Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Idealism doesn't pay..

The truth is, we have an egg surplus problem on our hands. This was Sunday's yield: That's around eight dozen. Our lovely young ladies that we hatched back in the fall are all laying like champs, and the older ones are keeping right up with them. The problem is, no one's buying. These beautiful eggs are piling up in our cooler. That is, in part, because in our area, everyone has jumped on the chicken bandwagon. That's right, pastured poultry is a huge thing right now, and everyone has a dozen or two, or 50 chickens.

Also, everyone is buying "cheap". Thanks, economy! These small farmers are selling cheap, probably in part because they haven't bothered to do the math and figure out what the cost of an egg actually is to them, because it matters less if you have 25 chickens, and are losing a few cents a day, than if you are a little bigger and losing a few dollars a day.

On the other hand, the grocery stores are dealing out the cheap, free range, organic eggs, and they are selling like hot cakes. Thanks, Trader Joe's! So, let me just splain something to you. The smiling words on those egg cartons may seem appealing and "all-natural", but it is clever marketing, first and foremost. Under the organic label, the hens are cage free, and must be fed certified organic feed. Fine. Okay, here is the reality of free range rules, from

“Free-Range” Eggs
There is no inspection system for companies that label their eggs “free-range.”
The popular myth that “free-range” egg-laying hens enjoy fresh grass, bask in the sunlight, scratch the earth, sit on their nests, and engage in other natural habits is often just that: a myth. In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once.
battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.
Whether kept in sheds or cages, laying hens—who can naturally live more than ten years—are considered “spent” when they are just one or two years old and their productivity wanes. Rather than being retired, “free-range” hens are slaughtered to make room for another shed of birds.
With no federal regulations overseeing the use of animal welfare claims on egg cartons, misleading or exaggerated claims are rampant. Consumers may be deceived by phrases such as “animal-friendly” or “naturally-raised,” which can be found on cartons of eggs from caged hens. Read about COK’s
truth in labeling campaign urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require the full disclosure of production methods on eggs cartons sold nationwide.

This means that hippified looking carton of eggs you slapped down two bucks for may have come from a place like this.

Better than battery cages? Maybe. But, probably not the image you had in mind? I am sure this sort of system has a neat profit margin, passing the savings on to you.

Of course, the big problem, obviously, is that you cannot know for sure, by looking at a carton of eggs, what sort of place they came from. Here is our dilemma. If you are not cutting corners-how can you make this apparent to the consumer, other than inviting them to come on over and see for themselves?

Not to imply that we are perfect, that all our systems are just how we want them, or that we don't sometimes make mistakes, but here is my attempt to prove our eggs are worth at least a measly quarter apiece.

Thich Nhat Hahn advises us to eat healthy eggs from happy hens. Happy hens. This a term that gets used a whole lot in marketing. What does it actually mean? I have never run across any interviews with contented hens explaining why their life is more fulfilling than another's. So here's my interpretation.

Clean water and good nutrition. We are not feeding any 50$/bag organic feed, that is true. But, we provide a good quality, balanced laying pellet with adequate protein and calcium, not scratch grains, which are for sure cheaper, but woefully short on the nutrients a chicken needs to stay well. Keep in mind that a chicken produces, at the peak of her cycle, an egg every day and a half. An egg is the equivalent of a baby chicken. Imagine your dog having a puppy every day and a half-it takes a high level of nutritional input to keep a system like that going! In addition, we make sure everyone has access to plenty of forage. Grass and weed seeds to eat, bugs and worms, fallen fruit. Some have more pasture-y areas, some have more wooded areas, but ideally I like for them to have some of both.

Adequate space to play is also important for social harmony. The big poultry producers are trying to breed chickens with "close personal space". They really do like their elbow room. Enough room to ramble about will ensure that you will not experience social problems like bullying and cannibalism.

Chickens will get low on forage in the wintertime, which can cause boredom. A bored chicken is not a happy chicken. We make sure they get produce culls-throw a cabbage or kale into a group of chickens, and it's exactly like watching a school of piranhas attack-little bits of green flying through the air. Even a bale of hay will keep them occupied, they will scratch and pick through it all day long.

We have three heritage breeds, Delawares, Buff Orpingtons, and Buckeyes, and two hybrid breeds of our own design. We breed and hatch our own. We select our breeders for traits that will produce an all around healthy bird, not just one that will produce eggs or meat quickly and well. Thanks to the folks at the ALBC for showing us how to do this. It also means that we take responsibility for their whole lives, starting with the care of their parents.

Many folks buy their chicks from hatcheries, use their birds for the most productive two years, and toss 'em out and get new ones. Well selected stock will remain productive for years, and some of our best breeders are no "spring chickens"!

Sanitation! We try to make sure our flock is living as clean as possible and vermin free.

Nutritional content. It's night and day, folks. Here are some interesting test results from Mother Earth News:

I am sad that our results came in a little low, but these were tested when we were in the midst of a terrible drought, and the pastures were brown and crispy. Still, our eggs make the competition look weak and pale. So there.

I am sure there is much more to say on this subject, but that's all I got right now. There is more information on egg carton labeling and the welfare of laying hens at, and


Billie Jane said...

The whole chicken thing is hot news topic here in the uk at the moment... what you need is a high profile celebrity chef to take up the cause... (either that or make one huge ommelette!)

Sara said...

Thanks for the link-I am inspired, would like to try and kick up that kind of interest here!