[This post by my son Luke Vargas resumes the series where he left off writing about grass-fed beef at a farm in Wyoming]
What could be better in the morning than eggs? No matter how you like them, eggs are an inexpensive and tasty way to load up on healthy cholesterol and fatty acids. Eggs also contain Vitamin B12 , a crucial fuel vegans and non-ovo vegetarians give up (and can only supplement with Vitamin B12 analogues).
Here on the farm we collect eggs every evening before supper, and with 110 laying hens, we take in around 70 eggs daily. Caring for hens and reaping the rewards is a simple process, but there’s more to it than you may realize.
While nothing is inherently wrong with a perfectly-shaped and unblemished white egg like those you see in the cheapest of Walmart egg cartons (pictured below), there are lots of things to be aware of when buying eggs off the shelf. Let’s look a few of them.
The Egg Supply Chain
In 2010 over five-hundred million eggs were recalled by factory producers due to salmonella contamination. These eggs found their way to the shelves at Walmart, Costco, and grocers across fourteen states. One brand I feature below — Sparboe — was among those recalled.
For any television viewers out there, an advertising blitz by “Real California Dairy” asserts that 96% of California’s dairies are “family-owned.” This term has been touted recently by food producers under fire from food activists concerned with the commercialization of the food chain, as it gives the impression of a small, family-operated of local operation. Don’t be fooled by advertising; Sparboe Farms promotes itself as “family-owned since 1954” right on the packaging, yet their food empire (according to their website) encompasses “ seven processing plants supported by 33 accompanying layer and pullet production sites” across three states. Does that sound like your average mom and pop family farm?
Can we be comfortable with the egg supply chain when contamination at a small number of egg factories cause such a staggeringly large recall? As is the case with locally-produced milk, and locally-raised vegetables, were any health problems to pop up from our ranch's eggs, we could easily test our hens, individually contact our customers, and the small-scale of our operation would prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.
If our nation's food supply remained local, as it was until this past century, we could move beyond the kind of mega-outbreaks that are such a prominent feature of modern agribusiness.
So what’s the solution? (Read more about the violations levied against Wright County Eggs here.)
Pricing and the Egg Distribution Model
There are a number of pasture eggs available at farmers markets or small shops, but grocery stores nationwide have begun to offer products touting themselves as similar. While it is possible to “scale-up” a true pasture egg operation, it is reasonable to become skeptical of those brands with nationwide presence that purport to have such a product. Besides, organic farms that ship products to high-end grocers across much of continental US are really working against the local food movement by sending their products so far out of the community.
As far as quality goes, it is not smooth sailing once you start spending more. Let’s look at Horizon Organic’s $5.29 product, effectively the top of the line.
Since “free-range” is a government-regulated food labeling word, and Horizon does not meet this standard, they’ve created their own phrase — “Free-Roaming”— to trick consumers into buying a product they believe to be much better than it is in reality. Don’t get me wrong, the “organic” and “cage free” standards that Horizon meets are a step in the right direction, but their product is hardly worth the steep price. But in many ways, a free-range egg operation is not suited for a nationwide distribution model. There are breeds of hens suited for all climates, and there is no reason the eggs your family eats should come from more than fifty miles away.
The folks at United Poultry Concerns share my concern about large commercial “free-range” operations:
Birds raised for meat may be sold as “free-range” if they have government certified access to the outdoors. The door may be open for only five minutes and the farm still qualifies as “free-range.” Apart from the “open door,” no other criteria such as environmental quality, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in the term “free-range.” A government official said: “Places I’ve visited may have just a gravel yard with no alfalfa or other vegetation.”
Since chickens are omnivores, our hens eat whatever strikes their fancy as they wander around the ranch. Often this includes grubs and insects, healthy greens, and the occasional milk or slop we leave out for them. When they so desire, they snatch up the oat/wheat grain supplement we sprinkle along the driveway each morning.
Regardless of whether Walmart’s eggs are indeed “cage-free,” they are certainly not roaming around a grassy countryside like ours. Thus, they are most certainly not grass-fed or pasture-fed.
Then there is the issue of the “100% Vegetarian Fed” promise on labels of late. It is impossible to state definitively what a freely roaming animal will eat. The only environment in which such a claim could be made is in a closed environment, precisely what we don’t want for animals.
Seeing the barrage of advertisements promising such “healthy” practices make me want to cry out: “Why in God’s name are your chickens eating corn and soy of all things?!?” Could it be because these staples are among the most heavily subsidized foods in America, and because “soy” and “vegetarian” have such positive connotations within the food community?
