I wake up at 6:30, exhausted from playing soccer the night before. It's hot out, already, unseasonably warm for spring, and in the 80s. This weekend was first day of weeding a bed under the house, where we're going to plant strawberries. We put up a fence for the piglets who are arriving mid-May, with the idea they'll root out some stumps Sam wants to get rid of for a pasture down the line. The cat, sleeping in the bedroom closet, spent the night hunting frogs; it's mating season and the night echoes with their croaks, and the pond filled with gooey clouds of frog eggs that will soon become tadpoles. I wonder if I could make Vermont caviar. Frog caviar? Gross. Maybe better left to nature and evolution than the plate. But I got production on the mind…
After breakfast (homemade bread, and eggs from our hens) Frida the dog comes with me to collect the morning eggs. Lately the average has been about four eggs in the morning, and four in the afternoon. The hens aren't at their most productive stage–we got them for 2 bucks a head from a local farmer, as they were beginning the petering out process–so I'm not selling as many as I'd like (to coworkers, mostly). But still, they're good hens. They roam around the land and pick at rocks and bugs. Yesterday the rooster ("Johnny Cash") was crowing a half mile from the hen house, practically! Talk about free range. These babies are rebels, wanderers, tough broads. And this morning there were six eggs, three of them I reached for from right underneath the layers. I'm surprised at how relaxed the hens are; they never peck me, they're never aggressive. I speak quietly to them, and Frida watches curiously. She's probably thinking the same thing I am: This is a far cry from the streets of New York where I'd be pissing in a gutter somewhere
And the main event of the day: one of the hens let me see her lay. What an amazing sight first thing on a Monday morning, to see an egg coming straight out a chicken. Imagine a human mouth saying "Wow" really slowly and spitting out an egg, and that's what it looks like. The egg dropped right into my hand, warm and sticky. It was only a little bit gross, and mostly fascinating. I'm learning a lot about chickens, through moments like these, and a lot of reading–Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits first and foremost. One thing I learned is since hens need extra minerals, you can feed them back their own eggshells instead of throwing them in the compost after breakfast. Salatin's advice is, however, to give their shells crushed up so the hens can't identify them as eggs, and–because they like them so much–become cannibalistic later on down the line. I witnessed this first hand; a couple mornings I've found broken eggs in my hens' roosts, with the yolk dripping out onto the hay. It could be due to thin shells breaking (a sign they need more minerals), but also it's not uncommon to have hens who develop a taste for eggs, if they happen upon the sweet yolk on a broken shell. Which came first, the chicken or the egg. Either way, I'm increasing their access to oyster shells (which we give them for extra nutrients) and I changed the hay in their nesting boxes–fresh with no yolk residue–to see if they can unlearn this behavior.
I'm loving farming eggs. In fact, we're thinking seriously of expanding. We're going to order 50 pullets (female chicks) and build an Eggmobile, a Salatin invention consisting of a hen house built on a hay wagon. All this means is the hen house is movable, facilitating free-range birds to peck around the land, but is moved every week so as not to create a "chicken yard", or earth destroyed by chicken manure. We've already got a hay wagon, salvaged wood, and wood Sam's logged from the property. I have a friend who works at a cafe next door to my office, and she's going to put my five pound plastic bucket in the kitchen of the café and collect scraps they would normally throw in the trash. I'll pick it up daily, and feed the hens those scraps, which will cut down on grain consumption (saving me money, as well as resulting in healthier hens and therefore healthier eggs.) I'm considering getting scraps form the local elementary school where my friend teaches. Something I just learned from Joel Salatin is that free range, scrap-eating hens raised on little grain produce eggs with substantially less cholesterol and saturated fat than grain-fed hens. This is obvious through noticeably brighter orange yolks, which my eggs already have. A good sign! Some doctors even subscribe these kinds of eggs to people trying to lower their cholesterol, because they're a detoxicant.
