Three summers ago I adopted Henrietta, a laying hen with a bum leg. A friend across town had two dozen birds, and Henrietta's leg injury put her way down in her flock's pecking order. Her feathers were mostly gone, the roosters were taking advantage of her, and she was having a hard time getting to her food. If I didn't take her in, my friend told me, the bird would be soup by nightfall. So I, along with the other people at Better Farm, adopted the bird. She lived several days in a cat carrier inside the house while we constructed a makeshift coop, bonding with the people and dogs of the house and beginning the long process of growing back her feathers and stamina.
So began the illustrious history of Better Farm's backyard chickens.
Henrietta was an Ameraucana who laid beautiful, pale turquoise eggs every day, then every other day, then sporadically, as she eased into adult life. Without any roosters around, those eggs went unfertilized and found themselves served up as breakfast to the Better Farm crew that took such good care of Henrietta. Interns in 2011 worried Henrietta was lonely; so in came Sissy and Scarlet to keep company. More eggs ensued. The following year saw a bunch more birds: three more Ameraucanas (Bernadette, Delores, and Destiny's Child), nine bard rocks (Kiwi, Big Mama, Scooter, and six others we're still trying to tell apart), and 19 spent hens from a local egg factory (all called Rapunzel).
I've participated in the egg debate ever since becoming vegan 11 years ago; a full decade after I opted for an octo-lavo, vegetarian diet. My reasons for going all the way had to do with no longer being able to separate dairy and eggs from the meat industry (pregnant, milk-producing cows produce calves, some of which will end up as veal; and "spent hens" are turned from egg-layers in horrifically cramped conditions to dog food or Campbell's soup—not to mention the utter disregard for male chicks born in a laying hen's world).
As a vegan, I'm hard-pressed to take issue with the egg production at Better Farm. It seems more a passive demonstration of healthy, happy hens — many of which were rescued from undesirable conditions. We give the birds plenty of space to run, lots of delicious food to eat, fresh bedding and cozy housing, and more TLC than probably any birds you're likely to meet.
So, what about those eggs? If you're into eating them, no egg compares to the free-range, backyard egg variety. From appearance to health benefits, not enough can be said for raising your own free-range chickens, and keeping the ladies good and happy so they provide you with top-quality eggs.
The Numbers First
Backyard eggs have approximately 25 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta carotene, and as much as 20 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as do factory farmed eggs. Oh — and for everyone who's ever said eggs are riddled with cholesterol — backyard eggs contain only about half as much cholesterol as factory farmed eggs.
Factory Farmed Eggs
The vast majority of grocery store eggs are produced by factory farmed hens. Standard procedure is to keep five to ten hens in battery cages approximately eighteen by twenty inches. (Chickens have a wingspan of about thirty inches, by the way.) In other terms, this would be like stuffing 25 chickens into a shopping cart. The cages are kept by the hundreds in large buildings where dirt and feces pile up fast. Some farms clean these buildings as infrequently as once per year or less. If you've ever been in or anywhere near one of these farms, you probably know the smell does not increase the appetite, for eggs or anything else.
With this in mind, you won't be surprised to learn that E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter are found in many of the hens themselves — as well as in a significant percentage of the eggs that reach supermarket shelves. Factory farmed hens are fed a diet of processed chicken feed, based on grains (mostly corn and soy) and protein sources (meat, bone and fish meal). This feed itself is shockingly low in certain vitamins and omega-3's, and high in cholesterol. Put two and two together and you can see why the eggs from supermarkets aren't very good for you.
Chickens are unbelievably social creatures, with complete vocabularies of sounds and signals for one another. They can announce food, warn each other of danger, call their friends over and much, much more. They're the namesake for “pecking orders,” have bonds with certain members of the flock and actually have a fairly discerning palate. Backyard chickens, if given the option, will eat vast amounts of green vegetation (high in beta carotene and omega-3's and low in cholesterol), bugs and tons of grains. Their eggs are a byproduct of this nutrition.
Seeing (and Tasting) is Believing
Crack open a store-bought egg, then crack open an egg from the local farmers' market (or your own backyard). The egg from the store will feature a thin shell, pale yolk that breaks easily and watery white. The flavor will be bland, the texture slippery.
A backyard bird's egg will boast thick shells, firm whites and an unbelievably bright yolk (often bright orange, representing all the beta carotene inside). The flavor will be much stronger, and you'll feel energized after your meal, not weighed down.