Easter eggs in all their festively dyed glory beckon brightly this month. In fact, some varieties of chickens even lay lovely eggs, Easter-ready shades like pale blue-green.
But crack them open, and you’ll find their vibrant beauty is shell-deep, of course. As for their taste, eggs can vary widely in their flavor and nutritional content. That variation is prompting consumers to hunt for fresh, local eggs produced by happy hens.
“I was the person who would spend $7 a dozen at Whole Foods to get cage-free eggs,” says Melody Nye, co-owner of Melo Farms in Yale, Mich., an enterprise she founded with her husband, Lynn, in 2010. “Then I started learning what all this meant.”
“All this” is the often-bewildering array of terms stamped on egg cartons. For instance, some egg brands boast that their product is vegetarian-fed. Sounds good, right? Indeed, a vegetarian diet is a step up from the standard industrial diet that often includes waste from other chickens — but it’s still a far cry from the insects and grubs that a chicken allowed to roam free will favor. “Cage-free,” another misleading term, tends to induce pastoral images of hens living, well, free as a bird. In fact, cage-free hens typically live crammed into a henhouse.
Such distinctions have an impact on the chicken, of course, but also on the consumer. Chickens allowed to bob and strut around open farmland aren’t just happier, they’re healthier, and their eggs are higher in protein and fatty acids than their caged counterparts. Their eggs taste richer and cook better.
“We’ve all been lied to from a marketing perspective, and you don’t know the enormity of the subterfuge until you find out how a chicken lives,” Nye says. Melo Farms raises Brahma Lights, large egg-laying birds that meander their 40-acre farm freely, and sells the eggs at Detroit’s Eastern Market for $3 a dozen. “The best eggs in the world are from a chicken that’s just been allowed to be — not caged, not fed garbage, not [cruelty warning here] de-beaked.”
Garry Kuneman, owner of Natural Local Food Express, in Plymouth, says his customers increasingly request eggs from free-range hens. He carries two varieties, primarily from Schwartz Farm in Quincy, Mich., which also sells at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. The 120 dozen eggs Kuneman gets each Saturday usually sell out by mid-week.
“People want free-range eggs as much as possible, because it means they’re eating insects, and that puts more protein in the eggs,” he says. “And they like that they get exercise and get to peck.”
Dedication to fresh eggs is even prompting some consumers to take the leap and raise their own — and not just on rural farms. Several Michigan cities, including Oak Park and Ypsilanti, locally, allow backyard broods. Ferndale’s city council this winter responded to lobbying by residents and approved the private ownership of up to three hens in a city-approved coop. (Roosters, the alarm clocks of the species, are not allowed.)
“I think there’s a whole new awareness of our food — where it comes from, how it’s made and processed, and what’s in it,” Ferndale Mayor David Coulter says of the recent growing interest in urban chicken raising. “With this growing awareness is a whole new desire to eat locally. Good food has really gone mainstream.”
Detroit resident Suzanne Scoville raises a brace of nine ducks on her property and recently started a company, Laid in Detroit, to help others learn how to raise backyard chickens and ducks. She also sells her eggs to the Woodbridge Pub near Wayne State University. Scoville says people often get baby chicks and ducks as Easter gifts but don’t know how to take care of them and sometimes abandon them. But, she says, “Once you know what you’re doing, they’re easier than having a dog.
“For me, just about the coolest thing in the world is having an animal, and you provide for its health and its welfare, and in return it’s providing you food,” she says. “You’re completing this cycle of nurturing. We’re keeping each other alive.”
“If I had my druthers, I would tell people to move away from anything that’s from an industrial production standpoint,” she continues. “In fact, what I’d really like to sell you is your own egg-laying hens. I would just encourage people to have their own three legal chickens.”