Happy Chickens, Healthy Eggs
The $6 box of eggs is one of those farmers market items that even the average market customer has been known balk at. Some people consider it a prime example of small farmers overcharging for the equivalent product from the local grocery store. What when you can get eggs on special for $2.25/dozen – even ones enticingly labeled cage-free and humanely treated. Why would anyone pay triple that amount for the “same” product?
But dig a little deeper and be prepared for what you will unearth. A chicken raised in a “conventional” large-scale operation will spend it’s short life in a high-rise tenement of wire cages with the living space only the size of a piece of 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Eggs labeled “cage-free” are a step up with a bit more room to move and a real nest to lay their eggs in. But it doesn’t guarantee what most would consider humane living conditions. Their beaks may still be trimmed or burned off to prevent them from pecking each other. “Free-range” in it’s true definition is much better, but the USDA allows companies to use the term free-range as long as their chickens have access to the outdoors, even if it’s a small door leading into a dirt yard that they may or may not use.
In the face of these misleading terms, it’s hard to be a responsible consumer. In this economy, it’s hard to be a responsible consumer. But do a web search for images of large-scale commercial egg producers (if you have a strong stomach and there are no small children in the room) and the decision may be made easy. Even beyond the ethical issues of humane treatment, there are a host of health benefits to eating eggs from happy chickens. Remember the outbreak of salmonella in 2010? One of the companies shown to have been the source of the contamination has a flock of 15 million chickens and plead guilty to animal cruelty charges in June 2010. Even if you are buying your eggs from the refrigerated section of your grocery store, it’s worth the time investment to do a little research into the egg company to find out what kind of quality of life they offer to their flocks.
So $6/dozen? Yeah, I think so. It’s a bargain for all that it takes to raise a happy chicken. And I can say this with personal authority.
This spring, my husband and I decided to raise our own chickens so we could have our own happy eggs. We bought ourselves some coop plans on-line and dreamt of the day when warm, clean eggs would miraculously appear nestled in golden straw. But like any good home project, it always ends up costing more and taking longer than you thought. $400 in lumber, chickenwire, nails and assorted hardware. Another $100 in feeders, lamps and chicken supplies. The chickens themselves are a bargain at $5 each. But they also have to fatten up for the first 5 months and consume feed like a team of teenage football players. OK, yes the coop is bigger and more beefy than you need at a bare minimum. A friend of mine called our finished project the “Taj Ma-coop”. But the chickens are safe from predators and can put themselves to bed at night. And they serve as nightly entertainment, watching them “free-range” chasing each other around the yard, sitting on the dog, sunning themselves on the lawn.
When I do the math, the chickens will have to lay 100 dozen eggs (yes, 1,200 eggs) for me to break even at a $6/dozen price point. Even if I’m lucky and they are laying one egg a day, that will take more than a year. Chickens lay fewer eggs in the cold and production will slow down in the winter. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re happy we entered into this arrangement. And we love that our neighbors want to stop by to visit more often and experience a little urban farm life. But it has given me an appreciation for what it takes to make happy eggs.
So when you see eggs available for $4 or $5 or $6 at our market on Sunday, don’t hesitate to buy a dozen or two. It’s a bargain. Really. The chickens will thank you for it.