By Laura Sayre — Title photograph by Cindy Singleton
Try this easy egg comparison test: The more beneficial carotenoids an egg contains, the darker orange its yolk will be.
Whether you live in the city or country, you can find healthy, delicious, farm-fresh eggs — and even raise a few happy chickens of your own. — Photo by Matthew T. Stallbaumer
Fresh farm eggs come in a wide variety of colors. — Photo by Matthew T. Stallbaumer
Buying eggs shouldn't be complicated, but it is. It's no wonder that some people are keeping chickens for eggs at home, rather than getting their egg supply at the grocery store. Look in the egg case at the supermarket, and you'll find a variety of different types of eggs: white and brown, large and extra large, even organic and conventional. There are also now omega-3 eggs, vitamin-enriched eggs and cage-free eggs. These new designer eggs cost a lot, too. But how do you know what you are really getting for your money?
It's true, some eggs are healthier, tastier and more environmentally friendly – but it's hard to know exactly what you're getting when you buy at the supermarket. Much of the hype is unregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The consumer has to decide what it all means – and if a carton of eggs deserves the price it carries.
One strategy is to research the egg companies. Are they big? Who are the main stockholders? Where are they located? Another strategy is to find a local source of fresh eggs. The most cost-effective approach over the long run is to raise a few chickens of your own, if it's a feasible option.
In many areas nationwide, even in suburbs and cities, people are discovering that keeping hens for eggs takes little effort. They can keep just a few birds, and not only do they get great eggs, they also have fun doing it.
Mad City Chickens is one example. In April 2002, Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting of Madison, Wis., had been raising six hens in a small coop behind their home for almost a year. One day, an animal control worker paid them a visit.
"Apparently, someone was concerned we were going to eat them," Rheal says. The animal control worker referred them to a zoning officer as he wasn't actually sure of the city's rules on keeping chickens. The zoning officer indicated that city ordinances permitted an unlimited number of chickens to be kept inside a house, but keeping outdoor poultry was prohibited. "He was really nice about it, though," Rheal says. "He suggested we try to get that changed."
The couple gave away their hens, made contact with a city council member, and began speaking to neighbors. They submitted an article for their local newspaper, asking for support. Soon after, they uncovered a booming "urban chicken underground," dozens of city dwellers who were quietly raising chickens, and who were happy to come out.
"There was one fellow three blocks away who'd had chickens for 20 years," Rheal says. "We ended up meeting all these terrific people."
In 2004, Madison changed the poultry ordinance. Today, Mad City Chickens has an annual summer Coop Tour and a fall "Pro-Poultry People Potluck," each event drawing up to 80 people. Rheal and others offer a two-hour City Chickens 101 class to teach would-be chicken owners the basics of coop design and other helpful tips. An online discussion group encourages members to combine purchases of chicks and to share ideas.
Madison is not the only city in the U.S interested in chickens. The organic gardeners' group Seattle Tilth has been offering chicken classes and coop workshops for nearly 20 years; similar movements are happening in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. As egg prices rise along with concerns surrounding food quality and safety, "pro-poultry people" from San Francisco to Brooklyn are exercising their right to raise chickens within city limits.
To learn more about finding healthy, delicious eggs and raising chickens of your own, read "How Do Your Eggs Stack Up?" at Mother Earth News.