Part one was an introduction to what a good farmer does to produce good eggs. Part 2 provides a list of questions that you can take with you to help you talk with your farmer about how they care for their chickens.
There are No Perfect Farmers
First, let us start off by saying that this list is a ‘perfect’ list and we doubt that there are any farmers out there doing things PERFECTLY. In fact, even Joel Salatin uses soy in his chicken feed (but since they are pastured, the eggs will contain very little). There are a few questions on the list that are more important than others and we will STAR these with an asterisk*.
Secondly, do not be discouraged if you find out that your local farmer is doing things less than perfectly (or possibly wrong.) Be careful not to judge or belittle him/her. Use it as an opportunity to share your desire for a particular type of egg/chicken. Also be prepared to round up a few very vocal friends who want the same thing. Your farmer wants to work with you but we can tell you from personal experiences that even the best of farmers with the best intentions sometimes have to cut corners to feed their families. If the majority of people refuse to pay more than $4/dz for eggs in your area, then you are going to get the quality of a $4/dz egg. Which is still likely a good quality egg — it will probably be organic (without the label) and pastured. However, you may find that the chicken feed is not the highest quality (contains soy) and the chickens are not rotated on pasture as often as they should be.
Third, LISTEN. Listen not just for the right answer but listen for the tone, desire for the future, etc. Often, my farmers will want to share their desire to do something differently than how they are currently doing things. Listen and encourage. Then use this as an opportunity to engage in more questions in a conversation style (rather than an interrogation which can be intimidating for anyone).
These questions,’Questions to Ask Your Chicken Farmer’, are also made into a pdf for easy printing to take with you.
Questions to Ask Your Chicken Farmer
1) Are your chickens raised on pasture? If so, how long are they exposed to the sun?*
Sun is needed for eggs to have adequate Vitamin D. Eggs on pasture can be an egg-cellent source of Vitamin D if the chickens are exposed throughout the entire day!
Some farmers will tell you that it is hard to find the eggs if they aren’t confined. However, Joel Salatin has a model of farming in which he uses a hen house on wheels that moves as the hens are moved on pasture (more about why they are moved next). Hens naturally like to lay eggs in privacy so the hen house is desirable for the hens as well as the farmer for egg collection.
Some farmer’s might also tell you that predators make it difficult to keep chickens safe. But once again, with a little extra help from the farmer (this involves labor which adds to the cost of the eggs) temporary moveable fences can be built to keep the ‘ladies’ in and the predators out. Trained farm dogs are also useful for defending against predators.
If a farmer states that the hens have access to a door and the chicks can choose whether to leave the coop — you are not at the right farm!
2) How often are the chickens rotated to a different field?
This is a super important question because chicken manure is high in nitrogen. Nitrogen is a great fertilizer for gardens, but it is terrible for growing CLOVER which is a staple grass for the hens diet. For this reason, the hens NEED to be rotated. And it is best that they are rotated daily and after the cows (if they have cows) so as to find the good bugs hiding under the cow patties. That is a good thing… even though it sounds rather terrible.
3) What is the ratio of chickens to pasture?
Ideally, there should not be more than 500 hens per acre of land (according to Joel Salatin). This is to account for the rotation of birds to other pasture and give the ground a chance to recover. Once nitrogen is replenished, new clover and grasses can be grown for the ladies to eat once again.
4) Do you use antibiotics or growth enhancers (feed additives as such)?*
If the answer is yes — RUN – DO NOT PASS GO — DO NOT COLLECT . . . you catch my drift? Chickens raised on pasture are HEALTHY birds and do not need ANTIBIOTICS. Period.
