The orchard hens have started to lay their pale blue and almond brown eggs as promised. I’ve been finding them tucked here and there under a pear or quince tree, or scattered beneath the brambles, but mostly in the nesting boxes as planned. There’s a large, antique porcelain decoy egg for encouragement, and plenty of praise when they relinquish.
Eggs from the orchard, in shades of earth and sky, have begun to delight us all.
They will get into all and everything, of course: raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes. I’ve watched them leap 3 feet in the air to snatch a raspberry, or balance on a tightrope of orchard wire to snack on currants, or peck incessantly through fencing to reach a tomato. They will also decide, without much discretion, that your planting of Fall arugula is a fine spot to take an afternoon siesta, so you find your coddled greens flattened here and there by the imprint of a settled hen.
Blackberries, swelling over the orchard fence on long, armored canes, haven’t escaped the notice of the insatiable hens. They will find a way.
The hens may not know a weed from a-rugula, but little loss of green is a small price pay for the eggs we’re now getting. Compared to a supermarket dozen, and to the USDA’s nutrient data on commercial eggs, our orchard roaming hens produce a vastly superior product. Their natural, free-range diet–including seeds, berries, insects, and greens, along with grain–results in eggs with far less cholesterol and saturated fat, and much higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Is it any wonder they taste better?
Supermarket birds, even those labeled “free range” and “organic,” are usually fed a compromised diet of soy, corn and cottonseed meal, laced with additives, and have limited or no access to the outdoors. If fresh eggs from the home or farm are not available, pasture-raised are the next best option.
When the child of a CSA member was in the coop last week as an egg as smooth and blue as beach glass was being laid, she marveled at the beauty of it. In that moment, the value of running a small farm was being paid forward a generation or two. –Mb
Pulling a warm egg from beneath a broody hen is a magical thing; the ruffled mummer as she relinquishes; the egg’s perfect, spherical warmth, its bone-smooth promise. And fitting so perfectly in the palm of the hand, as though the relationship between laying and gathering always was.
But when a new CSA member stopped by this week to say hello, to meet and greet with chickens and chard, I was unprepared for the power and imprint of memory on her visit.
Smooth, magical warmth – straight from the source.
She had grown up on a farm in Iowa, and her connection to that time seemed to rill through her as we did our walkabout.
On the way out, we visited the hens in the Cage Aux Fowl and, on putting a warm egg in her palm, she began to cry softly. Clearly, the evocation was almost too much.
There was some awkward silence as she held the egg – and her childhood – in her hand and struggled for composure. But she seemed grateful for the connection, the coup de coeur, that the experience summoned up.
The connective tissue of memory, even unconjured, ties us to a past when farming and growing food were everywhere and everyone took part. For most people, the relationship between a meal and its source was immediate. Now, in an age of industrialized distance from real food, more depth and awareness is vital. Small farms make that connection.
So I’m becoming an egg doner (The X in my male XY has made me so!) for more obvious reasons here at Stonegate, but if I can offer up the occasional Madeleine, how wonderful. If a farm can serve as a common metaphor for connecting to our past, our food, our deeper responsibilities to the planet, so be it. - Mb
Our fearless weeder, Jane Savage. She don’t stop ’till she gets enough.
Carpets of mixed loose-leaf and mesclun greens are getting that delicious ’70s shag. We can dig it!
We’ve legalized winter egg production here at Stonegate Farm thanks to a 200-watt red warming light in the Cage aux Fowl, and my little feathered harlots are laying like Madame de Pompadour. Even our virile black frizzle rooster, Gerald, struggles to keep on top of his broody harpies – chasing them about the frozen yard like a manic feather duster. With eggs galore in mid-winter, the oldest profession has aroused theKavorka in all of us.
The Dutch think they’re progressive, but we have dozens of farm-fresh eggs in our district!
All this fowl balling has inspired the addition of free range eggs to our 2010 CSA shares and Market Garden: we’ve ordered two dozen more hens, full size Marans and Ameraucanas, that should been laying their deep chocolate and teal colored eggs by Summer. A new Gothic coop will be built in the orchard, where the birds will feed on insects and fallen fruit and in turn cheerfully fertilize from their feathered ends. Chickens, eggs, and quince, oh my!
In the greenhouse, beds and soil blockers are getting ready to start seedlings in early March. This year, we will be adding fingerling potatoes, deep purple carrots, gherkin cucumbers, and – heedful of last season’s scourge – blight-resistant tomatoes! We’ll still have the heirlooms and unusuals but have included an escrow of blight-resistance to our insurance policy. Is any local tomato better than no tomatoes? We’ll see.
Greens are slowly stirring inside the Winter greenhouse.
Out on the Winter farm, the stalwart Tuscan Kale has been adding frozen, vitamin rich greens to soups, and the cold has only ramped their sweetness; it seems many plants react to stress by converting their starches to sugars – a kind of vegetal survival instinct - so kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and carrots are a sweet wonder beneath the blanketing snow.
Varied greens will be a mainstay again this season. If I yearn for anything in the bleak mid-winter – and we all need a good yearn this time of year – it’s for all that wonderful, mixed cutting lettuce and mesclun greens. Call it chlorophyll deficit disorder. How many starchy root veg can one man eat, after all.
The snow-bound orchard, waiting for Spring to stir it to life.
Besides walking among the orchards snow-bound allées of apple and pear, pruner and notebook in hand, or starting greenhouse seedlings, winter is a long, cool breath, somewhere between quiet reflection and forward drive. So be it. Let the lusty chickens frolic. Apparently, Roxanne, you dohave to turn on the red light.