Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Truth about "Free Range" Eggs

I took my usual walk to the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sunday and was surprised to see that the West Virginia farm family from whom we buy eggs had dropped the price of a dozen 75 cents to $4.

"A sign of the times?" I asked the farm wife. I thought perhaps demand had fallen off because of the recession, nudging the price lower. She shook her head.

"Something like that," she said. "It really has to do more with the price of feed."

I just assumed she meant organic feed. Aren't all "free range" hens raised on organic feed? But again she shook her head. "Oh, these birds are all raised naturally out in our fields," she exclaimed. "No growth hormones. No antibiotics. But we don't use organic feed. Oh, no. The price would be way up here," and she raised her hand over her head to indicate a very tall price.

"So you just use the ordinary feed you get at the feed store?" I said.

"Yep," she said. "Just what they sell us at the local feed store."

I pondered that as I walked to the other end of the market, oggling the sweet potatoes and parsnips along the way. A little something about my understanding of natural farming had suddenly been cast in doubt. I wasn't sure what to make of it.

I came to the EcoFriendly food stall. EcoFriendly was an original partner with the famous Virginia grass farmer, Joel Salatin, and sells pasture-raised meats to the most exclusive restaurants in Washington. In fact, you could call EcoFriendly a darling of the hip chef set. They are now moving product into New York City. They drive a long way to showcase their beef, pork, lamb and chicken to the upscale crowd at Dupont Circle.

On the table next to a cooler full of chicken parts were displayed many dozens of eggs. They looked identical to the eggs from West Virginia, except they were in spanking new cellulose cartons with no store labels, not the recycled Styrofoam cartons so many egg farmers use. The price: $5.30 a dozen.

"Do you use organic feed?" I asked, seeking to find out why these eggs were so much more expensive than the ones I had just bought. The sales clerk looked stumped. She turned to one of her cohorts for an assist. "Do these chickens get organic feed?" she shouted over the din.

"The chickens are all raised naturally. No growth hormones. No antibiotics," the other clerk said, turning to look at me.

"Yes, but is the feed organic?" I pressed. "Because your eggs are $1.30 more a dozen than the eggs at the other end of the market. It seems the price of feed has dropped."

"Yes," he said. "It was a lot higher before, with all the ethanol...."

"So is your feed organic?" I asked again.

He looked at me hard. I thought I detected a little nod, meaning yes. But he didn't seem very sure. We locked eyes for a moment, but he added nothing more. I walked on.

Hmmmm. Price dropping on eggs from West Virginia because of a drop in cost of non-organic feed. Eggs much more expensive at swank meat emporium, feed undetermined. I was confused, but knew I had something new to consider in my egg shopping. Not only did I want my eggs coming from chickens raised naturally in the great outdoors, I wanted to feel comfortable about the way they were being fed. What's more important, being "free range" or eating organic feed? Did it matter?

I posed the question to our farmer friend Leigh Haughter who grows organic produce for 500 CSA subscribers on his farm in The Plains, Virginia. Leigh also raises chickens and sells egg shares. As he explained, it's very difficult to make a profit selling eggs. He doesn't use "organic" feed either. Not just because it's more expensive. It's not readily available in his area.

"I don't see how anyone really makes money out of eggs unless they are growing their own feed," Leigh said. " Which means having the land to raise the corn and other inputs into the feed. Chicken feed is where the profit is made."

He added that "free range" also is open to interpretation. His chickens don't actually roam around the farm. They're confined to a "tractor," or a pen built on wheels or a sled. The pen is typically surrounded with electrified fencing so the chickens have an area they can explore, pecking at the ground for insects and grass and grit. It's that outdoor foraging that raises the level of valuable omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs and gives the yolks a distinctively rich, orange color.

"Now a real organic, pastured chicken operation is costly in that first you are going to have to raise your own organic feed, and secondly you are going to have a lot of pasture," Leigh continued. "Chickens destroy pasture quickly, and if you aren't constantly moving them, they will turn wherever they are living into a bare, manure laden barnyard."

As it turns out, chicken feed typically is made locally from whatever grains are at hand--corn, soybeans, flax--and possibly rendered proteins from area slaughterhouses. Even other chickens, since chickens are omnivorous and don't think twice about eating their own kind.

So the question is more complicated than just feeding yourself from the local farmers market. It may be about supporting a local farmer, whether or not he is organically pure. But to do that you need to know more about the farmer. You need to ask a lot of questions. And you need to know what to make of the answers.

Being a locavore isn't always easy.

Note: We later contacted EcoFriendly foods and were told they don't advertise their eggs as "organic" and can't be sure what the chickens are fed because they come from "multiple producers" who are not required to use organic feed. You'll just have to guess why their eggs cost $1.30 more a dozen than the ones from a family farm in West Virginia.


Julia said...

Vexing problem. I'm less concerned about organic than I am about all-natural and free-roaming. In some ways, this reminds me of the debate between local produce and organic from CA. Nine times out of ten, I'd opt for the local option. Organic doesn't always mean better.

hoperu said...

