Our Local & National Egg Industries
WORSHIPPED, MALIGNED AND MISUNDERSTOOD, eggs have survived the rollercoaster ride of nutritional favor and now enjoy a fairly accepted status as a healthful food choice. But the fact that you can find a source for eggs every day of the year does not mean that those eggs—even free-range, organic eggs— are at their peak. Hidden behind the egg cartons stacked waist high in supermarkets, 365 days per year, is the truth that eggs do, in fact, have a season.
Chickens from true free-range operations are out on pasture during the spring, summer, and early fall, where they have access to fresh green grass, insects and worms. Their varied diet is reflected in the color and strength of their yolks (one measure of the quality of an egg)—deep yellow to orange orbs that stand up firmly when cracked into a dish. The ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in eggs like these is nearly perfect.
The same chicken might stop laying entirely in the winter; at the very least, egg production can drop significantly. The variety in the hens' diet is much reduced, and the color of the yolks of those winter eggs fades to a pale yellow. Months later, as the snow recedes and the days grow longer, natural light triggers the hen's pituitary gland to produce a hormone that spurs egg production. And the beautiful cycle of renewal and rebirth continues.
Such nuances are lost on the consumer who pays $.99 for a dozen eggs at the supermarket—eggs from chickens that have never been fed anything but grain, may have never seen natural light (the buildings in which they're kept may be artificially lit up to 24 hours a day to increase laying), are force-molted to stimulate production and live out their lives stacked in wire "battery cages." There are no "seasons" at the factory farms that supply the vast majority of eggs in the United States—the chickens produce eggs every day, year round; when their production drops, their fate, as cruel as it is, could be considered a kind of blessing.
As Jessica Prentice, whose book, Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection (Chelsea Green, 2006), explores the rhythms of the seasons as they relate to the cycles of the moon (by her measure, and that of most small farmers, the "Egg Moon" falls in early spring) notes, "It's a terrible thing to do to a living being, and a disgraceful defilement of this symbol of life, hope and fertility—the egg."
But what about those "Omega-3 enriched," "certified organic" eggs that have been popping up in supermarkets in the past few years? In terms of seasonality, the story of these eggs is much the same (though the price, of course, at upwards of $3.50 per dozen, is not). While the chickens laying these eggs might be allowed access to the outdoors, they often have little room to roam and, like factory-farmed birds, are fed exclusively grain (fortified with flax seed to increase the amount of Omega-3s) and may be subjected to artificial light to stimulate production year round. Though a big step up from the factory-farmed variety, these eggs still don't approach their true seasonal and nutritional potential.
But the world as it is, is not the world as it has to be.
- At Gray Horse Farm, in Clinton Corners, a few hundred chickens of various breeds scratch around the property, hop in and out of well-ventilated houses and peck at the grass. Draft horses work the land in lieu of tractors.
- Hens at the new Awesome Farm, in Tivoli, are pastured and supplemented with a small amount of organic feed. As a test case, half of the flock will be fed no grain, but supplemented with vegetable scraps.
- The Glynwood Farm flock, made up of Aracauna, White Leghorn and Rhode Island Reds, is continually rotated on acres of grass in Garrison.
- Mary Fingar feeds her chickens vegetable scraps and allows them free range on her land in Cold Spring. Eggs sell out weekly at local farmers' markets.
- B&L 4E Farms, in Marlboro, brings the grass to the hens, and supplements their diet with scraps from the garden.
Here in the Hudson Valley, the number of farms that are bucking the trend of "bigger is better" and raising animals the old-fashioned way is growing. Local farmers, sharing this philosophy, are going back to time-honored (and time-tested) methods of raising chickens, and the eggs they produce are proof that these methods are functional, productive and healthy—for the chickens as well as for consumers. Terry Kilmer, of Gray Horse Farm, says, "The way we farm is old. If they did it then, why can't we do it now?"
There literally are dozens of small-scale egg producers in the Hudson Valley who are doing it the right way. Finding certified (or non) organic eggs from pastured, free-range or heritage breed hens doesn't require much effort—generally speaking, you don't have to look much beyond your local farmers' market or health food store. What is required, however, is a shift in our mindset as it relates to cost—both perceived and actual.
American consumers demand eggs—for breakfast, for baking and in cooking—year round. We also demand (and, traditionally, expect) that eggs be cheap—while a dozen eggs from a local farm generally cost from $3 to $5 a dozen, supermarket eggs can go for as little as $.99.
To be blunt, it simply costs more to raise chickens the right way: Organic, locally grown corn costs more than industrially grown, GMO corn from Iowa; heritage breeds cost more initially and mature more slowly (and so cost more to maintain) than "standard" white laying hens; and allotting plenty of outdoor space for each bird to roam costs more than it does to pack four of them into a 2-foot-square wire cage inside a barn.
Paying $3.50 per dozen is admittedly quite a jump from $1.50, but it is an accurate reflection of what it costs to produce eggs with integrity. (To put it into perspective, $3.50 per dozen is $.29 per egg—that's a $.60 breakfast at home.) If the Hudson Valley is any indication, consumers are beginning to come around; demand has never been higher for pastured, local eggs. To meet that demand, many local farmers do take steps to keep their birds laying year round, and to keep the feed interesting. "Chickens need 14 hours of light a day to keep laying," says Lynn Faurie, of B&L 4E Farm in Marlboro. "So we'll do some lighting to keep that at 14 hours, but no more than that."
When grass isn't available, some farmers supplement the chicken feed with flax seed keep the Omega-3/Omega 6 ratio in balance, and most will include vegetable scraps whenever possible to keep the variety and nutritional value of the flock strong.
"What we try to do is get our birds as close as possible to the way they evolved, and to do it in a way that's productive," says Ken Kleinpeter, of The Glynwood Center. "We want people to see what we're doing here," says Lisa Kilmer of Gray Horse Farm. Like most local egg producers, the Kilmers welcome consumers to their farm to see the operation first hand. "The chickens roaming, they're not in cages, they're eating grass and bugs, the grain is grown nearby."
Recognizing that eggs have a season doesn't mean that we shouldn't enjoy them all year round. Rather it is a reminder that we should acknowledge and celebrate seasonal shifts and fluctuation, and the nutritional benefits of a truly pastured egg, in season. As Kleinpeter notes, "No matter what you do in the winter, summer eggs are just better. We can do this or that to manipulate some of the nutritional aspects, but we'll never get all of the subtleties you get from the hens being out all summer on grass, the way chickens are meant to be."