The San Francisco Chronicle had an article a couple of weeks ago about pastured chickens, followed closely by this article in the NY Times questioning whether “cage free” as it’s practiced in chicken houses around the country is really any more humane than battery chicken.
I’ve been buying eggs for a couple of years from a local outfit called Willow Bend Eggs. They are the most astonishing eggs I’ve ever eaten. They’ve ruined me for all other eggs. They’re brown, and large, and the yolks are the deepest marigold color you’ve ever seen and they stand up all perky and beautiful. And they’re expensive — at least two-fiftly more a dozen than commercial eggs, and at least a dollar or dollar-and-a-half more than other local ranch eggs. But they’re worth it.
A few weeks ago, a small basket with a single-page flyer in it showed up at our local grocery store next to the eggs. It was about this time too that the egg cartons started stating that these eggs cost “9 food miles.” (The egg cartons that are so low-tech that all they say is “Willow Bend Eggs” in magic marker.) The flyer said that Willow Bend produce was registered organic in 1988, and that they grow potatoes, garlic, salad greens, locker lambs, and that have a small herd of Jersey cows.
I was intrigued, so when I saw these recent stories on eggs, I looked up the name on the bottom of the flyer and called. I didn’t hear back and I had nearly given up on talking to the person who raised my great eggs, when the phone rang on Sunday afternoon and it was Isabelle, calling back. She apologized for sounding out of breath, she was making honey.
We talked for nearly an hour. Isabelle’s primary concern is that we’re ruining the earth at an unsustainable clip. She was a little off balance because she’d gone shopping for clothes in Bozeman the day before with her twelve-year old son, who wanted a pair of new sneakers for school. This is a person who has been living off the grid for a long time, and the clamour of shopping had her nearly undone (to say nothing of the extravagent price of a pair of new sneakers). This is someone who is really living small, unlike me — she told me she did put in running water when she was about to have her last child, who is now five, so the midwife wouldn’t have to haul it … but that she’s still not convinced that it was a good idea.
I asked her what’s been going on lately — there isn’t an egg of hers to be found in town. She said that’s because she’s in between flocks (and because it’s been so hot). She’s got one flock that’s about layed out, and the new pullets aren’t big enough yet to be really laying. It’s one of the things that makes her eggs so good — she doesn’t overwork her chickens. She’s having a really hard time right now because with the ethanol boom, the price of chicken feed has gone through the roof — and because she’s in between flocks, she even had to buy a dozen commercial eggs the other day. “How’d that go for you?” I asked her, after telling her about the egg in California that nearly made me cry it was so bad. “Well,” she said. “I’d been feeling really bad about having to raise my prices, but I feel a little better about it now.”
The other thing she said that people don’t take into account when they’re looking at the price of her eggs is that the price of land has gone so high, that it’s getting more and more difficult for farmers and ranchers to stay on their land. Especially organic producers … it’s one thing to be organic, but harder when someone builds a McMansion next door to you, and starts spraying herbicides and pesticides that can’t help but drift across on the breeze.
All I know is that I’m happy to pay a fair price for a dozen eggs raised by chickens that are truly free — chickens that are let out every morning to go mess around in the creek, or head into the barn to scavenge for grain dropped by the cows, or to sit in the middle of the yard and take dust baths. (I’d get you a picture, but Willow Bend farm is up that road where my brother died in the wreck, and I just can’t go up there). I’m also happy to pay a fair price to keep a farmer on that land instead of a ranchette, or a McMansion, or some rich person from someplace else who is going to fence the whole thing off and not allow hunting out of some sentimental sense that they’re “protecting” the “wilderness”. I liked Isabelle. I like knowing that I buy my eggs from a real person, and that I’m helping her support her kids and her chickens and her cows and her pigs. In fact, I might buy half a pig from her next year, especially if, as we discussed this afternoon, she’ll take all those apples that fall off my trees and feed them to the pigs.