Why? The answer is four-fold: safety, ethics, nutrition, and flavor. As long as the eggs I buy come from local, pastured hens whose diets are supplemented with high-quality, naturally grown feed, I feel like I’m getting value in all four categories.
1. Safety. Have you heard about that little egg recall going on? Although any egg, theoretically, can carry salmonella, only an infected flock produces infected eggs. So if your eggs are coming from a small flock of healthy, unstressed, well-cared-for birds, you are less likely to be exposed to disease.
2. Ethics. Most informed consumers these days know all about the cages used to raise hens, so I won’t go into the grim details here. You may think that when you buy eggs labeled “cage-free,” “free-range,” or “free-roaming” that you’ve gotten around this issue, but chances are, you haven’t. That’s because the USDA’s definition of “free range” only requires that chickens have “access” to the outdoors: a small door through which no chicken ever actually passes meets the rule. “Cage-free” has even less official meaning. In an effort to avoid confusion with these terms, most farmers who provide their birds with real access to the outdoors prefer the term “pastured.” If you’re buying from a local producer, just ask about the hens’ lifestyle. Pastured birds usually get daily outings to nibble on grass, chase bugs, scratch the dirt and generally live happy-chicken lives.
3. Nutrition. When you crack open an egg from a pastured hen, you can see the difference in its lifestyle: Instead of the pale yellow yolks we’ve grown accustomed to, these yolks are deep yellow or even orange. And the difference is more than aesthetic. Nutritional analyses of pastured eggs vs. supermarket eggs, conducted by Mother Earth News in 2007 and 2008, concluded that eggs from pastured hens have seven times more beta carotene, up to six times more Vitamin D, three times more Vitamin E, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, two-thirds more Vitamin A, one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat than typical factory-farm eggs.
4. Flavor. Scramble a caged-bird egg side by side with a pastured egg, and then taste them both. The pastured egg tastes richer and creamier. It’s prettier, too.
OK, so pastured eggs are superior, but what about the price? Bottom line: It costs money to give a chicken a better lifestyle than the 98 percent of egg-laying hens in the United States that are still crammed into battery cages.
Just ask Rebecca Williams. She and her husband, Ross, started Manyfold Farm in Chattahoochee Hills last year and got their first chicks in February. They spent money to build a movable, indoor-outdoor coop with electrified poultry netting around the perimeter. They spend money on the cartons, the labels, the dog that guards the birds. And they spend money on certified organic feed to supplement the girls’ grass-and-bug diet. At $6 a dozen, they don’t lose money.
Daniel Dover of Darby Farms in Good Hope currently keeps his eggs down to $4 a dozen, mostly by moving his flock of 180 laying hens to new pasture every few days, thus keeping his feed costs down. “They can get right around 60 to 75 percent of what they need from the pasture, but it’s all about the management,” he says. The rest of their calories and nutrition comes from a high-quality, certified naturally grown feed.
The Williams don’t expect to make a profit from their hens, but they’re OK with that. The birds still earn their keep. “Chickens are worth their weight in gold in terms of pasture improvement,” Rebecca Williams says. “It’s like fertilizer that pays for itself.”
While living in Bronxville, N.Y., Williams decided what a dozen pastured eggs were worth to her. “I would go down to the city to the green markets and buy my eight-dollar eggs and carry them home with me on the subway like precious cargo,” she says. “I think that the consumer is starting to be aware that there’s more to life than how much something costs. And if your concern is what it costs, then what else are you compromising on? I think it’s a good question to be aware of.”
Plus, they taste good, she notes. “That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? They’re a pleasure to cook with, and they’re a pleasure to eat.”
So, for just a few cents more per egg, you get added safety, nutrition and flavor, plus the warm, happy feeling that your sponsor hens are living comfortable lives. And a meal for less than $2 per person. What a deal!
– Daniel Dover of Darby Farms honors the “chickenness” of his hens by pasturing them with roosters. He sells eggs at the InTown, Snellville and Decatur farmers markets.