CITY LIFE 20140609-jf5a8288

Published on June 9th, 2014 | by Kris Hay

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A really good egg

Do you like eggs? I like eggs. I especially like eggs that perform well in the frying pan and then taste great on buttered toast without a lot of additional seasoning.

But in the egg aisle at the supermarket, there are so many options that it’s difficult to determine which dozen will meet my requirements.

I dismiss the cheap generic-looking eggs. They tend to be bland and require a lot of Sriracha. For a dollar or two more, there are “local large fresh brown eggs” labeled as “nest-laid” from hens that are “cage-free” and fed a “vegetarian diet” free of hormones and antibiotics. Next to those, for between $5 and $10 a dozen, the eggs are “hand gathered” from hens “fed organic feed” whose treatment is “certified humane,” and who may also be “free-range” or “pasture-raised.”

The labeling is bewildering. How can products that appear to be identical vary so much in price? And how is the average consumer, who just wants to go home and make an omelet, supposed to know which eggs are the best?

I understand that “cage-free” may not necessarily mean free-to-exit-the-building-and-experience-the-world-of-sunshine-and-grass-and-tasty-bugs, but wouldn’t you expect “free-range” and “pasture-raised” to meet that standard? Though the USDA doesn’t offer a definition for pasture-raised, they define free-range or free-roaming as animals that have “been allowed access to the outside.” To the outside of what? How often? For how long? Does the access lead to an idyllic pasture, to a slab of cement, or to a gazebo full of axe-wielding ninjas?

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To try and get to the bottom of this egg-labeling dilemma, I purchased lots and lots of eggs from stores and farmers markets, and conducted some quasi-scientific experiments.

My research suggested I could ignore the shell color since it depends on the breed of the chicken, and nutritionally speaking, there’s no discernible difference between white and brown eggs—or pink, or blue, or green.

And despite our cultural association with yellow yolks, the color doesn’t significantly reflect the nutritional value either. Yolk color is determined by the hen’s diet. For instance, if she eats white corn consistently, her yolk will be lighter in color.

Turns out fresher is tastier

I used the float test to determine freshness, submerging eggs in water and observing their behavior. The older the egg, the more likely it was to float. Not surprisingly, the freshest eggs were from local farms and tended to sit more solidly at the bottom of the container.

Then I cracked them open and inspected the contents. Fresher eggs tend to have a round, firm yolk that sits tall atop a thick egg white. As the egg ages, the white becomes runny and the yolk flattens out. Incidentally, fresher eggs are also more likely to withstand my clumsy cracking techniques with the yolk still intact.

Next, I performed blind taste tests on fried eggs (with some assistance). There was quite a bit of variability between brands, even when they had similar claims on the label. The nest-laid and free-range were okay, but the pasture-raised eggs seemed to be a notch tastier, and those from the farmers market tasted superior to the grocery store brands. But even among pasture-raised eggs obtained from the farmers market, it was clear that not all eggs were created equal.

I preferred the rich, creamy flavor of certain local, organic, pasture-raised eggs. I could close my eyes and imagine a pastoral setting (cue Morning Mood from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite) where chickens do henny things…scratch and peck at weeds and grass seeds…eat bugs and worms…preen, take dust baths, and socialize in relatively un-crowded, stress-free conditions: healthy, happy hens who are able to channel their energy into producing nutritious and delicious eggs.

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Local farmer Rawley Johnson feeds chickens at Early Bird Farm, photo by Scott Haydon

I was prepared to select a winner, but by now was also determined to delve deeper in the world of eggs. And I decided that the chicken should come first. I headed to GardenSphere in Proctor to talk to Tacoma’s “urban chicken experts.”

At GardenSphere, potential backyard poultry farmers can learn all about building coops and raising chickens in their very own Cluckingham Palace. Pet hens typically live 5-8 years (one Methuselah wannabe reportedly lived over 22 years) while their egg productivity, depending on breed, declines dramatically after just a few years. So unless you’re planning to put Miss Henrietta and the Dixie Chicks in the stew, keep in mind that eggs are merely a side benefit that dwindles over time.

“Birds that give birth every day”

Yet, as any chicken enthusiast can attest, domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) are really interesting animals. And they’re also kind of weird.

The inclination of hens to lay eggs year-round is definitely weird. Egg production requires a huge investment of energy. In the wild, if a bird is going to expend that much effort, it needs eggs to be fertilized and to hatch to perpetuate the species. So, as the mid-15th century BC Egyptians put it, the “bird that gives birth every day” is highly unusual and beneficial to egg-loving humans.