Like I said, chickens are omnivores. They’ll eat bugs and grubs, seeds, breads and raw grains, fruits and vegetables; they’ll drink milk, and as a warning to anybody interested in raising chickens, they’ll eat eggs, too, so make sure they don’t get their appetites excited and realize your eggs are an ever present food source!
One question I was asked a number of times at the Gillette farmer’s market was why our cartons of eggs featured a variety of colors. One woman asked: “are these duck eggs?” As I mentioned above, white eggs aren’t necessarily bad, as certain hens produce only white eggs.
Pearly white eggs from Walmart!
Just as some customers appreciate the spectrum of egg colors of pasture-fed chickens, others think a green or off-white eggshell is a sign of something wrong. Because of this, certain chicken factories take steps to make sure all their eggs are the same color. To achieve this, bleach and other whiteners are used to erase any natural blemishes and to ensure an consistent looking product appears on the shelves.
The egg spectrum, from caged to pastured. (The egg brands featured are named further down the page)
Additionally, there is nothing wrong with a flock of chickens of a single breed that produce the same color eggs. However, on the ranch here you will find breeds such as theAmeraucana, Araucana, Rhode Island Red, Orpington, and others. The result is a selection of eggs we joke about as having an “Easter Egg” appearance, from red to green to blue and white.
One thing you’ll notice immediately when you make the switch from cheap eggs to our pasture eggs, or equivalent, is the size and shape of the yolk.
Before I arrived here, I believed the yolk would eventually turn into a baby chick if I kept it in a warm spot, or didn’t eat the eggs I’d purchased soon enough. There is no chance that could happen without keeping them warm enough and long enough to duplicate under-the hen conditions. If you have a fertilized egg, the baby chick will first appear as a black speck no larger than a poppy seed on the edge of the yolk.
Foolishly, many people avoid yolks citing their high levels of fat and cholesterol, when in fact the vitamins A, D, E and various other nutrients make them considerably more valuable nutritionally than the whites. This should make sense; since the embryo will grow from the yolk, it holds a sizeable quantity of all the things needed to develop into a healthy chick. By comparison, the egg white is merely a watery layer of protection for the yolk.
Below I’ve compared the inside of four different eggs: 1) from Sparboe Farms (purchased at Walmart for $1.64/dozen, 2) from Walmart's Great Value brand (purchased at Walmart for $2.24/dozen), 3) Land O Lakes brand (purchased at Walmart for $2.48/dozen), and 4) a pasture-fed egg collected here at the EZ Rocking Ranch.
The disappointing internal appearance and surprising acrobatic abilities of low-quality Walmart eggs
The results were substantial. The Sparboe and Great Value eggs immediately slid to the rim of the skillet after being cracked in the middle, and they smelled strongly of "egg," a scent that even I as an egg advocate find a tad nauseating. Notice how the white of the Sparboe egg is watery and separates from the yolk, while the Great Value egg raises its arm and surrenders to its higher quality competitors.
Meanwhile, the Land O Lakes (left) and pasture eggs (right) from the ranch performed much better. Both stayed in their spots on the skillet, had firmer, more richly developed yolks, and creamy whites.
Just like feedlot cattle, laying hens from America’s cheapest producers are treated as slave animals. If you really think you should be able to buy eggs for $1.64 a dozen, you’ll get what you pay for, and with your purchase, you are telling agribusiness that their exploitative model is tolerated by consumers. It shouldn’t be.
If you think you may have a fertilized egg, place it in a glass of water next to a store-bought egg. If the egg begins to lift off the bottom of the glass, stands on end or floats, toss the egg, as this is a sign of an old or almost-spoiled egg.
A stray egg found behind the wheelbarrow — a good candidate for the floating test!
You’ve probably heard pitches by politicians of late encouraging Americans to start vegetable gardens in their yards. If even 25% of American families did this, the food cycle would start to change—those individuals with certain skills such as plumbing or wiring could perform small jobs in exchange for produce. Expanding this model, owners of milk cows could trade their milk for eggs (as we do at the ranch), those with meat chickens could trade for fresh veggies and fruit, and soon everyone could be involved in the local food model, consuming quality goods, and getting to know their neighbors a little better.
A good first step for anyone with a few hundred square feet of backyard space is to raise your own laying hens. The website, Backyard Chickens provides comprehensive information and community tools to help get your chicken-raising project up and running. With just two or three chickens, a family can be provided upwards of a dozen eggs weekly. Hens also mow your lawn, fertilize the soil better than any chemical, and though they may not lick your leg coming back from work each evening, they are a delight for children and adults alike as a quasi-“pet” with unique personalities and habits.