To be certified organic, eggs must come from free range hens. This means outdoor access, no cages. In our case, our small flock has access to half an acre of green space to roam, plus a spacious coop where they roost, feed and lay their eggs. They also have a covered space outdoors and a dust bath (which helps with controlling parasites).
Our hens get a diet of certified organic grains, plus access to oyster shell to help their shell strength. They also get a large dose of greens from our vegetable production, including beet tops and extra lettuce, chard and kale that comes back from market. They also eat greens growing in their chicken run (various grasses and weeds) plus a healthy dose of insects and worms that they scrounge from the earth.
It is the access to greens and bugs that give our hens' eggs a rich, dark yolk -- due to the
presence of organic pigments called cartenoids, found in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants. But in case you're worried that the richer yolk is bad for you, here's some info from a 2007 study commissioned by Mother Earth News -- Truly free-range eggs had:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
Our chickens play an important roll in our overall farm operation. The manure we get from the birds is composted and then used to nourish the soil for our fruit and vegetable crops.
Finally, there's the issue of price. Simply put, it costs more to purchase organic feed and to maintain the space required for free range hens. Our farmers market cost of $5.50/dozen doesn't actually leave us with a very large profit margin at the end of the day. But we think the price (lower than most store-bought organic eggs, higher than conventional battery cage eggs) is worth it.