Dear Dot: How, eggs-actly, can I support happy hens?

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Dear Dot,

What is the difference between pasture-raised hens (and therefore eggs), cage-free, or free-run? I want eggs only from the happiest of hens.

Rona

West Tisbury

Dear Rona,

Oh, my hen-loving friend … your innocent question has opened up a can of mealworms that has, no yolk, seriously ruffled my feathers. It would seem that the $6.1 billion U.S. egg industry has more than its share of rotten ova. Egg producers have taken carton blanche to mislead us with labels, and making sense of the various egg classifications is enough to scramble our brains. But let’s crack this open. I hope my response meets your eggs-pectations.

Both cage-free and free-range are USDA-certified terms that may conjure up images of chickens strutting blissfully around a farmyard but that, under closer scrutiny, are actually fairly meaningless. While cage-free is what it says — uncaged chickens — there’s a pecking order among poultry that means less aggressive birds are often cowed by the bullies, and denied access to move about. Free-range means only that there’s a door to the outside, and a farmer may or may not open it at some point. 

Which isn’t to say that some cage-free and/or free-range-designated birds aren’t strutting about like feathered royalty. It’s just that, without more information, you can’t be sure.

Pasture-raised is a step up in poultry parlance, because, as cookbook author and Edible Vineyard editor Tina Miller says, “chickens are insectivores, so being outside eating grass and bugs is what you want.” If you want happy hens, she says, look no further than Grey Barn.

Indeed, Grey Barn’s site tells us that all 500 of their laying hens have access to the farm’s organic pastures and woodlands every day of the year. They earn their freedom by acting as pest control — devouring ticks, flies, and insects. During the summer, they are rotated after the cows through pastures so their tiny little chicken feet can better work the cow’s manure into the soil (see “What’s So Bad About … Carbon?” on page 23 to learn more about just how valuable this, ahem, step is in regenerative farming). 

Julie Scott, executive director and farm manager for Slough Farm on Edgartown’s Great Pond, has long been exasperated by marketing claims by egg manufacturers. It’s not enough to take the claims at face value, she says. Instead, go to companies’ actual websites (like I did with Grey Barn). Or, better still, find local honest farmers staking their reputations on their claims. 

Peckishly, Dot

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