Field Notes

Coming to Terms with Eggs

What could be more basic and simple than hen eggs? In the world of factory farming, there is nothing simple or basic about the production and marketing of nature’s most perfect protein. Rather, it’s a swirl of verbal obfuscation. Which is why a glossary is so very handy.

Our list of egg-related words comes both from the great work done by Petaluma artist and activist Douglas Gayeton and his Lexicon of Sustainability project (from which we borrowed the featured image) and the guidelines set out by the sustainable food system and farmers’ market folks at San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA).

But really, even with all of the complicated marketing terms that have been applied to eggs, it’s simple to find fresh healthy eggs from free healthy hens if you buy from a farmer.

When you can’t do that, we suggest you look for the words “organic” and “pasture-raised” on the grocery store product.

Here’s what to look for — and look out for! — when buying eggs.

  • Cage-free: Hens live without cages in indoor facilities and do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. The amount of space per hen varies by producer. The term “barn-roaming” more accurately describes this principle.
  • Fertile: These eggs come from hens that live with roosters. Most are cage free.
  • Free-range (free-roaming): The term simply means the hens “have been allowed access to the outside,” but for an undetermined period of time. These hens may be, but generally are not, raised outdoors. These regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time the animal must be allowed access to this space.From a sustainability perspective, indoor free range egg facilities are a far cry from pasture-based operations, but the eggs have been shown to be safer for consumers than eggs from caged hens. In fact, 16 different studies have shown that eggs from caged chickens are much more likely to be carriers of salmonella.
  • Hormone-free: The use of hormones in laying hens was banned in the 1960s, but that meaningless designation is still used.
  • Naturally Raised: Livestock which was raised without the use of growth promotants, antibiotics, under these certified animals are allowed to have parasitic medicine, but not given food with animal byproducts to eat.
  • Organic: Hens are given only certified organic vegetarian feed without pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers or antibiotics. Hens have access to the outdoors. Organic chicken operations must be certified by designated agencies.
  • Pastured: Hens are raised outdoors on pasture, usually using movable enclosures (hens also have access to a coop for shelter and egg laying). This enables hens to eat a variety of natural foods, such as different grasses, seeds and insects. Some scientific evidence indicates that, because of this diet, eggs from pasture-raised hens have less cholesterol and fat, higher omega-3 fatty acids, and higher amounts of lutein, beta-carotene, and vitamins A & E.The term “pasture-raised” is not regulated; it is up to the producer to provide eaters with a certain level of transparency around their operation and up to the eater to ask questions. The term is sometimes used by farmers who wish to distinguish themselves from the industrialized “free-range” term.
  • Vegetarian: Eggs are produced by hens whose feed is free of animal by-products. Remember: happy chickens that are pastured eat their share of worms and other yummy things that live where their beaks roam!

Try our recipe for perfectly coddled eggs and learn to make vases out of the shells!

Grow Your Own

Tips for Raising Chickens

raising chickens

Raising a flock of backyard chickens results in the most rewarding of pets — especially if its members are the multi-colored heirloom hens favored by Franchesca Duval, head hen wrangler at Alchemist Farm.

Franchesca breeds rare heirloom chickens and sells fertile hatching eggs from her farm in Sebastopol. She’s also a modern-day backyard chicken evangelist, encouraging everyone who’s interested to start their own rainbow flock from chicks. Here are her tips to raise a healthy flock.

1: Select The Right Breeds

To pick the perfect breed for your needs, begin by identifying your goals. Do you want pets? Reliable egg producers? Chickens for meat? How about a designer flock of specialty egg layers? Do you have small children at home and want to breed for temperament?

Franchesca breaks down the best breeds for color, beauty, or dual-purpose uses on her website.

Hens are social animals, but if you’re limited for space, you can keep a healthy mini flock with as few as two birds. You can mix breeds in the same flock if you brood the hens together. All heritage breeds are better at foraging and live longer than industrial breeds. They will thrive on your kitchen scraps and by foraging the grub in your backyard.

2: Keep Your Chicks Happy

To raise chicks into thriving chickens, they need food, water, a heat source, and a safe container with bedding. The brooding site can be anywhere, just make sure it’s protected from predators and the elements.

Use a safely secured red bulb that is approved for poultry as their heat source. Feed chicks 20% protein feed until they are six weeks old. Chicks prefer mash, not pellets.

Franchesca recommends Hunt & Behrens in Petaluma for their house-milled livestock grain.

If you’re hatching fertile eggs, Franchesca suggests purchasing an inexpensive incubator that keeps the eggs warm and at the right level of humidity while simulating the rocking and rotating motion eggs would naturally get in a nest.

3: Set the Coop Up Correctly

Make sure you have a safe home ready for your chicks when they reach six weeks of age. At that point they’ll have swapped out their chick fluff for chicken feathers and will be ready to move into the coop.

There are several pre-made coops on the market that can save you time and money. Consider the costs before If you decide to buy or build a custom coop. Keep in mind these tips for a happy chicken home:

  • Make it predator-proof. Cover the coop and chicken run with aviary wire (which has smaller and tighter gauge than chicken wire), stapling the wire every ½ inch around. Bury the wire two feet under the perimeter. If the land doesn’t allow you to dig that deeply, you can place the wire six inches down and run it underground for two feet.
  • Make sure there is plenty of shaded area so the birds can regulate their body temperatures.
  • Give the hens a comfortable place to roost, choosing round roosting bars over square ones, which can hurt their feet.
  • Invest in a solar-sensitive auto coop door so you don’t have to be home every evening to close up the coop.
  • If you have the space to allow the birds access to pasture, you can use a portable fence. You also might want to trim their wings, a painless process that keeps them from flying too far from the coop.

Most of all, enjoy your ladies! Raising chickens is a happy domestic pursuit that results in fresh eggs and good company. We wouldn’t be without our flock.

Rainbow Eggs from Alchemist Farm

Eat Good Food

Coddled Eggs Recipe

Coddling is a gentle steaming method that yields a soft-cooked egg, similar to poaching. This coddled eggs recipe with fines herbes makes for a perfect addition to the Easter — and Passover — table.


Eat Good Food

Make Your Own Eggshell Vase

Making your own eggshell vase is to honor the close attention that spring inspires. After all, you’re breaking an egg without crushing its shell, saving the food it contains for later, and then filling its hollow with small and fragile blossoms. This is not summer’s hearty tromp.