Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

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One Comment to “Christmas in the Chicken Coop”

  1. Good reading! Having been raised on a farm where we had about 600 chickens (a pittance by todays standards), I enjoyed reading your story. On the farm, ours were free range, when I went to college, the egg and poultry unit there had caged hens for egg production, about 5,000 of them. Chickens are so suceptible to disease, and it was so much easier to manage it with the caged chickens. They stayed healthier, produced more, and produced a better quality egg. I really never heard one complain. I just worked there while going to school, I didn’t manage the place. There certainly were a lot of advantages …. droppings were easier to clean up reducing disease problems, it was easier to see each indvidual hen to see if she stayed healthy as each cage was numbered, feed intake was better monitered, and if one was off their feed, it was noticed in a day, dust control (also for disease control) was easier and better managed, True, caged hens produced a paler yolk ….a result, I was told, of a lack of animal (bugs) protein in their diet, but also I wonder about lag time as well. Commercially produced eggs may have been laid 2 weeks or more before they actually get to the store for consumption, and I wonder if the cold storage might have a little to do with that. GMO feed ….. Since long before I was born, farmers were cross pollinating grains to produce a better suited grain for their area, therefore genetically modifying the grain from it’s original species, to better suit the farmers needs and growing area. Hybrid seeds have been used since before I was born to produce a healthier crop, and more production to feed a growing population who demand food. Hybrids are also genetically modified. Seed companies nowdays do the same thing farmers have been doing for centuries, they can just do it more effectively. Organic feed….. there is no standard to go by as far as determining what the word “organic” actually means. No one produces inorganic feed….. So anyway, my lengthy discourse here was just to say that there are always two sides to every story, and not to say mine’s right and yours is wrong, just that there is realistic reasoning on both sides of the discussion.

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