Shoppers maneuver around me as I inspect cartons of eggs in the refrigerated section of a local grocer. Blue Sky. Chino Valley Ranchers. Eggland’s. Full Circle Organic. Happy Egg. Heritage Breed. Kroger. Nichols. Organic Valley. Pete and Gerry’s. Simple Truth Organic. 365. Vital Farms. Cage free … free range … hormone-free … soy-free … omega-3 … all natural … dark yolk … farm fresh … organic … pasture raised … certified humane … ethical eggs … distributed from — what, Cincinnati? Texas? Missouri?
Where are these eggs from?
That scene plays out repeatedly, with differing brands, prices and varieties, at Ralph’s, Stater Brothers, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, other area grocers and neighborhood markets. Queries at certain stores are inadequately addressed. For the record, I’m an avid cook but no egg connoisseur. What’s driving these expeditions is curiosity; I simply want to know where and how my food was raised. Obtaining that information should not be complicated. Like many consumers I’m striving to make responsible choices mindful of sustainability and humane treatment of chickens, and which support local farmers. Buying locally sourced food is common sense.
Defining “local” is tricky. We’ll come to that.
The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit organic industry watchdog and information resource for consumers and small farmers, helpfully publishes a Scorecard that rates brands of eggs according to the extent of outdoor access chickens are given, average flock size, and indoor space given each bird, among other criteria. But unless you obtain them from a neighbor or nearby farm, ascertaining where eggs were actually raised can be challenging. That is not inconsequential if you are concerned about carbon footprints, or salmonella outbreaks and groundwater contamination at commercial farms, or the gases and waste generated at CAFOs, the concentrated animal feeding operations (aka factory farms) where most US poultry is unsustainably confined. (According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CAFOs can hold fewer than 9,000 to more than 82,000 laying hens, depending on the operation’s size and the type of manure handling system utilized.)
Egg expiration dates are generally printed on carton ends. Alongside that date there should also be printed a “P,” indicating the plant number of the facility where the eggs, which arrive from different farms, were packaged. According to the US Department of Agriculture, eggs can be sold for up to 30 days after packaging. Once purchased, “you can store fresh shell eggs in their cartons in the refrigerator for four to five weeks” beyond their packaging date. But color, flavor and texture don’t always remain consistent for the duration.
Randomly selecting a carton of eggs at a store, I check the “sell by” date and plant number where the eggs were packaged. It takes a while to track down the location, thanks to some dead website links, but the Plantbook Query Page for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service’s Livestock and Poultry Program yields information: the eggs were packaged in Kalona, Iowa. I venture to five local stores to research where more randomly chosen egg cartons from several brands were packaged; four out of 10 were packaged in California (in Colton, Denair, Turlock and Wasco). The others bear plant numbers from packaging centers in Tonopah, Arizona; Berryville, Arkansas; Kalona and Harris, Iowa; Chase, Kansas; and Elizabeth, New Jersey.
There are 2,435 miles separating Elizabeth from Los Angeles, and 1,812 miles between LA and Kalona. Calculating the fuel used to transport them in a refrigerated truck from muggy New Jersey or muggy, buggy Iowa to temperate Pasadena, and how that shapes their carbon footprint and cost — and freshness — is for another story on another day. It’s presently enough to note that, according to the American Egg Board, US egg production totaled 8.56 billion during February, and California is the nation’s sixth-largest egg-producing state (after Michigan, ahead of Minnesota). So why ship eggs here from the East Coast, the South, and the Midwest? What long-term benefit can Golden State consumers derive that outweighs environmental costs and frequent nutritional compromises caused by antibiotic-boosted feed? Sure, all egg handlers must register with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But.
My paternal grandfather was an accountant whose clientele in southeastern Pennsylvania included some small farmers. A few traded goods for services when times were tough, and as a child I was delighted when he’d bear an armload of fragrant berries, peppers, regally purple eggplant, and fresh eggs to the dining table. That helped root my belief in the value of fresh food, and knowing where it was grown.
Amelia McDonald, a self-described “recovering lawyer,” runs McDonald’s Urban Farm, a two-acre operation hugging a hillside at the top of Altadena. It’s an active participant in what local author Elisa Callow described in “The Urban Forager” as Altadena’s “emerging small-farms community.”
