While perusing seed catalogs, I also can’t keep my mind off of chicks.
You know, the cute, fuzzy, chirping ones that will help secure my household’s future egg supply eventually. Going into my third season raising backyard hens, I can’t help but grin from ear to ear thinking about these amazingly instinctual critters that will become such an integral part of my landscape.
So what is all the squawking regarding urban hens really about? From experience, I can tell you that there is no taste comparison between eggs from a local farm or your backyard versus eggs from the store. Even if you are purchasing ‘free range,’ ‘vegetarian’ fed eggs from the store, don’t be fooled.
While the egg cartons from the store profess a good, healthy life for their hens, the truth is that we don’t really know. One reason that I decided to get hens is that I don’t eat meat but I love eggs. If I was going to eat an egg a day, I might as well really know where that egg was coming from and how those hens were treated.
The USDA publishes definitions of the various terms used to describe the conditions in which hens are raised, which are published in their ‘Trade Descriptions’ for poultry. However, there is very little regulation and a lot of wiggle room in implementing the ‘descriptions’.
Here’s the thing. First of all, chickens are not vegetarian. That’s right, they eat bugs, worms, grubs, lizards and I’ve seen a flock flurry over a mouse. Like us, they need a varied diet and not necessarily just one that we impose on them as their only option. In a largely unregulated industry, the ‘vegetarian’ label may only make us feel better about our purchasing options because we deduce that the chickens were not fed ground up animal parts, perhaps from other chickens.
Secondly, we don’t really know what cage free or free range really means. A chicken can still be considered cage free while living in poor conditions where the chicken is not able to express, as Joel Salatin puts it, “the chickeness of being a chicken.” You know, scratching, chasing bugs, attempting to fly. Cage free simply means they are not in a cage, and it likely doesn’t have access to the outdoors. Their beaks may still be cut when they are young, with only one square foot per bird provided in a large henhouse.
Free-range chickens are supposed to have ‘access to the outdoors ’. But, there are numerous accounts where the door to the ‘outdoors’ is so small only one chicken can fit at a time, the ’outdoors’ is really a small cement slab, or the chickens are kept indoors most of their lives before having any access to any sort of fresh air shortly before their death.
Furthermore, if your eggs are organic, that simply means the hens are fed organic feed free of conventional fertilizers and pesticides. While this supports much needed organic agriculture, it says nothing about the environment in which the chickens are raised.
If keeping chickens isn’t an option for you, consider seeking more local sources. While eggs from your farmer’s market or neighbor down the street may be more expensive, you will have the peace of mind knowing how the chickens that work so hard to provide you with eggs are raised. You can also consider doing trade or eating fewer eggs overall. I can assure you that eggs from happy hens are healthier (reports show lower cholesterol, among other benefits), taste better and are heartier. Like me, you may find that one egg from a happy healthy hen is just as satisfying as two eggs from other sources,.
If your only option is eggs from the grocery, don’t fret. The Cornicopia Institute provides a guide to help us make more informed decisions about how the hens laying your eggs were raised:
edited by Greg Eckard
Laura Ruby is an avid foodie enthusiast, sniffing out fresh, local and yummy food wherever she goes. She worked as the Garden Coordinator for the Growe Foundation for the past three and a half years installing gardens and teaching garden curriculum at Boulder Valley elementary schools. She is also the founder and owner of YummyYards, an edible landscaping company, working to co-create more functioning, self-sufficient landscapes, and is a co-facilitator and teacher at the Lyons Permaculture Design Course at the Farmette. When not teaching about growing food, you can usually find her in a garden somewhere.