At a recent farmers market another purveyor of eggs regaled me with a story about a customer who refused to buy his eggs because he refused to guarantee her they were “free range”. The reason for his reluctance is simple; unless a chicken farmer is willing to submit to regular inspections and certifications (you should read that “willing to PAY FOR inspections”) we are discouraged from using labels such as “free range”, “cage free”, or “farm fresh”.
Knowing that we both raise flocks that are significantly healthier and more coddled than those laying the eggs you’ll find in supermarkets we chuckled at her insistence in the matter, but it reminded me that most consumers haven’t taken the time to learn what those labels mean, from a regulatory standpoint. So here’s a quick run down of what you’re asking for when you demand free-range eggs.
In order to make these claims, the egg producer should be able to show the following:
Birds are uncaged inside barns but MAY BE KEPT INDOORS all the time – no yard play required
Birds must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe
Suppliers must follow regulations for stocking density, perch numbers and nesting boxes
Birds must have access to an outdoor area for at least six hours each day (you know, like recess)
Each hen must have at least 2 square feet (TWO FEET!!!) of outdoor space. Not much room for social distancing!
The outdoor space doesn’t need to have any living vegetation (A mud pit, rock quarry, cement pad - all fine!)
No specific designation, but frankly fresh is fresh and nearly all producers are classified as a “farm”
If you don’t have chickens you might not realize that chickens are NOT vegetarians. Our chickens have been known to help us with our rodent problem, eradicate bugs in the garden, and they are ferocious about the protein rich food scraps we offer them on a regular basis (yes… our chickens like steak!).
Um, what?? You mean as opposed to plastic Easter eggs? Yes… yes our chicken eggs are “natural”
Except for “certified organic,” the U.S. government does not set definitions or requirements for egg carton labels, but producers may still be under scrutiny for using any labeling that suggests a certain lifestyle for their birds. Bear in mind, most commercial producers, out of logistical necessity, keep their laying hens in either a permanent stacked cage environment (multiple layers of cages staged above a “chute” that collects eggs as they lay) or in an open barn with access to nest areas.
Some producers remove parts of hens’ beaks in the first few days of life in an effort to reduce the amount that pecking that will happen when that many birds are housed together in confined spaces. Some starve their birds to force molting (loss of feathers) to manipulate the laying cycle. And virtually all commercial operations are supplied by hatcheries that kill male chicks shortly after hatching, since they don't lay eggs and aren't bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry.
We don’t have a problem with commercial eggs. We ate them for a lot of years and understand the logistics of a large scale ANYTHING farm. We just happen to be fortunate enough to have the space to raise our own hens, eat our own hens’ eggs, and control the space in which our chickens thrive.
So if you’re interested, here’s what you might expect a day to be like as a chicken at Toby Way Farm:
Wake up early because all three of the protective roosters in your flock are crowing long before sun up.
Rush the door when the chicken lady opens it because you can’t wait to see what bugs are hiding in the soft grass. Also because she probably has a bucket of cracked corn in her hand.
Spend the day running around the homestead, protected by the flock roosters and livestock guard dogs, scratching for food the way chickens are supposed to. Stop in at the coop once in a while for a quick bite of well stocked chicken grain, maybe lay an egg while there, and enjoy the afternoon under a shade tree.
Return to the coop about dusk with all your friends, settle in on a spacious roost bar, and know you’ll get to do it all again tomorrow.
Take the winter off from laying eggs. No one hangs artificial light or manipulates your hormones to coerce you to work when nature says you should be resting.
All of that might not make our chickens better than commercial chickens. It might not mean our eggs are tastier than their eggs. Maybe our chickens aren’t really happier than commercially raised laying hens.
Then again, it just might. We’ll let you be the judges.
See you at the market!
Tucker (pomeranian) is an author of marginal famou'nicity. Catch his Tucker Tuesday farm pupdates here and on the Toby Way Farm facebook page.