And hormones are not legally allowed for use on poultry, but growth additives are. Be sure to be specific about this question. Synthetic growth additives in chicken feed can have an effect on human health. You then need to ask the following related question:
5) Do you know what ingredients are in your chicken feed? If so, what?*
I am surprised by how many farmers (good ones) don’t know what is in their chicken feed. Be prepared for this. Really encourage them to check into it for you. Often feed is a supplement for what the birds don’t get on pasture nutritionally. So what is in the feed is of little concern to the farmer if they know the feed is organic or ‘quality’. However, there could be undesirable (unhealthy) things in the feed — growth additives, denatured vitamins, meat by-products, manure, etc. Make them look into it for you and tell them it is for health concerns — because it IS! It is EXTREMELY important that there are no animal by-products (like chicken or cow parts) as these could have those nasty antibiotics and/or growth additives in the meat (as mentioned above). Besides, chickens are not naturally cannibals.
You also have to make a judgement call about what you believe is important about other ingredients the chickens are fed. I’ve already told you that I have a high intolerance for SOY. Whether it is organic or not, I cannot have much of it in my diet or I will have some severe problems further down the road.
Organic feed (or a feed mixture that the farmer has made himself) is always best unless you want to track down the feed manufacturer to find out how the feed was made. Try to find a farmer that has the ladies pastured with only a minimum of their nutrients from feed. That way, if there are any questionable products in the feed, they are minimal. Unfortunately, unless you live in a warmer climate, the winter months will be the worst for the pasture to feed ratio for most chickens. Egg yolks will tend to be somewhat paler than the spring, summer, and fall eggs. (But not pasty and anemic as most commercial grocery eggs).
6) Do you feed your chickens marigolds?*
If so, RUN! Marigolds offer no nutritional benefits to the chickens. They are fed to chickens to add color to the yolks. Some unscrupulous farmers have learned that savvy buyers are looking for deep orange yolks. If they are feeding their chickens marigolds, they are likely not producing their chickens/eggs the right way and are trying to cover up poor quality egg yolk color.
7) How much feed are your hens given?*
This is where you really have to LISTEN. Because the seasonal requirements for chickens and how much feed they receive will vary. You may want to do a comparison of other local farmers whose hens are pastured to get a sense of what is an acceptable amount for your locality. If all the other answers are acceptable go with the farmer with the least amount of feed given because this means that the chicks are getting most of their nutritional needs met on pasture.
8 ) Do your chickens keep their beaks?*
The obvious answer here should be YES! If not . . . you guessed it, RUN!
9) Can I see your animals or have a farm tour?*
Most farmers will take the time to show you around the farm. But you might have to wait for a time that is convenient for them. If they keep putting you off, I would find a farm that can make time for you to see the operation. One of the busiest farms in my area has made it a priority to have weekly farm tours. This helps their customers have confidence in what they do, yet it is a scheduled task that the farmers can plan for. Oh — and the customers pay a small fee to do so. I have no problem with that. I want them to keep taking care of my chicks and eggs as the priority.
10) TIP: Frame your questions in an open-ended manner.
Don’t lead the farmer into giving you the answer that you want to hear. Leave the questions open-ended and let the farmer tell you what he/she really does. Your farmer may already know what you want to hear, but maybe not. Just let them tell you without giving any hints. I have gotten my best clues this way. I often ‘play dumb’ especially with a farmer that I don’t already have a relationship with. This may sound manipulative, but I really want to hear whether this ‘new farmer’ is legitimate and honest or if they just want to sell me what they have. Just because they are ‘local’ does not mean they don’t have ties to ‘BIG AG’. Keep that in mind.
Also, it is probably not a good idea to print this off and give it to your farmer to answer, as I tell you eggsactly what answers to look for.
Next up? Our Egg-cellence Challenge
Part three will be our rules for the Egg-cellence Challenge! We will be challenging you to find a locally sourced egg using these questions. Find the HIGHEST quality you can find regardless of PRICE. You don’t have to purchase them yet, just do the research. However, you are NOT ALLOWED to source from grocery store eggs. Even if those eggs come from a local farm, you have NO IDEA how long they have been sitting on the shelf. More detailed rules to follow along with a SPECIAL GIVEAWAY for one of our Egg-cellence Challenge participants!
HINT: It is EGGsactly what you have been looking for!
This post links to: Real Food Wednesdays, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday, Sunday School, Monday Mania, Homestead Barnhop, Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Real Food Wednesday,