Bobcat in the Henhouse

A return to the nest hatches business success for Jesse Laflamme ’00

By Doug Hubley, Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen

“I couldn’t possibly have it more intense,” says Jesse Laflamme ’00, who puts in 75-hour weeks as CFO of a firm that’s moving tens of millions of units a year and riding an annual growth rate close to 30 percent. “I’d go crazy.”

But at least Laflamme can ease the stress in a way that would have been unavailable to him if he’d gone into high finance, which he considered while at Bates. “At the end of the day,” he explains, “I walk in with our chickens and see if everybody’s doing all right.”

“Everybody” might be exaggerating, since Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs keeps roughly 120,000 laying hens on the family farm in the White Mountain village of Monroe, N.H. But Laflamme’s visits with the “girls,” as he calls them, are one sign of an approach to farming that’s working well for the Laflamme family. By embracing humane treatment and organic feed for the chickens, the family has plucked commercial victory from the beak of defeat.

Once a traditional commodity-egg producer with prospects so bleak that Laflamme’s parents urged him to look elsewhere for a career, Pete and Gerry’s now enjoys the largest market share for organic eggs in the Northeast. In volume the brand ranks second in the nation behind Horizon Organic Eggs — even though Horizon is nationally distributed and Pete and Gerry’s concentrates on the Northeast.

“Specialty eggs,” the industry category that includes organic, cage-free, etc., account for only about 5 percent of U.S. egg consumption. But growth has increased right along with consumer interest in natural foods, despite the higher retail costs (Pete and Gerry’s eggs in the Boston area run about $4 a dozen, compared with $1.60 for the house brand). “Being in agriculture, we know more than the common consumer does about where food comes from,” says Laflamme. “That true knowledge is all it takes for somebody to believe in organic.”

Certified humane by the Virginia-based organization Humane Farm Animal Care, Pete and Gerry’s eggs are laid by contented chickens. Uncaged, they move around and socialize in airy barns and are allotted about 1.2 square feet per bird — nearly three times the factory-farming standard, Laflamme says. State and federally certified, the “organic” in the brand name means that the hens’ dinner includes no pesticides or other additives. The menu does include flaxseed and linseed, which give the eggs up to five times as much Omega 3 fatty acid, touted for its benefits to human health, as conventional eggs.

Jesse’s father, Gerry Laflamme, took over management of the farm from his father-in-law in the late 1970s, and today he runs the production side while cousin Pete Stanton handles distribution. Until the late 1990s, it was a conventional operation. But, Jesse explains, “it was a small farm and we didn’t make that leap to being a mega-industrial farm like the rest of them.”

Though small, the operation is hardly mom and pop. The birds are fed and watered mechanically, the laying barns are cleaned likewise, and lighting and climate are automatically maintained so as to encourage the hens to lay. The hens’ well-being is not only an end in itself but, this being a business after all, a factor in the production of more and better eggs.

These roll down from the nests onto conveyors, totaling about 1.5 miles, that carry them to the processing shed. Here they encounter a giant apparatus in which exquisite mechanisms wash, grade, sort, and size the eggs. The only ongoing human participation is that of an inspector who, hovering over the high-tech equivalent of yesterday’s egg candle, watches for cracks and flaws.

Pete and Gerry’s eggs reach the market as much as two weeks fresher than even their organic competitors, Laflamme says. The firm combines production, processing, and distribution at one location, enabling daily shipments rather than long warehouse layovers.

With a staff of only 20, annual production is somewhere between 36 and 42 million eggs. “Most conventional farms will put that out in less than a week,” says Laflamme.

Laflamme has worked at the farm all his life, but during his Bates years felt himself pulled in quite a different direction — high finance. A political science major with a secondary concentration in economics, “I would have headed probably to New York or Boston to do something in the financial world,” he says.

Instead, he headed home, donning the CFO hat the day after he graduated. “Our organic brand began to build when I was at Bates,” he says. “I began to see the promise when I was traveling around New England to visit stores and meet customers.”

But Bates figured in his decision. The political science faculty, especially Professor James Richter, heightened his sense of obligation to the greater good. “I was open-minded to it, but they certainly led the way in my being able to see that,” he says.

A four-year rower at Bates, Laflamme was influenced also by an assistant crew coach — in fact, he married her. And Sandra DuBarry, Colby ’99, was crucial to his decision to return to the farm, sharing both his love for Monroe’s natural setting and his belief in the potential for the revamped Pete and Gerry’s brand.

“She really encouraged me to give it a shot,” Laflamme says. “She saw a real future.”

The couple keep their oars in, taking their shells out on the nearby Connecticut River in Jesse’s rare free time. In fact, Laflamme credits crew at Bates with beefing up his resolve in ways that have stood him in good stead since, as he puts it, “I landed in the hot seat” at the farm. Returning to the roost right as Pete and Gerry’s Organics started to take off, Laflamme has run the numbers, handled marketing and buyer pitches, and had a hand in just about everything else.

“I’m having a blast,” he says. In part, no doubt, because there’s always the clucking comfort of a visit with the girls.