Vital Farms Inc. last month in Springfield opened its first corporately owned processing plant, and millions of its specialty eggs already have hit store shelves around the country.
The Austin, Texas-based company chose Springfield over competing cities, and an October report by Xceligent analyzing commercial real estate activity noted the opening of the 82,140-square-foot factory as the second-largest local industrial gain in the third quarter.
“This was the opportunity to open up a facility from scratch – brand new,” said Tricia Clark, vice president of operations, who was hired shortly after the groundbreaking for the $17 million plant development in Partnership Industrial Center West. “Rarely in your career do you get that opportunity.”
The company buys eggs from 120 farmers throughout northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri and distributes the product to retailers under its own brand and some private labels. Clark said Springfield’s proximity to stakeholders and major highways was a key factor – but only one of several.
“We call this the ‘pasture belt,’ because this particular area of the country allows our girls – our hens – to be outside all year,” Clark said, referring to Vital Farms’ requirement that farmers train chickens to spend all day outside foraging before nesting in a barn at night.
Vital Farms has been in the pasture-fed egg and butter business since 2007, but President and Chief Operating Officer Russell Diez-Canseco said the company has done its processing with surplus production time from other food manufacturing companies. Company leaders set out to make Vital Farms more sustainable, he said, by taking control of the egg manufacturing processes.
“We wanted to build a factory that was designed with the environment and with our employees in mind,” he said.
Using research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vital Farms leaders set the minimum employee wage at 25 percent above the local living wage. In Greene County, the living wage is $9.84 per hour for one adult, according to the MIT calculations. Vital Farms is hiring hourly crew members in Springfield at $13 an hour.
The new factory, at 2007 N. Alliance Ave. and designed by Buxton Kubik Dodd Creative, features natural light, air conditioning and nonslip floors with radiant heat, Diez-Canseco said.
“All of those things cost more, but we did it because we really wanted to create a great environment for crew members,” he said.
During the development planning stage, Diez-Canseco and other Vital Farms officials visited 15 egg processing plants in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, searching for best practices.
Diez-Canseco said the company got permission from the city of Springfield to alter PIC West’s development covenants – such as manicured landscaping and a brick or stucco facade for curb appeal in the industrial complex. Vital Farms tweaked its property with native trees surrounding the perimeter, as well as native pasture grasses that will not be managed with mowing but by periodic controlled burns. Also, the street-facing side of the metal building will soon be covered with honeysuckle vines.
An attractive city
The leeway city leaders gave in landscaping was just another sign of how welcoming the Queen City has been, Diez-Canseco said.
After Vital Farms officials three years ago decided to build its own full-scale egg processing operation, Sperry Van Ness/Rankin Co. real estate agent Jeff Childs proposed purchasing land in PIC West from the city and the Springfield Business Development Corp. Diez-Canseco said the property was “shovel ready,” with roads and ultilites already installed.
“You pay more for the land than you might pay for that amount of land in a different part of town,” he said of the $530,000 purchase of 11 acres. “But what you get in return is you get the ability to go fast, and that was really important for us.”
Childs brought Diez-Canseco and other Vital Farms executives to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce office in early 2016, where they also met with representatives from City Utilities, and city government – who all offered ongoing support.
“And that’s precisely what they did,” he said of the continuous communication with city leaders throughout the development process.
Settling into the area, Diez-Canseco said Vital Farms is working to partner with local freight companies and has hired Springfield’s SMC Packaging Group as the primary vendor for the cardboard boxes that protect filled egg cartons during travel.
Steps of automation
Vital Farms will keep SMC Packaging busy. The factory’s one shift, currently, has ramped up to process over 1 million eggs per day, officials say.
“It’s like a superhighway of eggs,” Clark said.
Fresh, refrigerated eggs arrive from farms on pallets holding 10,800 eggs apiece, Clark said. The egg shipments then reach room temperature, before being loaded into the production line by workers, 180 eggs at a time.
An array of suction cups lifts the eggs out of crates and onto a moving path where they are washed. They then move through an automated egg inspector that searches for dirt, cracks, leaks and blood.
“The crack detector, it taps the egg in 16 different places,” Clark said. “Based on the audio feedback, it can tell whether it’s a crack or not, or whether it’s a good egg.”
Eggs that pass scrutiny continue to a grading machine that determines the size and sends them to one of the retail carton options by size and brand.
With a long-term goal of three shifts daily, Diez-Canseco said plant officials have their sights on processing over 1 billion eggs a year, before needing to add another plant elsewhere in an anticipated three to five years.
The machines can handle an entire pallet, she said, totalling 900 dozen eggs, every 4 minutes.
The cartons are shipped to national retailers, including Kroger, Sprouts Farmers Market and Publix, as well as two stores with a local presence: Ruby’s Market and Target.
Whole Foods is Vital farm’s largest customer and also purchases cartons that are labeled with Whole Foods’ private 365 branding.
The eggs typically retail for $6 per dozen, or non-GMO eggs for $7 and organic for $8.
Sales and marketing employees in Austin are responsible for securing retailers and predicting future consumer demand, which determines how many farmers – each providing 10,000-30,000 eggs – can partner with Vital Farms.
“We can predict, based on the age of hen, what size eggs she’s going to lay, with pretty good accuracy,” said Clark, who was recruited by Vital Farms after 25 years with Kraft Heinz Co. “The hen’s laying career is from week 24 to week 74 or 75. So you’ve probably got about a 50-week window. But you always have to be forecasting what the consumer is wanting. And as old hens are aging out. You’ve got to make sure you have young hens coming on. So it is a fascinating experience – the flock management piece.”
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