Missouri egg man peddles 'farm fresh' product, touts traditional farm techniques

Friday, November 9, 2012 | 11:32 a.m. CST

SYRACUSE — Benjamin Roberts is in the kitchen holding a farm fresh egg above the towel-covered countertop. He's smiling. It's show time. He drops the brown egg into a one-foot free fall.

The egg thumps against the counter, but it doesn't crack. He picks up the sturdy egg and drops it again to further make his point.

At 67, Roberts(cq), a modern-day egg salesman, makes a lot of points. And with the demand for food produced in a traditional farm setting in full swing, so are characters like Roberts, who is on a quest to supply St. Louis with his "highest quality" eggs.

"Go buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store and do that," Roberts, sporting a gray handlebar mustache, says about the drop test. "It hit that counter there and didn't crack it. You can't do that with grocery store eggs. You know why? The shells on these have substance to them, and quality. We feed oyster shell — 100 percent calcium. The shell on this thing is 100 percent calcium."

The egg in his hand is one of 200 dozen he's preparing to deliver to a handful of stores and restaurants that advertise locally raised food and charge a premium for it. He has about 10 clients in the St. Louis area, including Smokehouse Market, Local Harvest and Planet Health. The eggs — Ben Roberts' Heritage Poultry & Eggs — retail for about $5 per dozen.

Rather than hide from the beast in the market — the factory hen — Roberts dances in front of the horns of industrialized agriculture, touting old-fashioned farm techniques, not to mention old-fashioned salesmanship.

No, he assures, his eggs aren't anything like mass-produced eggs. Organic, he says, isn't a good enough standard to describe what he has to offer.

"I have been gathering eggs and had hens lay eggs in my hand," he says.

Roberts contracts with several family farms in central Missouri to produce his beloved eggs. He says free-range hens, pecking at pastures near cows and other animals, eat "whatever Mother Nature has to offer," as well as an obscure, soybean-free feed ration that is not genetically modified and includes black walnuts.

It's survival of the fittest for these birds. If his hens get sick, he says, he won't use antibiotics.

Roberts says the end product harkens to the days when you couldn't break an egg by squeezing it in your palm.

"Today you can just pop them," he says. "It's the economics."

That, however, brings up one big obstacle for Roberts: volume. He's selling only about 300 dozen a week. Driving 170 miles each way from mid-Missouri to St. Louis in a pickup, he says, is eating him alive. He needs to quadruple his sales to really make it work.

But, Roberts can sell.

"When you break my eggs," he says, pausing to smile and slam his hand against the bed of his pickup, "you gotta crack 'em! That's what makes them a better egg."

In 2011, there were 79 billion eggs produced in the U.S., enough to cover half of St. Louis County with one giant mess of fried eggs. Many of these eggs were sold in Styrofoam cartons labeled "farm fresh," which really chapsannoys Roberts.

"It's an industrial chicken house," Roberts says. "It's a commodity egg."

Roberts is trying to ride a wave of demand for food produced in a natural farm setting. Farmers markets have sprouted, and "local" food has become popular in restaurants and stores.

But, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference in eggs produced by free-range hens and caged hens living in a factory setting.

When broken into a skillet, the range egg yolks will be deeper shades of yellow, says Kenneth Anderson, who studies eggs at North Carolina State University. But as long as hens are fed comparable diets, he said, "nutritionally, there is really no difference between the two."

Roberts agrees that the nutrition value can be close, but he says his eggs are still healthier. And, he adds, you aren't just taking care of yourself by buying his eggs. You're supporting local agriculture, the environment, the chickens. He claims humane practices with his birds are the norm, "not the exception!"

Roberts operates out of a bare-bones rental house in Syracuse, which has a population of 172. There's a Missouri egg license tacked to a board in the kitchen, where he personally separates stacks of eggs into individual paper cartons.

Ben Roberts' Heritage Poultry & Eggs has been in business about one year. Until he went through a recent divorce, he had a similar business in Washington state. He used to drive 300 miles each way to a farmers market near Seattle.

Now, he wants to be a pipeline for fresh food to St. Louis.

"I want to bring the highest quality egg to the marketplace," says Roberts, who also sells fresh poultry.

His eggs don't just run all over the skillet, he says, and the yolks "glow a deep yellow and cook to a firm, flavorful perfection."

But even Roberts steps in it every once in a while.

During a visit to one of the farms he contracts with, it was discovered that a flock of brown free-range hens were supplemented on a ration that included soybean meal. His cartons say "soy free." Roberts was surprised to learn of the issue, and later clarified that it was a new family farm he was working with that had briefly run out of the agreed-upon ration.

When Roberts stops by the Wolf Public House during a recent delivery, the owners of the establishment in Ballwin say they loved his eggs. They are willing to pay double what they paid a previous supplier.

"I wouldn't eat anything else," says Denise Biribin, in the kitchen, painting yolk onto homemade pastries. She and her husband like to offer environmentally friendly products and locally raised food.

At Planet Health in Ellisville, owner Naomi DiCresce said the proof is in the orange yolk.

"That's how you can tell," she said, clearing room for 60 dozen eggs. "I need the space as more and more people get into this."

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