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Foreign diplomatic officials visit Monroe egg farm

Jesse LaFlamme, left, talks to foreign agricultural officials during a tour of Pete and Gerry’s organic egg farm in Monroe last Wednesday. All are wearing hair nets, booties and coats to prevent contamination of eggs. From right, Sheku Mesali, of Sierra Leone; Robin Twyman, of the United Kingdom; and Joachim Schaefer, of Germany. Art McGrath. (click for larger version)
September 09, 2009
MONROE–Agricultural officials from 23 countries descended on Pete and Gerry's Organic Egg Farm last Wednesday to watch how they've turned organic farming into big business.

The officials were agricultural attaches at their countries' embassies in Washington, D.C., and were taking part in an annual tour of agricultural businesses in different parts of the country.

This year's tour was of New Hampshire and Vermont and included, besides Pete and Gerry's, Stonyfield Farms, UNH's organic dairy complex and Flag Hill Winery in New Hampshire; and Cold Hollow Cider, Ben and Jerry's, and Butternut Mountain Farm in Vermont.

Some of the officials were impressed by what they saw in New England, more so than other tours they've taken around the country.

"There's a lot of similarities, it feels like home," said Austria's attaché, Hans Kordik. "The farms are smaller in Austria than most farms here and there is a great interest in organic farming." There are between 20,000 and 22,000 organic farms operating in Austria, he said.

The desire to be closer to nature and where the food comes from seems similar in both Austria and New England, he said.

Pete and Gerry's wasn't always an organic farm. At one time it was a conventional egg farm when it started out after World War II and ran as one until the 1990s. Owner Gerry LaFlamme, who along with Pete Stanton took the farm over from LaFlamme's father-in-law in the 1970s, said it became harder to compete in the commodity market.

"We had to find a niche," Gerry said.

In the late 1990s they made the transition to being an organic farm and have continued to grow ever since. At the farm in Monroe they have about 150,000 birds, which compared to a conventional egg farm is a small number of birds, Gerry said. They own another location in Maine as well, and work with a number of family farms that have anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 birds.

In all Pete and Gerry's handles 130 million eggs from over 500,000 birds per year, according to Jesse LaFlamme, who is being groomed to take over from his father Gerry in the next few years. He hopes to be able to pass on the family business to his one-year-old daughter someday.

Jesse explained to the international guests the requirements for chickens to be considered organic. Among the requirements are that the animals must not be exposed to herbicides or pesticides, be fed organic foods, be cage free and have outdoor access if they wish.

In one of the buildings that contained 20,000 birds, the birds were close together but able to move around, including up on perches above the ground where they sleep at night—just as they would in the wild, Jesse noted. They also move in and out of nests, sitting on them sometimes but usually going to hang out with the other birds.

"They're very social birds," Jesse said. He talked about the antics of some chickens but noted that with so many birds, it's hard to get to know many of them.

Since the nests are on a slope the eggs roll downhill onto part of more than two miles of conveyor belts which carry the eggs to be cleaned and processed. Machines sonically check the shells and remove cracked eggs.

"A human hand doesn't touch them during the entire process," Jesse said.

The speed of automation allows the eggs to be processed sometimes within minutes of being hatched, he said.

There are some challenges the farm is dealing with, Jesse said. One is waste disposal. They have a great deal of chicken manure, which is a very rich fertilizer. There is little market locally because many farms are disappearing, Jesse said. They give the stuff away, hoping just to recoup the costs of shipping.

Dr. Ismail Hussein, Egypt's agricultural attaché, said the manure would be very valuable in his country as chicken manure is the best kind for using in desert regions.

The guests on the tour had an excellent chicken lunch put on by the Monroe Methodist Church and were regaled by Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who praised Monroe as an active agricultural town with several farms, and said Gerry epitomized public service by welcoming the foreign dignitaries.

Martin Lord Osman
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