Sprawling industrial parks, manufacturing hubs and logistics centers dominate the once predominately agricultural landscape of Venray, a small city and municipality located in the northernmost part of the Netherlands’ southernmost province.
Yet despite heavy urbanization since World War II, chickens remain a clucking big business in Venray and environs with poultry farms dotting the pancake-flat terrain west of the River Maas. In fact, Venray — historically, a sheep-farming hub — is home to more chickens than any other Dutch municipality with 86 birds per person. In 2014, Dutch newspaper NRC declared Venray the “national epicenter of poultry farming.” That's quite the distinction in a small but densely populated country that ranks as the world’s top exporter of chickens. (Alektorophobics be advised: Chickens outnumber humans six to one in the Netherlands.)
This all considered, it's only natural that a company seeking to revolutionize poultry farming by making it more efficient, more environmentally friendly and, above all, more hospitable to hens, has chosen Venray for its first facility. Called Kipster, the newly launched farm focuses exclusively on egg production and prides itself as being the antithesis of large commercial poultry farms, which for better or worse, have put Venray on the map.
Billing itself as the “most animal-friendly and most environmentally friendly poultry farm in the world,” Kipster does not produce eggs that are organic or free-range, two buzz phrases that eco-conscious consumers gravitate toward.
Rather, Kipster eggs, available at Dutch outposts of German discount supermarket chain Lidl, are marketed as being “carbon-neutral.” And unlike organic eggs and eggs from free-range chickens, these carbon-neutral eggs sell at a price point comparable to eggs from conventional farms. Translation: They're affordable.
Well-designed digs lead to healthy, happy hens
So how exactly does Kipster — a combination of kip, the Dutch word for chicken, and ster or “star”— produce and sell superlatively sustainable eggs that are neither organic nor free-range?
In a recent profile of the farm, The Guardian explains in detail as to what sets Kipster apart from the like-minded competition.
It's common knowledge that organic eggs are deemed as such because they've been laid by hens restricted to diets consisting solely of organic grains. As Kipster co-founder and sustainable poultry farming lecturer Ruud Zanders points out, this practice is an expensive and carbon-intensive one that pits humans against chickens in the food chain. “It makes no sense for us to be competing with animals for food,” Zanders tells The Guardian. “And 70 percent of the carbon footprint in eggs is accounted for by the feed for the chickens.” Fair enough.
Kipster's solar-powered poultry farm is located in Castenray, a rural town with the municipality of Venray in Limburg, the Netherlands. Venray is home to numerous large poultry farms. (Photo: Google Maps)
In lieu of imported organic corn, the farm's resident hens — 24,000 docile Dekalb whites to start — dine on residual food scraps sourced from local bakeries and then turned into feed. While this feed isn't organic, it does prevent surplus food from being hauled off to landfills. By using food waste as chicken feed this fledgling farm is, in the words of the Guardian, “cutting deeply into its carbon footprint.”
As for the non-free-range aspect of the farm, the space allocated for Kipster hens is less than the 10 hectares (25 acres) legally required for free-range chickens. Zanders believes that 10 hectares is too much for chickens, a bird that’s inherently wary of wide-open spaces as it makes them more vulnerable to predators.
However, this isn’t to say that Kipster hens don’t have ample space to move around. “Every free-range farmer knows that if you have 10 hectares, the chickens will only use nine,” Zanders says. “We have 6.7 hens per square metre. A free-range farm would typically have nine hens per square metre.”
Boasting plenty of fresh air, natural light and a glass-enclosed indoor garden that serves as a “playground for the chickens,” Kipster’s farm is designed explicitly with a hen’s health and well-being in mind. The spread is so mindful of the chickens' unique habits and needs that Dutch animal activist group Dierenbescherming has given Kipster its seal of approval.
Reads the Kipster website: “For us, laying chickens are more than just egg machines that have to be set at maximum yield. We see the chicken as an animal with instincts and needs. In the design of the farm, the chicken is the main focus. We show that animal welfare is definitely a realistic option in combination with environmentally friendliness as well as financial feasibility.”
Making sustainable poultry farming less of a hard egg to crack
What else qualifies Kipster eggs as “carbon-neutral" aside from the fact that the hens are feeding on scrumptious bakery leftovers and not organic grains trucked in from afar?
Most notably, the compound is powered by a 1,078-panel solar array installed atop the roof of farm’s sleek, modern hen house. ‘We use 40 percent of the energy we generate and sell the rest. This makes our farm, and the eggs, CO2 neutral,” Zanders tells Dutch broadcaster NOS.
What’s more, Zanders and his co-founding colleagues — farmer Syd Claessens, communications strategist Oliver Wegloop and Maurits Groen, a sustainability expert and social entrepreneur — have set out to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint in other ways including using potato starch-based cartons and building an on-site packaging facility complemented by a direct-delivery model to avoid excess transportation-related emissions. The energy-positive farm also uses low levels of ammonia and boasts significantly reduced fine particle emissions compared to large factory farms. And as the Kipster website touts, Groen is buddies with Al Gore, a fact that must also be worth some bonus points in the farms’ carbon-neutral ambitions.
To ensure that the operation is up to carbon-neutral snuff, researchers from Wageningen University & Research Center, a renowned Dutch public research university specializing in agriculture and environmental sciences, have monitored both dust emissions and the performance of the farm’s solar array over the last several months.
“By reducing our carbon footprint, and making energy from the solar panels to be sold on, we believe, from Wageningen University’s initial calculations, that we are laying carbon-neutral eggs,” Zanders explains. “If anything suggests that is not the case as time goes on, we will invest in solar panels elsewhere to make sure we reduce CO2 emissions.”
Thanks to the reduced ammonia stench, minimized air pollution and overall progressive vibe of the design-forward farm, it’s not entirely surprising that Kipster has also established an on-site educational visitors center where the general public can learn more about sustainable poultry farming. And given Kipster’s debut farm is envisioned as a scalable concept that can be replicated elsewhere including urban settings, it’s safe to assume that the company is looking to attract the attention of poultry farmers hailing from the Netherlands and beyond.
Kipster even approaches the issue of hen “retirement” in a different manner than conventional poultry farms. In most instances, layer chickens — a term for hens bred expressly for commercial egg-laying — are slaughtered when they reach the end of their egg-laying lifespan at 70 weeks. And that’s still very much the case at Kipster's Venray facility. However, in lieu of being shipped off to Africa like most reared-in-Europe hens after they're processed, Kipster chickens are turned into high-quality meat products — kipnuggets and the like — and sold locally.
“Our aim is an affordable egg, which has been produced sustainably and climate positive, with a clear eye on animal welfare as a starting point, and a decent income for the farmer, says Groen in a press release. "We have succeeded in that aim."