Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that age ol’ question. But Annie from The Chicks Next Door might. She raises heritage breed chickens known for the vibrant array of colored eggs. I reckon she might be the best person to answer that question.
Annie’s love for animals began in her childhood years in County Mayo, Ireland. Located in the West of Ireland, she spent the majority of her time at her family’s cottage surrounded by farmlands. This, in turn, developed her lifelong appreciation for animals, nature, and small local farms.
Fast forward to the present day. Annie finally had the opportunity to cultivate her own land in Red Hook in the bountiful Hudson Valley. With two children in tow, she raises a small flock of 90 chickens, including 25 rare breeds and heritage birds. The chickens she raises are as colorful and beautiful as the eggs they produce.
What else makes Annie’s eggs so special? It may be the time and thought that goes into the breed selection, wellness, and care of her birds. Or it could be her unique packaging, which encourages consumers to pause and realize that an egg isn’t just simply an egg. What lies behind the shell is much more than a humble ingredient. Eggs are a workhorse that are intermingled in almost every meal we eat. They’re in our breakfast, lunches, dinners, and desserts.
To make an omelet, you need to crack an egg. But what kind of egg? Let’s admit it. Buying eggs can be confusing and a bit misleading. Terms like caged, cage free, organic, free range, pasture raised, non GMO, and certified humane can befuddle even the most savvy shopper. There are endless choices in the dairy aisle. Farm2ChefsTable is going to unscramble the mystery of egg buying and explain why we recommend heritage breed eggs from local farmers like The Chicks Next Door over the myriad of eggs at the supermarket.
Ninety percent of eggs sold in the United States come from caged hens. The hens that lay caged eggs never go outside. They live in a one-square-foot space swarmed by thousands of other chickens. Caged hens are predominantly fed a diet of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn and soy. The goal of raising hens this way is to churn out as many eggs as possible, as cheaply as possible, for a quick profit. I’d recommend staying away from caged eggs as the taste, texture, and nutritional value is not good.
The next step up would be cage-free eggs. This is where things start to get tricky. The term ‘cage-free eggs’ is strictly a marketing ploy to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Cage-free hens live similarly to caged hens, sans the cage. They have less than one square foot to roam, they never go outside, and they eat a diet of GMO soy and corn.
Next up is free-range eggs. The hens that lay free-range eggs have access to the outdoors. However, they rarely venture outside because chickens love to huddle together for body heat and corporate farmers never really encourage them to leave the comfort of the barn.
‘Organic eggs’ is also a misleading marketing term. They typically eat a vegetarian diet. However, chickens are naturally designed to eat bugs, grass, and worms, not vegetarian feed and grains.
This brings us to pasture-raised eggs, the type Farm2Chefstable recommends most often. We especially love eggs from heritage breed chickens like the ones from The Chicks Next Door. These chickens have more than 108 square feet to roam compared to the one square foot available to caged and cage-free birds. From early morning to late night, they’re outside foraging for bugs, worms, and grass as nature intended. This leads to healthier and more delicious eggs.
Heritage breed chickens have quality standards to abide by. This in turn produces eggcellent eggs. Heritage chickens must be sired from a stock of select breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century. To ensure her chickens are heritage bred, Annie employs natural mating practices so she can continue meeting the standards set by the APA. She also allows her roosters to be raised by the mother hen. This makes for a calmer rooster that gels well with the rest of the flock. When visiting Annie at The Chicks Next Door, it’s easy to see why her eggs are so brilliant. She focuses so much attention on the animal husbandry of the birds.
One of many things I learned during my visit is that eggs have a season, like most ingredients. Hens’ laying cycles depend on the amount of daylight. When peak season dies down as winter approaches, the hens molt and produce heavier, thicker feathers to keep warm. As they rest during wintertime, egg production slows and eventually picks back up in spring. The reason why we can buy eggs year round is that most commercial farmers provide artificial light all hours of the day, 365 days a year. Annie prefers to let the hens rest during the winter. Not only is this better for their health, it also helps produce more vibrant-colored and better-tasting eggs when they are back to their normal production cycle.
The Chicks Next Door offers small-batch, rainbow-colored eggs with distinctive packaging. They are available locally and can also be shipped to individuals nationwide. These eggs are not just beautiful; They’re non GMO, pasture raised, and beyond humane. The Chicks Next Door eggs will be a highlight at many Farm2ChefsTable Dinner Series events in the future. One of the ways The Chicks Next Door works brings community together is by working with local wood turner Julia Swyers of Acorn Wood Shop to design egg cups to hold The Chicks Next Door Eggs. This collaboration is not only artful, but supports the local community of Farmers, Artisans and Producers together. The Chicks Julia has also made some wonderful wooden bowls, plates and spoons for Farm2ChefsTable.
Small-scale agriculture, farming, and animal husbandry have the power to truly reconnect us to our food, ourselves, and our families, as well as strengthen the community around us. With that in mind, The Chicks Next Door is a partner of Heifer International, an organization working to empower, educate, and uplift women across 21 countries in the field of farming and agriculture. The Chicks Next Door is also a proud member of The Red Hook Chamber of Commerce and The American Poultry Association.
photos by: Louise Palmberg