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Cyd Szymanski grew up on a chicken farm, but she's still chicken. "I'm the Egg Lady, and I'm terrified of chickens," confesses Szymanski. "I am really phobic about them. I think I just got pecked too often when I was little."
Even so, she's managed to scratch out a living by putting the chicken before the egg. Her Denver egg-processing company, Colorado Natural Eggs, contracts with local farmers who commit to raising their hens in much more luxurious surroundings than those at the industrial egg farms that account for over 95 percent of the nation's eggs. Those unfortunate egg-layers live in what Szymanski calls "chicken concentration camps," caged facilities that give each hen all of 48 square inches for her miserable fourteen-month existence.
"That much room," Szymanski says, holding up a seven-inch-wide square of paper to illustrate the grim conditions the birds endure. Animal-rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, have been pushing egg producers to allow at least 72 square inches per hen; Szymanski gladly gives her birds twice that amount. They also live a life of relative liberty, roaming about in cageless, state-of-the-art facilities specified in Colorado Natural's contract with suppliers.
By signing up with the company, which markets its eggs as Nest Fresh, farmers are also freed from having to compete with the egg factories. "The big cage-layer guys put people out of business," Szymanski says. "I try to put people back in business. I go to these small farmers and I say, 'Take out your evil cages, put in my nesting systems, and I will buy every egg you can produce.'"
In order to become one of Szymanski's suppliers, David Turunjian converted his caged operation to a cage-free farm seven years ago. He took out a mortgage on his house and spent $400,000 on the required Colorado Natural system, which doubled the size of his hen houses while cutting his bird count from 30,000 to 13,000. The move was expensive, but worth it. "I wasn't happy doing the other thing," Turunjian says. "I didn't like seeing the chickens in cages." He now raises "happy chickens" that command more money per egg, and help him sleep a little better at night.
Customers are also happier with Nest Fresh eggs, Szymanski says, because they taste better coming from unstressed birds that have enjoyed a vegetarian diet free of animal proteins, hormones and antibiotics. In fact, fans so admire their flavor and skillet appeal that they're willing to pay three times as much for a carton of Nest Fresh eggs as they might for factory-produced eggs.
Szymanski's plant, located just a few blocks north of Coors Field, employs eighteen people who wash, sort and package eggs produced by 100,000 chickens living on farms in Longmont, Niwot and surrounding areas -- including one outfit run by Szymanski's father.
When Szymanski was growing up in the Ozark region of Missouri, the family's egg business employed virtually every other member of the family. Egg-processing was a male-dominated business, she says, and it was made clear that she had no future there. So she set off on a different course that included collecting a master's degree in Christian education from a seminary in Kentucky. That degree didn't guarantee jobs, however, and after working in marketing in Denver and Vail, she decided it was time to take revenge on her relatives.
Her brother, Terry Osborne, helped her found Colorado Natural Eggs in 1990; their father signed on a few years later. Today, Colorado Natural competes directly with the family's business, Moark Production, which merged with Land O Lakes and markets eggs under the Land O Lakes brand. "I have a grudge," Szymanski admits. "I wasn't invited to be in the business. I had to go off and start my own. And they totally ignored me until I built up this business and had what, nationwide, is incredible market share."
According to Szymanski, that share is 7 percent of the state's egg market, with Nest Fresh eggs available in King Soopers stores around the Denver area and in select supermarkets across Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas. But last year, Land O Lakes started muscling in on her territory by marketing "All Natural" eggs in Colorado, complete with packaging that details the egg-producing hens' all-natural diets. Although the packaging doesn't claim that the birds are "cage-free," Szymanski says, "the public assumed they were cage-free because they were $2.49, $2.59 like mine. They're trying to dupe the consumer into thinking that these are special eggs when in reality, they're just like any other egg.
"Land O Lakes has this pristine image with this virginal Indian maiden sitting there. But what they're doing is cutting corners and going after the little guy."
Her, for example. "They say they're 'natural,'" Szymanski adds, "but there's nothing natural about the way any of their birds are kept." To prove her point, she offers grim pictures of excrement-covered birds packed in stacked cages on a farm in Pierce, Colorado.
According to Paul Osborne, Szymanski's cousin and Moark's vice president of sales and marketing, that Pierce farm has been phased out as a Land O Lakes producer. The bulk of the company's farms across the country have much better conditions, he says. "We have done nothing deceptive," Osborne adds. "Our eggs do not say 'cage-free.' I'm not competing with her." (Moark does sell cage-free eggs in other states, but not in Colorado.)
"People buy my eggs because they believe a well-cared-for animal creates a better product; it's better karma," Szymanski says. "But the consumer needs to be aware of what they're buying." Consumers who are aware often contact Colorado Natural Eggs to deliver impromptu testimonials. "We have really good yolks," Szymanski says. "We get people who write us all the time and say, 'Your eggs taste like the eggs I remember tasting from the farm.'"
"This is our commitment to change the world a little bit," Szymanski says. "I don't have to hug my chickens to give them a better life while they're here."