I feel very luck that my CSA/co-op sells pastured eggs for $3.50/dozen, and that I know the farmer. I too am more concerned with the all-natural and tractor-free-range. I'd rather my chickens get to live like chickens, even if the feed isn't 100% organic, than that they are stuck in a cage without room to move. The quality of the life our farm animals have is very important. I am not vegetarian, by choice, but when it comes to the meat I do eat, I am very careful to do my homework.

Pat Whetham said...

Comments about wanting "all natural" even if not "organic" show that you need to do a bit more research and education. Purchased feed will without doubt include grains that are genetically modified - not even remotely "all natural". Other ingredients may also be less than natural. If you really want to know what goes into producing even pastured poultry products, you need to see the feed and read the tags on it.
Certainly those of us in the Midwest have a better chance of getting real organic pastured eggs because their is an abundance of organic grain in the region.

Elizabeth said...

I too am lucky - my organic grocery delivery service offers eggs that are not only local, but also both pasture raised and organic. The farm maintains organic pastures where the hens are allowed to live outdoors, and feeds the hens 100% organic feed.

I sought out these eggs, and I pay a little extra for them, but it's worth it. As always it is important to be mindful in all your food choices.

Becky said...

It's important to consider, too, that chickens that truly do spend most of their day "free ranging" and eating off the land will subsequently consume LESS packaged feed, organic or not. Therefore, your pastured hens will have a lower proportion of whatever "nasties" may be in their feed, than those with less room to roam.

When we raised about 30 hens years ago, they had the entire farm to wander, all day. As a result, our feed costs were lower than those who kept their hens confined to an over-used yard or in total confinement.

justcorbly said...

Anyone know of any succesful commercial farms devoted exclusively to eggs and on which the chickens have the freedom to range anywhere?

It's one thing for a farmer to raise a few dozen chickens in a chicken coop for familiy consumption. It's probably another trying to earn a living with hundreds or thousands of chickens roaming at will.

Ed Bruske said...

Julie, I'm with you. I never gave that much thought to the animal feed before. I was more concerned that the chickens were able to roam and pick up the omega-3's.

Hoperu, we used to get our eggs from our farmer friend Brett, who usually included a dozen in his winter CSA box. We'd visited the farm numerous times and had complete confidence in the way Brett treated his chickens. I even helped him lug a 100-pound bag of Amish-made feed around one morning, so I knew he was paying attention to details, even though I never asked if the Amish were selling him organic feed.

Pat, you're right. We need to be careful about the terminology we use. But notice I didn't say "all natural," nor did I put any quotes around it indicating that I was referring to a specific USDA standard or anything like that. I was using the term in the common sense of the word. But your point is taken.

Elizabeth, good for you on finding local "free range" chickens raised on "organic" feed. I suppose it just depends on where you live and which farm products you have ready access to.

Becky, I was reasoning exactly as you described. I even thought that might be more of an issue in winter, when there's less wildlife for the chickens to find outdoors. But I think the "more ranging equals less feed" only applies to chickens who really are free to wander around the entire farm all day. Otherwise, the chicken raisers I talked to all said their chickens get most of their food from the commercial feed, even when they are fed kitchen scraps.

Fresh and Feisty said...

Great discussion. I just read an article on this topic: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2009/02/spoiled-organic-and-local-so-2008
I work for a state department of agriculture and struggle with these ideas a lot. I think perhaps knowledge of the practices rather than just depending on a label is super important. Doesn't make our lives any easier. Guess it's just what you choose to focus on.

Anonymous said...

Good discussion. I agree with Julie that I'd rather have the chickens being treated "humanely" than having cooped chickens force fed organic feed. I debate this endlessly with myself - organic apples vs. local? Mexican organic zucchini vs. local? The carbon cost of shipping high-volumes can be cheaper than local farmers trucking in food (great Economist article on this), and net net, I would rather go with the organics if carbon consumption is lower. I believe that using my dollar to encourage corporations in their green behavior is imnportant - we'll never get away from food corporations, they're efficient and might as well have them be more environmentally responsible.

Ed Bruske said...

FF, thanks for the link. It looks like this comes down to a lot of individual decisions. Many of the farmers I know have decided not to be certified organic and usually for good reasons. One farmer is in a predicament very similar to the one described in the Mother Jones article. He runs a huge organic CSA, but he's almost convinced himself he'd be better off going to a kind of no-till farming and use and herbicide to kill the weeds instead of pulling weeds and cultivating.

6p, I don't think we've heard the last of which method has the best carbon footprint--or the local vs. organic debate. It's like counting the number angels on the head of a pin. It makes my head hurt.

Greg W said...

More and more, ‘organic’ seems to be another buzz word used to sell product. Perhaps it's just my perception of what organic means.

I had no idea that free range chickens could be fed feed that isn’t organic. A very eye-opening post, thank-you.

Ed Bruske said...

Greg, that was exactly what puzzled me. Non-organic feed seemed to run counter to the idea of "free range." But there you go. It's not clear-cut at all.

De in D.C. said...

I read a great article about this from the Honest Meat blog a few weeks ago:

I belong to Leigh's CSA so eat his fabulous eggs during the growing season. However, during the winter I don't bother buying "free range" and "vegetarian" eggs from the regular grocery store; those eggs are really no different than the other mass-produced eggs you'll get there aside from being 50% more expensive.