Passing through the farm’s green gates, a cheery barnyard chorus gradually swells as McDonald leads the way past fenced gardens of greens, onions, nasturtiums, squash, and test plantings. She jokes about how she and her daughter mulch weeds with goat poop, while pointing out pens and coops her husband built. “We use no chemicals, no pesticides,” she says. “We do everything we can to be as sustainable as possible. We don’t have a compost pile because the chickens eat everything.” She says the farm is home to “50 to 99 poultry at any given time” (99 is their limit) and 14 playful dwarf Nigerian goats (including seven born in April who waste no time demonstrating their cuteness).
Now, when “everything’s blooming,” their chickens dine on “greens, grass, bugs” daily; in winter, they eat mostly grain. “We get about 50 or 60 eggs a day. I choose chickens for egg productivity as well as how they look,” she says, opening a pen door. “Some of these are special breeders. … We give our chickens names, the ones that are not getting eaten.” McDonald says they are permitted for selling poultry meat, but they were unable to purchase Red Ranger chickens or turkeys this year because of the quarantine.
(A February outbreak of Virulent Newcastle Disease, which is fatal for birds but has no or very little effect on humans, prompted state officials to declare a poultry quarantine in LA, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. More than a million birds have been euthanized, most of them from commercial operations.)
McDonald introduces me to her “big layers,” including a flock of handsome Speckled Sussex chickens (“Prince Harry” and “Meghan Markle 1 through 10”), a Cinnamon Queen named Freddie Mercury, a Silkie called Liza Minnelli, and a kooky-looking Frizzle chicken. A Black Copper Marans rooster crows suddenly, as if on cue. I notice wrinkled patches of white skin angled below one hen’s eyes; they’re earlobes, and suggest what color her eggs will be.
Down a hay-strewn path, in the next pen, McDonald calmly retrieves eggs from a basket: beige, brown, cream, blue- and olive-tinged. Their rustic palette of colors is reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth painting. A black-eared white rabbit nibbles near the feeder; in the opposite corner, two red-combed brown hens take dust baths.
“We have never had mites, although it’s OK if someone did; it happens with backyard chickens. But they take a dust bath and it keeps them healthy,” she explains. “This is the problem with conventional egg farms. They’re in cages, they have no access to dirt, and of course they’re going to get mites; of course they’re going to get sick; then you have to give them antibiotics, and then the food that’s coming out of them is not OK.”
Therein lies a hidden cost of “cheap” food we consume without due consideration of its provenance.
She plunges her scooped hands into a metal pail of organic, whole-grain, non-GMO chicken food from nearby Fable Farm & Feed as birds look on intently. “We could eat this — this is peas, lentils, seeds, wheat,” she says. “This is the most important thing to me.
“These guys go through 150 pounds of feed a week. It is the end of June, and I am just about to break even on eggs to feed. Not including straw, not including new nesting boxes, not including time, water, labor, feeders.”
What Is Local?
To help support the farm, McDonald teaches classes (including a cooking class Aug. 17, and a goat class in the fall; info will be available at mcdonaldsurbanfarm.org). “That’s a way we connect with our community and say, ‘You don’t have to be on two acres; you can have six chickens in your backyard. You can do this.’” She will also participate (as will Callow) in “Women in Food,” an event moderated by Armory Center for the Arts Executive Director Leslie Ito at Pasadena Central Library on Sept. 26.
McDonald says she’s a “mostly self-taught” farmer, although her “recovering hippie” parents grew produce while she was growing up in Eagle Rock in the ’70s. She and her husband bought this property in 2012 and started the farm in 2015. For two-and-a-half years, until January, she hauled eggs, fruits and vegetables one mile to the Altadena Farmers Market in a golf cart (“a zero fossil fuel trip”).
Now she makes Wednesday and Saturday deliveries to private clients in her car; at Mother Moo Creamery in Sierra Madre, cartons are stamped with the Julian date on which the eggs were laid. (Per the USDA, Julian dates are codes “starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365.”) Saturday customers receive eggs “laid since Wednesday,” she says; Wednesday customers take delivery of eggs “laid since Saturday.” She often hashtags posts to the farm’s Instagram account “#doyouknowwhereyourfoodcomesfrom” and “#knowyourfarmer.”
