GRANBY — Few foods manage the double role of unassuming staple and symbolic superstar as well as the egg. Since ancient times, beginning with pagan spring rites, the fertile egg, with its looping, spherical shape, has represented the continuity of life, the cycles of death, and renewal.
Every spring the egg transitions from what’s for breakfast into a significant carrier of religious meaning. For Jews during Passover, a hard-cooked and roasted egg has come to represent one of the festival offerings made in the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem. It is placed on the Seder plate beside other ritual foods, representing sadness over the loss of the temple, but also hope that it will be rebuilt. For Christians, the egg’s long association with Easter appears to have established itself during the Middle Ages. Peasants offered them to the local priest in return for absolution necessary to take communion on the holy day.
During the rest of the year, the egg is simply something good to eat, a complete and highly portable protein source in a protective shell, waiting to be boiled, roasted, baked, steamed, poached, or fried. Not all eggs are alike, however. Most come from factory farms where, at worst, the chickens are confined to cages, or, at best, are allowed to walk about but kept indoors, with only limited outside access, perhaps without grass. Hens who forage on fresh pasture produce eggs that many think are superior in flavor, structure, and nutrition.
At Stony Brook Valley Farm here, chickens are not cooped up and eat what they find. “They like a diverse diet,” says Patrick Bensen, co-owner of the farm with Martin Anderton. “In fact, their ideal diet is like ours — some green or vegetable matter, protein, grains — except maybe a bit rotten.” As he says this, a chicken runs by with a large worm dangling from its beak. Several other chickens spy this plump morsel and take pursuit. The first chicken fumbles, drops the worm, and the booty is divided among the others.
Two weeks ago, Stony Brook’s hens were still in their winter quarters, a green-house-like structure bedded with hay and a large exterior yard, which had been reduced over the winter from pasture to mostly barren dirt. Soon, however, the chickens will move to verdant pasture, where they will be rotated about twice weekly to give them a continuously fresh supply of grasses, clover, grubs, bugs, worms, and other earthy delights.
The most striking difference between eggs laid by factory-farm chickens and those laid by chickens foraging on pasture is the color of the yolk. Eggs from Stony Brook have golden to deep-orange-colored yolks, an indication of the higher amounts of beta carotene in the chickens’ diet. Compared with a factory-farm egg, a pastured chicken egg tends to taste richer and have an “eggier” flavor and a creamier texture. A good analogy is the difference between a hothouse winter tomato, which is often hard and pale red, and a deep red tomato picked at the height of summer.
In this region, a truly pastured laying hen is a three-season proposition. To give chickens as diverse and healthy a diet as possible, most farmers augment a winter diet of grain with various supplements, such as kelp meal. Bensen is in the lucky position to have a symbiotic relationship with neighboring Red Fire Farm, which grows vegetables; a steady supply of root vegetables goes to Stony Brook throughout the winter.
To offer her chickens something fresh during the cold months, Missy Bahret of Old Friends Farm in Amherst grows mangels, a fodder variety of sugar beets that keep through the winter. At Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Julie Rawson grows fresh sprouted grains, a nutrient-dense, raw food that she feels makes for the highest quality eggs and increases her chickens’ productivity.
Like many farmers, Bensen came to farming because he wanted to eat good food and produce nutritious, golden-yolked eggs. “If you provide for [the chickens], give them a stress-free environment, and the opportunity to do their natural chicken things, like foraging for food and having dirt baths,” says Bensen, “in return, you get the highest quality eggs.”
On diversified farms, the hard-working hen, which lays an egg about every 25 hours, is also prized for the fertilizer it produces, for its ability to keep bugs down, and for its role in the health of the farm as a whole.
“We like the fertilizer,” says Katia Clemmer of Misty Brook Organic Farm in Barre. “They’re also good for the fields. They fit well with the whole mix of things we have going on.”
Farms with pastured laying hens are all over the state, some surprisingly close to Boston. At the 250-year-old Allandale Farm, on the Brookline-Jamaica Plain line, general manager John Lee is proud of the hens. “Frankly, these ladies lay spectacularly good eggs,” he says. Lee began the first flock about three years ago, in response to a growing consumer interest. It was also a way to make productive use of pasture land unsuited to vegetables.
The size of Massachusetts farms that sell pastured eggs varies, from Stony Brook’s 1,000 birds per 40 acres of pasture, to Herb Hill Micro-Dairy’s 10 hens and one rooster on one acre. For 30 years on her little Andover farm, Lucy McKain has kept the Dominique chicken, a heritage breed that was on the endangered list when she started farming, but is now on a watch list.
Farmers with larger flocks tend to opt for modern cross-breeds known for high productivity. Most concur, however, that heritage breeds are great for a home flock. They have different temperaments and come in all sizes and colors and lay eggs of different sizes with different colored shells, from white to deep chocolate brown to green, blue, and speckled.
‘If you provide for [the chickens] . . . you get the highest quality eggs.’
With chickens like these, who needs to dye eggs at Easter?
Clemmer says that if she had a backyard flock, and did not have to meet the demands of running a farm, she would have bantam chickens, which are a smaller breed, ideal for less space. “All of the bantam breeds are really a riot in terms of personality,” she says.
“Growing up in England, my husband’s family had a rooster named Charley, an Old English Game bantam, who would come in and prop his feet up by the fire with the family.”Holly Jennings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.