By Mary Ellen Psaltis
It’s sunny side up these days for the news on eating eggs. Once a miracle food, then a reviled cholesterol nightmare, now the egg is taking its well deserved place on the nutrition shelf. This is good news if you enjoy eggs. And the news is even better if you enjoy chickens, because you can become an urban farmer and raise your own layers.
You don’t have to live out in the country or own acres of property to reap the benefits of fresh eggs. Ordinances vary by town and are subject to change, but, for example, if you live within the City of Olympia you may own up to three pets including chickens.
My neighbors began raising chickens as a family business. The idea was not to compete with anyone or to make millions, but to have a project the family did together. The three children are responsible for feeding and watering the chickens plus gathering the eggs. The eggs must then be properly washed and stored. The eggs are sold to neighbors and friends. My eggs were delivered right to my front door – a luxurious service! The nine-year old told me it was a ‘big responsibility’ to own chickens. My translation of this: it’s not always fun to perform a required daily chore even when there is financial gain, and that washing eggs is gross.
Their coop in the backyard has perches for roosting, areas for nesting, space for scratching and eating pellets as well as a ramp to the outside. The coop has the ability to be divided, either as a method to introduce new chickens or to add fryers to their mix. The coop gives full protection from predators like coyotes and hawks, as long as it’s shut tightly. Inside, a winter light adds a bit of heat and as well as lengthening the “daylight” during short winter days. This helps egg production, which slows naturally with fewer daylight hours.
The little flock likes to get out of the coop run around the pasture. The rooster acts as protector. Chickens that are allowed outside will feed on grubs, worms, bugs and other goodies they find in the ground. This increases the nutrition in the yolks, which are vivid yellow to orange. Chicken owners need to supplement the birds’ diet with pellets. Chickens also appreciate many scraps from the kitchen. Fruits, vegetables, greens and grains are all welcome. Apparently, birds have their own likes and dislikes, but there’s no need to throw your scraps into the landfill. You will need a separate container for the scrapes they won’t eat. This would include coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells, which can be collected and tossed into a compost pile or worm bin.
Breeds are plentiful. By doing your reading, you can learn about the heartiness, egg laying capabilities and traits to select the breed that suits you best. The names are great: Dorkings, Ameraucana, Jersey Giant, Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, Black, Buff and Blue Orpingtons, Silver Spangled Hamburg and White Leghorn. I am reminded of Fog Horn Leg Horn, who was a rooster, but I digress…
By raising your own chickens (or buying the eggs from someone you know) you can rest assured that these eggs came from birds who were allowed their natural behaviors such as outdoor scratching, taking dust baths, nesting and simply moving around. If you have ever wondered why prices of eggs vary from $1.99 (or less) to almost $5.00 per dozen, it is because it reflects the care and feeding of the hens.
Cheap eggs come from industrial complexes where hens live gruesome lives. It costs more to give them space and a more natural life. By taking a few moments to read the carton, you can successfully navigate the labels and have a clearer idea of what you are actually buying. Many of the terms on the carton are not regulated, which then plays into any assumptions you may bring with you. Advertising is a tricky business. Here are a few examples of words you can find on a carton of eggs:
Natural: I would hope so. When would you consider an egg ‘unnatural’? Natural means nothing. It gives you no information about the living conditions for the chickens nor does it give you any nutritional information.
Omega 3: Not a regulated term. The feed included some flaxseeds, fish oil or substance that increases the omega 3’s in their diet. How much of a benefit that gets to you is uncertain.
No antibiotics/No hormones: Sounds good, but also not regulated.
Vegetarian/Grain Fed: Maybe this appeals to you if you are a vegetarian yourself. It does mean that they were not fed animal by-products. Now take a moment to imagine a chicken in its optimum environment – a pasture full of grass with plenty of room to peck, fluff in the dust and scratch around. And yes, to eat worms, grubs, maggots and other little morsels of meat. Your chicken might enjoy supplemental grains, but she’s an omnivore at heart. And these days, you might want to know whose grain they were eating. If the chicken came from an industrial site, it was likely genetically modified corn. This may or may not concern you; it is another issue to consider.
United Egg Producers Certified: They have a nice looking website, but this does not guarantee cruelty-free or humane treatment.
Range Free: Also not regulated. The birds have some outside access but you don’t know how much or how long.
Certified Organic: Organic eggs must come from chickens that are not caged and have some access to the outdoors, even if limited. The hens are fed an organic vegetarian diet free of animal by-products, pesticides and genetically modified food as regulated by the USDA. This is a helpful term.
Animal Welfare Approved: Very high care standards labeling for family farms.
American Humane Certification: Beak cutting is not allowed but eggs may come from caged or confined hens. Caged hens have a very small living space said to be no larger than a legal-sized piece of paper.
Food Alliance Certification: Uncaged hens have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in natural behaviors. Beaks may be cut.
Local: not a regulated term. This was intended to mean the chickens were raised nearby, but it does not let you know how they were raised.
What can you do?
It’s probably hard to remember what each term means when you are actually standing in the store with a list of 50 other things to buy. If you are concerned about the welfare of the animals, buy the eggs that cost more. The more you spend, the better off for the chickens. You can find eggs that are raised nearby. Organic is a good choice. I like buying my neighbor’s eggs the most.
I believe that the quality of the food I eat is critical to my overall well-being. When it comes to eggs, the chicken’s lifestyle is important to me as well. Remember that every dollar you spend at the grocery store (or anywhere for that matter) is a vote. Know how you are voting.
Eat Well – Be Well.