One of chickens’ less convenient natural behaviors is their annual molt. As winter approaches and daylight hours decline, hens’ hormones trigger them to molt—to shed and regrow their feathers—during which time they channel all of their egg-laying energy into feather production. Molting results in weeks or months of no or low egg production.

You say you haven’t noticed that eggs are less plentiful in the grocery store during the winter? That’s because commercial poultry farmers typically control the timing of the molt so that a portion of their flock is always laying. One method is to artificially extend daylight hours by lighting the barn. If the birds never see the actual sun, it’s easier to trick them into thinking it’s summer. Another method is to stress the hens, forcing a molt at the desired time by withholding food from the birds for 7-14 days. (I’m trying really hard to withhold judgment, but please feel free to gasp in horror.)

When the cost of feeding the hens eclipses the profit made from selling their eggs, the hens will be culled to make way for a new flock. Compared to chickens raised for meat—slaughtered between 5 and 9 weeks from hatching—52-156 weeks is a relatively long life.

Chickens at work


But back to my quest.

Though the idea of urban chickens warrants further consideration, I’m not prepared to build and maintain my own chicken retirement home just to obtain eggs. But I did feel ready to conduct some field research. I wanted to see local, organic, pasture-raised hens in action.

GardenSphere suggested that I contact Zestful Gardens, run by Valerie and Holly Foster, just ten minutes from downtown Tacoma in the Puyallup Valley. Holly in turn recommended that I talk to her neighbor Rawley Johnson at Early Bird Farm. “He’s a new farmer, he’s really nice, and he’s super excited about everything chicken!”

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Chickens at Early Bird Farm, photo by Scott Haydon

Early Bird Farm eggs had been among those I’d experimented with and were already the lead contender for adorning my toast. Meeting “my” hens was the deciding factor.

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Rawley collects eggs at Early Bird Farm, photo by Scott Haydon

Although it was a busy time on the farm, Rawley invited me to visit—as long as I agreed to wear muck boots and chat while he worked. And work he did. It’s easy to see why you have to love what you’re doing to succeed at farming. It’s an amazing amount of labor.

Rawley says that one of his goals is to produce “a really good egg.” But Early Bird Farm isn’t just for the birds. Rawley is passionate about running a sustainable farm—offering a fresh seasonal variety of local organic produce.

As we tromped out to the field where the chickens live, Rawley pointed out his heritage tomatoes and talked enthusiastically about the radishes, greens, and other produce he brings to the Tacoma 6th Avenue Farmers Market on Tuesdays.

As we approached the pen (electrified fencing keeps coyotes out and chickens in), the excitement of the flock was palpable. The chickens are keenly aware that Rawley often brings snacks to supplement their foraging, sometimes high-quality feed; sometimes vegetables from the organic gardens. Either way, it helps to distract these curious, alert birds while Rawley collects their eggs.

The chickens are outdoors all year, but with a large coop for shelter. Rawley rotates the pen and coop around the field to provide fresh grazing once the chickens have cleared and helpfully fertilized each section.

We have a winner

Only the soundtrack of Peer Gynt was missing: Rawley’s hens appear to be living full, happy lives with a minimum of stress. Combined with a well-rounded, healthy diet, they produce nutritious and delicious eggs that were featured atop Bon Appétit’s 2013 Dish of the Year, created by Seattle restaurant The Whale Wins.

“My chickens spend their days running around, getting exercise,” said Rawley “so they use more calories and they eat a lot more feed than birds confined to a barn.” And because they witness the natural change of the seasons “you can’t really trick them into laying when the days get shorter. They’re too smart for that.”

During the winter, Rawley’s hens molt on their own schedule and lay only 20% of what they produce in the high season. But by nurturing the hens and allowing them time to rest and recuperate, Rawley ensures that next spring, the lifestyle his hens enjoy will be translated into another season’s worth of delectable eggs.

These eggs are a completely different product from what you get at a typical supermarket. They are also among the best you can find at farmers markets. Because not only has Rawley achieved his goal, he himself epitomizes the idiom: at Early Bird Farms I found a really good egg.

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Rawley Johnson at Early Bird Farm, photo by Scott Haydon

All photographs of Early Bird Farm by Scott Haydon

 

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About the Author

Dabbler. Dreamer. Deviled-egg schemer. Though Kris works in a campus career office, she has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up.



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