*This article also appeared in the Tennessean, here.
I have two hens clucking around my backyard at this very moment. When I tell people this, even my smartest, hippest friends, I get the funniest looks. “Chickens?!” they exclaim. “Why? For their meat? Aren’t your neighbors bothered by the rooster crowing?” I sigh. (Neither of these things are true – read on.) Hey – I’m not judging. Before we got these hens last fall, I had the same questions. But what really strikes me about these questions is how very disconnected we all are from the food we eat, myself included.
Case in point: I grew up in a small Ohio town, east of Columbus. The middle school I attended was near one of Ohio’s largest egg farms. When the weather was warm, the part of the bus ride past those chicken farms – long, one-story hen houses stretching out side by side for acres – was nearly unbearable because of the smell. We kids would try to hold our breath for as long as we could as we went by. And this was from a bus out on the street. I can’t imagine what it was like inside those buildings. Granted I was a kid, but not once did I connect that the eggs we bought at the grocery store likely came from a facility like that, and I imagine neither did our parents.
OK, let me step down from my soap box. In January 2012, a bill was passed in Nashville that allows up to six hens to reside at urban residences (with a few conditions), so my husband and I decided to try our hand at raising them.
We chose to get hens mostly because we wanted delicious eggs that come from healthy hens. It’s been so gratifying to harvest their eggs. They lay in late morning, so on weekends when I collect them often times they’re still warm! The chickens are also fun to watch, their poo fertilizes our garden, and they’ll help keep the grass down in the summer.
There’s much to be read about urban chicken farming, but I thought I’d answer some of the questions I get most often, here. I’ve already revealed we’re raising them for their eggs only.
1) Do you have a rooster?
Nope! Chickens will lay eggs all on their own. The eggs we all eat are unfertilized so they won’t hatch.
2) How many eggs do you get? During the warmer months we’ll get 3 to 4 a week from each hen. The hens will lay eggs in response to the available light, so in the summer when the days are longer they’re more productive, and in the winter they’re less. The most productive hens at their peak can lay nearly one a day.
3) What color are the eggs? We have two different breeds, a Buff Orpington named Dionne and a Rhode Island Red named Ruby. These two breeds lay light brown eggs. Different breeds produce different colors, from white and speckled to light blue and even green!
4) What do you feed them? We buy Windy Acres Farms Certified Organic layer grain chicken feed from the Green Wagon General Store in East Nashville. The feed is formulated with grains that have the protein and other nutrients that chickens who are laying need to produce eggs. They also dig around in the yard for bugs, grubs and various grasses, and we supplement all that with kitchen scraps like carrot peels or apple cores.
5) Do the eggs taste different? I think they taste more flavorful, in part due to their healthful and varied diet. Because they are free range, meaning they can roam the backyard when they’re not in their coop, they can eat green plants from the yard. That chlorophyll makes the yellows so yellow they’re almost orange – so different than grocery store eggs. Check out photographic evidence of this below.
Have I piqued your curiosity? For more information about coops, breeds, sourcing hens, and more, here are three great resources.
- Urban Chicken Advocates of Nashville (UCAN) website and active facebook page
- Backyard Chickens web site
- A Chicken in Every Yard, by Robert & Hannah Litt (hardcover)
Here’s a tasty recipe, perfect for showcasing your wonderful farm-fresh eggs!
Warm Black Eyed Pea Salad with Bacon & Egg
Yield: 2 servings (with leftovers
This warm salad is delicious for brunch, lunch or dinner! The black eyed peas/greens will serve more than two, just make a few extra eggs to stretch it.
1 lb frozen black eyed peas, or one can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
pinch of salt
four slices of bacon, sliced crosswise into quarter inch pieces
½ medium onion, chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bunch of kale, tough stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
2 eggs, preferably from an urban chicken farmer!
freshly ground black pepper
Cover frozen peas by one inch water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, 45 minutes, until tender. Add more water as necessary as it evaporates. Set half the cooked peas aside for another use. If using canned use the whole can.
Heat medium skillet over medium high heat. Once warm, cook bacon. Drain on paper towel-lined plate.
In same skillet, saute onion and red pepper flakes until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add kale and stir to coat leaves with bacon drippings. Add ½ cup water (or pea cooking water) and cover. Steam for 10 minutes, making sure water doesn’t all evaporate.
Meanwhile, cook eggs sunnyside up (or however) in separate skillet. Once kale is cooked, toss with black eyed peas. In a shallow bowl, plate kale/pea mixture, top with an egg and sprinkle with bacon.