And so the question arises. Organic or non-organic? Oh, how I wish I had enough money to buy the organic grain, which is–hold on to your hats–twice as much as the non-organic grain. I am 100% against hormones, large-scale food production, caged livestock, and pesticides of any kind. So shouldn't I get organic grain? That's what I thought, but I'm broke so I did more research, just to be sure. What I found out surprised me. I went to the local feed store in Williamstown (about 10 miles from our house) and asked the owner what the difference was. Organic grain is better, obviously, grown with no pesticides of any kind, hence being twice as expensive. But notice how many eggs are called "All Natural, Cage-Free, Hormone Free, Antibiotic Free"? That's because those are farmers who either a) feed their hens food scraps along with grain–and you can't guarantee that every ingredient from the food scraps is certified organic–and/or b) use non-organic grain but less of it, because the hens are cage-free and get a lot of their food from the land itself. It should be noted that non-organic grain does not mean they have antibiotics and hormones. There are NO hormones or antibiotics used in the grain. It's just that the grain hasn't been certified organic.
In an ideal farming world, I would have free-range birds that eat food scraps (all of the scraps being organic) and minimal organic grain. This would make their eggs lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and 100% organic as well. But in that same ideal world, I would want to use food salvaged from school cafeterias and restaurants that would normally go in the trash. That would save me money on feed, and would make good use of waste. I can't guarantee those venues use all organic food, however. So I'd have to choose where to get my scraps not based on convenience and proximity. I live in rural Vermont–an organic hippy restaurant is about 45 minutes away in Montpelier. So I'd have to use a lot of gas driving to those scraps, when I could easily get some at the school on my daily commute home. Purists might say: Doesn't matter! Organic is key! Drive the 80 miles to get organic food scraps; it's more important than cutting down on fuel! But then I'd be broker, and the farm would suffer. Then the cows wouldn't get organic hay, the pigs couldn't eat our compost since we wouldn't be able to afford all organic food, and I wouldn't have the energy or the time to let the birds be free-range, and maintain the land they inhabit. And all of a sudden…I'm not so sustainable.
Organic. What a strange concept, rife with miscommunication, elitism, and false marketing. For example, it's possible to have all organic eggs that come from caged hens who never run around outside or eat plants and bugs, and are therefore full of saturated fat. They are technically organic, which increases their marketability, but they could potentially be worse for you and worse for the birds, in the worst case scenario. For example, "Local" eggs can be from hens pumped full of hormones at a nearby farm, but because they're called "local" they sound exciting to the consumer/localvore. "Organic" eggs could be flown in from Kansas and therefore increasing carbon emissions in the air and bad for the environment and expensive to transport. "Local, Organic" eggs could be from caged, unhappy birds who eat a ton of fatty organic grain. You never know what you're getting in your eggs! It's a cool idea to be able to know your farmer, know their practice, and know the environment where the hens are living. Then you can decide: is it worth it to have hens (like mine) eating a minimal amount of non-organic grain, if it means they're running all over the land and being free, eating bugs, living a good life, creating highly nutritious and low-cholesterol eggs, and consuming the food waste of the elementary school and cafes nearby? Not to mention the farmers are saving money on the expensive organic grain to enable them to use work horses (which take more labor and food) for their budding maple sugaring operation instead of a dirty diesel tractor, and thereby increasing the sustainability and health of the land upon which their farm sits? I could go on and on…I'm thinking about growing our own grain, too. That might have to wait until next summer, but is a serious consideration.
So here's the plan. We order the new chicks this week. Establish our customers: friends, family, and the local co-ops (one of whom my office shares a parking lot, thereby cutting carbon-emissions and gas money out of the equation, the other which is on my way home.) Build the Eggmobile. Raise the chicks into free-range hens, their diet consisting of little grain, mostly bugs, grass, and whatever they peck out of cow manure (which they love, incidentally), and the food scraps from the local elementary school or the café next door to my office. Then, come fall, we'll start getting eggs and they'll keep on producing through the winter and next spring. We'll try and sell some to people in New York. Eggs aplenty! Meanwhile, we'll keep the hens we have now, and add a couple more to continue production until the summer ends.
Until then, it's keep on weeding, keep on feeding, and get ready for piglets and baby chicks.
I'll keep you posted!