically sourced foods, which is driving the market for cage-free and organic eggs.

“The big trend that I’ve seen is that the world has decided to go cage-free,” said President Greg Herbruck. “We want to be there first and serve those customers. If that’s an advantage to our customer, we want to help them get there.

“There’s been a huge commitment from the retail end and the processed egg market to switch to cage-free supply. We’ve already been focusing heavily on that because organic eggs have to be cage-free. But we’ve also gotten into conventional eggs from hens that are cage-free.”

When talking about his operation, Herbruck strikes a paternal tone toward his animals, noting the company’s culture is built around “serving the bird.”

“When you give a bird the ability to make decisions, they make bad ones so you have to be in there and take good care of them,” he said. “We all have to be mother hens. We have to teach them how to jump, run and fly and how to thrive in this living system.”

Currently, about 60 percent of Herbruck’s hens are raised in a cage-free environment, which includes giving them freedom to access the outdoors via screened-in porches. Herbruck hopes to move all of its hens to cage-free systems by 2022.

“That’s way ahead of where our peers are,” Herbruck said. “Some of our peers are just getting started.”

The company also expects to increase sales on the organic egg side of its business, which it launched in 1998 with a flock of approximately 1,800 hens. Today, Herbruck maintains a flock of roughly 2 million organically-raised birds.

Nationally this year, farmers cared for approximately 45.8 million organic chickens as of August, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The nation’s organic flock represents roughly 12 percent of the 372 million chickens raised throughout the country, according to the USDA data.

Historical statistics on cage-free and organic egg production are not available as the USDA only recently began publishing reports on the sector.

CREATING A SUPPLY CHAIN

When Herbruck’s began producing organic eggs in the late 1990s, it could easily source the organic feed necessary to maintain its modest flock. However, as the company grew its presence in the organic market, it began to struggle to find farmers growing enough organic grain to support its operation.

“As we grew, we had to foster a supply chain,” Herbruck said. “The producers just weren’t there. We had to go foster relationships and encourage them and make commitments so that they could convert their farm. Some of these guys that would struggle in the conventional market with that small of a farm, the organic fit perfectly for them because they could focus on smaller acreage. It takes more work, but they could make a good living off of a smaller piece of land.”

Now, the poultry farm manages a network of some 200 growers that produce organic feed for their operation.

Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch dates back to the early 1920s when Herbruck’s grandfather began a business distributing eggs and dairy products. Later, his father grew up in the business and focused primarily on egg distribution, eventually purchasing a small farm in Saranac, which would provide the base for the sprawling operation there today.

Going forward, Herbruck’s plans to continue to expand its operations by adding new chicken barns, the third-generation family owner said, declining to offer further details on any immediate growth plans.

In addition to its headquarters in Saranac, Herbruck’s also plans to expand its operation in Mercersburg, Pa. with a $100 million egg processing facility. According to reports, the new facility will employ 190 workers over the 336-acre campus.

For Herbruck’s, the move comes as part of the company’s diversification strategy, primarily as a means to better access markets along the East Coast.

“We have a good customer out there who we’re delivering to today from Michigan,” Herbruck said. “We have the growth and we’re stretching our system.”

The expansion also helps to mitigate threats of disease by having the birds grouped in one location, Herbruck said.

Looking to the future, Herbruck remains confident the company will continue on as a family business.

“At some point, the next generation is going to be involved and it’s going to be how they want to go,” Herbruck said. “There’s four coming up in the company right now and two more that are in college. We’ll do the best to set the table for them, but they’re going to be running the show at some point.”

 

Made in Michigan: Saranac-based Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch plans to capitalize on the growing market for cage-free and organic eggs. The company currently raises roughly 60 percent of its flock in cage-free conditions and hopes to expand that to include all of its 9 million birds by 2022. Herbruck’s operates across 2,500 acres of production space and farmland in Ionia County and employs roughly 850 workers across its entire operation.

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