How Austin-based Vital Farms because a leader in the movement toward a happier hen and better-tasting egg.

By Robyn Ross
Published: November 2, 2015

On a farm in a corner of northwest Arkansas, the maples and sycamores are starting to change color, their gold and rust contrasting with the lush, emerald pasture. The midmorning sun, already high over the rolling hills, tempers the late October chill. From outside the chicken house door, 24-year-old farmer Daniel Webb can hear—even feel—the anticipation. The scuffling and scratching of clawed toes. The impatient clucks and chatter. The shifting of feathers as eager wings stir the air. He swings the door open, and a wave of rust-colored Bovan Brown hens pours out, squawking and flapping their way into the pasture. 

On a farm in a corner of northwest Arkansas, the maples and sycamores are starting to change color, their gold and rust contrasting with the lush, emerald pasture. The midmorning sun, already high over the rolling hills, tempers the late October chill. From outside the chicken house door, 24-year-old farmer Daniel Webb can hear—even feel—the anticipation. The scuffling and scratching of clawed toes. The impatient clucks and chatter. The shifting of feathers as eager wings stir the air. He swings the door open, and a wave of rust-colored Bovan Brown hens pours out, squawking and flapping their way into the pasture. 

Twenty minutes later, the scene is calmer. The chickens have spread out across the pasture, scratching in the dirt for worms and nibbling at the dandelions and grass. A few nestle in the shade of a white oak tree as Webb moves to the next building. 

It’s a scene conjured by the pictures of red barns and happy hens on grocery store egg cartons. Yet the overwhelming majority of laying hens in the United States can only dream of such a pastoral existence. More than 90 percent of them never see the sun or touch a blade of grass, instead spending their entire lives in cages so small they can’t turn around. Webb, however, is one of scores of farmers who raise chickens for Austin-headquartered Vital Farms, a company that is setting a new standard for “pasture-raised” eggs, which come from hens who spend their days outside, in every season. Over the past eight years, the company has expanded rapidly to meet the demand of increasingly savvy shoppers. 

“People are looking for something different when they shop for food, and they want to support systems with which they share ideals,” says Vital Farms President Jason Jones. “That means animal welfare, being kind to the environment and a sustainable model for farmers. We thought we could produce the best eggs by featuring the animals’ welfare instead of disregarding it.”

The idea for Vital Farms was hatched in 2007 by CEO Matt O’Hayer, an experienced entrepreneur whose earliest ventures included a childhood stint in door-to-door egg delivery. As an adult, he’d owned a farm near Seguin and found that when his chickens had access to grass in the warmer months, their egg yolks turned dark orange and were much more flavorful. He became a yard egg connoisseur of sorts, stopping whenever he saw a roadside sign promising “farm fresh eggs,” and noted that some had that pasture-raised texture and flavor, and some did not. A few years into his sampling, a conversation with friends who worked at Whole Foods suggested there was a developing market for pasture-raised eggs, and the concept for Vital Farms was born: taking the chicken- and farmer-friendly techniques that produce a delicious egg and scaling the business to serve a national market. 

He and his wife, Catherine Stewart, launched the first farm on 27 acres along Onion Creek in South Austin. They started with 20 chickens in early 2008, then added another thousand, and then several thousand more. O’Hayer also spent time learning from Jeremiah Cunningham, whose Coyote Creek Farm near Elgin pioneered pasture-raising in Texas. Some of the farm’s first eggs were sold at farmers’ markets, but O’Hayer remembers many going to the food bank because he didn’t yet have enough customers.