It's funny though... even with Leigh's eggs, you can tell a difference between the beginning and end of the growing season. During March/April when he's prepping the fields and moving the chickens around, they're eating all the winter cover crops and all the bugs they can find. Those really are the best eggs on earth. By the end of the summer, after the chicken trailer has been parked in one spot for a few months, most of the vegetation in the pen is gone and the insects have all been dug up. They're still getting greens from yard and kitchen scraps, but the yolks aren't quite as orange as they were in the spring and the taste isn't quite as sweet. It's subtle, and still much better than commercial eggs, but you can tell a difference.

Pattie Baker said...

Ed: What about the fact that organic farms can use chicken litter from non-organic factory farms on their crops?

Ed Bruske said...

De, thanks for the link. I'm sure there are seasonal effects on the quality of "pastured" eggs. It makes sense that the chickens would be finding different things in the fields at different times of the year. But "months" sounds a little long for the chicken tractor to be parked in any one place. From all the farms I've visited and farmers I've talked to, my impression is that the chickens are moved every few days.

Pattie, by "chicken litter" do you mean the manure and bedding from the hen house? I'm not familiar with this specific aspect of the "organic" regs.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Some chicken breeds are better foragers than other. Some breeds were developed to be tames and wait for food: those will require feed even if being pastured. The breed that are well adapted to foaging will, on the other hands, be more economical eaters. The typical commercial Leghorn will consume a lot more of feed even if pastured than a Dominique, for example.c

Don't even get me started on "free-range": legally it means "having access to the outdoor". So... 10,000 chickens crammed in a barn with a tiny little door on the side that would let them go outside to a concreted yard are technically "free-range". But since food and water are inside, the birds were raised inside and the yard is concreted (so they can't scratch the soil anyway), why would they try to squeeze through that little door?

sigh... there is "truth in labeling" and then there is "TRUTH in labeling."

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, great detail on the different chicken breeds. Very much appreciated. Of course, "free range" is loaded with hazards and apt to be misused. I think the class of chickens we're really talking about here is "pastured," but is that term part of the official lexicon, or just something we like to toss around?

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Ed, I don't believe "pastured" is a standard or legally defined term like "USDA organic" or "USDA free-range".

As noted in your post, some pastured chicken are truly free-range (rare) and some are penned in a (relatively) small area which get moved as often as everyday so they remain on fresh grass.

If one cannot buy from a farm one can inspect and.or trust, then the best is to look for (ahaha!) pastured free-range organic humanely raised chicken.

Chicken for eggs are my project for this year (so I did do a little research; last year's project was bees)

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, thanks so much for continuing to add good intel to the discussion. I hope you'll be posting plenty about your findings laying hens. My only regret is that we cannot legally raise chickens here in the District of Columbia,or I would be pumping you for a lot more info.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Not even as pets? two pets? (no rooster, obviously!)

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, no farm animals allowed in D.C., even as pets. Chickens are permitted in Takoma Park, Maryland, but they must be something a minimum 100 feet from the nearest neighbor, or something like that.

Christie said...

I'm new to eating organics and free range, so this post was incredibly helpful. Thank you!

Ed Bruske said...

Christie, it's a process. We're all learning as we go. Glad to hear this was helpful.

Carol said...

Understand that chickens are grazers as well so unless the pasture is certified organic, and the chickens really are out there eating the worms, bugs, grass, grit etc, they wouldn't be organic.

BTW its totally hilarious to see "vegetarian diet" eggs. That means those chickens HAVE to be in cages. There's a reason that there are never mice in chicken coops, you know.

ChickenNugget said...

I’m a little bit confused. What is so special with “organic feed”? I’m interested in selling free range eggs but unsure if it will be a good idea or a waste of time. With my chickens I feed them a big bowl of Purina sun fresh recipe and fresh water every morning when the rooster crows at about 6-7. The rest of the day they roam the mountains scratching and on the way back to the coop at night or late in the evening they stop by the coop and finish the food and then they all perch up inside the coop I built them. I collect their eggs throughout the morning as they take turns laying them and put them right in the fridge. They lay the best eggs I have ever seen in my life, are in great health, and I spend a lot of time taking care of them, they are actually more pets then poultry, and they don’t mind being picked up (Our RR rooster is the friendliest!) and held by the kids. I would say a lot of their diet consists of things they nibble on in the yard or dig up out in the woods. They free-range everyday all day. I had chickens a while back that I never closed the coop up at night they were free to cuddle up under the heatlamp in the winter and sleep up in the trees on a warm summer night but predators eventually got my best hens after about a year… so now I close the chicken door at night and open it up at the crack of dawn… The eggs a pretty big and range from a dark choc. Color to light brown. Could I sell these eggs? Or would people not be interested? Just wondering/hi-jacking your blog! Oops!

Ed Bruske said...

You're eggs sound great, ChickenNugget. As far as feed goes, I think it all depends how religious you are about staying "organic," meaning the feed hasn't been grown according to organic standards. Some people might care. Others obviously don't.