Last month, as I was writing about local dairy options in the North Country, I had this niggling thought that I was missing an important component. Today I remembered: eggs! Wait. Eggs aren’t dairy are they? Well, they are not a true dairy product (food produced as milk or from the milk of mammals), but they are an animal by-product and are thus lumped into that category.
I’m fairly passionate about eggs. On our small family farm, we raise our own; our hens feed on plenty of grass, seeds and other herbaceous material around the farm, plus insects and kitchen scraps. We supplement with some commercial feed. The coop is enclosed in a spacious fenced-in yard that’s half grassy, half forested, but our clever birds regularly escape and truly free-range around the farm. We are addicted to our fresh eggs, rich with flavor and yolks so deeply orange the hue is startling to the uninitiated. I am a firm believer in the benefits of consuming eggs from true free-range laying hens. Take note: commercial claims of “free-range” do not guarantee access to the natural smorgasbord listed above (although the hens likely have more space and your conscience can relax about the “humane” treatment).
Having long ago abandoned mass-produced supermarket eggs for homegrown, I pay little attention to the price. However, a colleague, who’s a terrific supporter of our farmers, was astonished to find local eggs priced at $4.25 per dozen while commercial eggs hover around $2.00 per dozen. Although she did eventually purchase them, she remained skeptical of the value.
Why are local eggs so expensive? Are they worth the extra money? I assert that they are more nutritious and delicious depending on what the hen is consuming. Brightly orange yolks indicate increased beneficial nutrients such as beta-carotene and xanthophylls like lutein. Various studies carried out in the past ten years confirm that true free-range laying hens produce eggs that have significantly higher quantities of nutrients we want (vitamins A, D, E, B12, folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene) and less of the stuff we don’t (cholesterol, saturated fat). The more pasture grazing (read: greens, bugs, seeds) the more healthful the eggs and the deeper the “egg flavor”.
Why are these eggs so expensive though? I mean, the food in the pasture is free, right? There are many costs that go into producing eggs: chicks, bedding, heat, waterers, fencing, and housing to name a few. It takes about six months for a hen to reach “laying age” during which time there are not any egg sales to offset costs. The largest cost, by far, is the feed. The grass and bugs are not supplying all of the calories needed to sustain the hens. Supplemental feed is necessary, and feed costs have more than doubled in the past decade alone. When the math is done, the small farmer cannot afford to charge much less than $3 per dozen just to break even. And that doesn’t include labor. For more insight on this topic read Josh Vaillancourt’s blog about “Small-farm egg-onomics” on their family farm in Saranac (wovenmeadows.com).
This pricing issue is a good lesson for any of us when we try to compare local market prices to supermarkets: small farms are not operating on economies of scale. Our local farmers desperately do not want to price themselves out of the market, but they are also trying to make a living. If we prefer that our local farms stay in business, we must be prepared to pay a bit more for the products they sell. Healthy, thriving farms enhance our communities, and help preserve the way of life we value here in the Adirondacks.
Laurie Davis is an Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the Coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Office phone number: 962-4810 x404. Email firstname.lastname@example.org