For a while last year I bought eggs at a Pasadena farmers market — two dozen, sandwiched between rubberbanded eggshell flats, open at the sides. The first time, I asked if they were from a local farm. “Yes.” Where? “Ontario.” Thirty-five miles away. I ask McDonald to define “local.”
“You have to look at everything you’re bringing into your food system as a whole and balance it out. Maybe you can’t get super local meat, but you can get eggs within your town, or five miles away. Let’s say you live somewhere where you can’t get the eggs so you’ve gotta go 10 miles; maybe that’s OK if you’re butchering your own chickens. Local is five feet for me, for the majority of our food, but that can’t be for everyone.”
She mentions the 100-mile diet. The idea was popularized by “The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating,” Canadian authors’ Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon’s 2007 chronicle of eating only foods produced within 100 miles of their apartment.
“The 100-mile diet is a sustainable goal for people in the United States, given our broken system,” McDonald says. “Some people consider that local, even hyperlocal.”
Closeness and Community
In Pasadena, the industrious Dervaes family’s Urban Homestead is an enterprising community hub. They sell produce, honey and eggs raised in the 1/10-acre-sized garden surrounding the early 20th-century Craftsman-style house they’ve occupied since 1985. They host classes (beekeeping, bread baking, preserve making) and occasional acoustic concerts and tours. Proceeds support the Homestead.
Foothill communities are home to many backyard farmers. In Sierra Madre, I pass two teenage girls selling fresh lemonade from a corner stand on my way to visit a woman who’s been raising hens in her backyard for decades. As a stay-at-home mom who was organic enough to make her own baby food, she originally wanted chicken fertilizer for her organic garden and “to be close to the earth.” Now, instead of 17 to 20 hens she keeps only two Barred Rocks, one Buff Orpington, and a rescued Rhode Island Red. They live in a tidy fenced enclosure alongside the garden, tucked nightly into their coop before dark to safeguard against bobcats, coyotes and raccoons. They provide fresh eggs — and company.
“I’m a caregiver. I need to take care of something. They’re my girls. … They’re daily work and you can’t ignore them. The grandkids love them.
“I probably have $2 eggs,” she says, laughing. “I buy and feed them only organic food, because it’s going to me and my kids and grandkids. There’s no waste, ever. Instead of composting, I give everything to the chickens except potato peels; they can’t have anything from the nightshade family unless it’s cooked.”
She sends me off with four eggs collected the day before from her “girls.” I watch as she bundles them from her kitchen counter into a half-carton adorned with a hand-colored chicken print, then drops in plump, red and orange grape tomatoes from her garden. Back home, I pop one in my mouth and it bursts with juice, sweet and tasting like summer; in that moment, I time travel back to childhood in South Jersey when I would “help” my grandmother select beefsteak tomatoes at her favorite farm stands.
The eggs are pale tan, almost the color of desert sand. Gently, I roll one around in my hand, and retrieve a jumbo-sized Trader Joe’s egg from my fridge for informal comparison. The TJ’s egg is nutty brown, about 20 percent larger, and smooth. Store-bought eggs are washed to remove any surface film; fresh farm eggs are not sticky, but their shells are more tactile. I can’t readily discern anything on the tan egg by eyeballing it, but as I run it carefully under cold water I feel its skin-like covering dissolve between my fingers.
I crack two of those tan eggs into an oiled iron skillet on my stovetop. The whites pool thick and close — they aren’t at all runny — and the brilliant orange yolks plop firm and round in the center, with a Jello-like bounce. I sprinkle them with ground pepper, think of a neighbor’s aptly nicknamed fried egg poppies, and flip the eggs with a smile.
They taste delicious.
LINKS & RESOURCES:
American Egg Board: aeb.org
California Dept. of Food and Agriculture: cdfa.ca.gov
California Poultry Federation: cpif.org
Elisa Callow: theurbanforager.co
The Cornucopia Institute: cornucopia.org
McDonald’s Urban Farm: mcdonaldsurbanfarm.org
Fable Urban Farm & Feed Supply: fablealtadena.com
Urban Homestead: urbanhomestead.org