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.