LOCAL EGGS: Symbol of Spring, Renewal and Hope

egg SPRING composite

LOCAL EGGS: Symbol of Spring, Renewal and Hope

by Judith Lerner

   "Everyone calls him Pretty. He is a really pretty boy," Lynda Fisher said about her Auracana rooster who sometimes fertilizes the eggs of her backyard flock of seven chickens she and her husband Andrei Vankov keep at their home and inn, The Inn at Sweetwater Farm, in North Egremont.

   "Otherwise, we don't have any fancy chickens, just Rhode Island Reds," Fisher said. She got Pretty from a farmer in Sandisfield. It is he who, "causes the color from the hen who lays the blue eggs."

   Also, she added, the eggs "do taste better with the rooster. The yolks are brighter and they have a more intense flavor."

   In winter, when sunlight is weak and scarce here in the Berkshires, hens get their rest and produce fewer eggs.

   A proponent of the Slow Food movement interested in eating naturally and seasonally, Fisher doesn't do anything — such as keep a lightbulb burning in the henhouse — to fool her chickens into producing more eggs for her out of season. "When they lay less eggs I have less eggs on the menu," she said.

   "They started laying early this year. We think they laid an egg a day for the last 2 months. Everybody's [chickens] did," she said.]

   Fisher and Vankov, who moved to the Berkshires from Boston in 2006, are among a growing movement of backyard farmers who want to be sure they get really good food so they raise it themselves.

   Some, Like Liz Celli of Lenox, have been raising chickens for 30 or 40 years. She has about 40 chickens, including 14 roosters, "because I like them. Some roosters are mean if they are purebred, especially Rhode Island Reds — they are mean. But mine are Heinz 57," Celli chuckled. "My roosters are nice."

   Celli, who said she is "on the cusp of 70," said her friends buy her eggs, "and I give them to my children."

   "I have to do what I love," she commented. "I've been doing it for a long time. My husband asks me how I stay in shape and I say I come out here twice a day…"

   Celli also has four or five friends who raise chickens in the county.

   Aimee Thayer and Leo Mazzeo, who live in Lanesborough, have kept a closed flock of about a dozen chickens for over 15 years just because they enjoy it.

   A closed flock, Thayer said, "means we don't travel around with our chickens to fairs or shows and have not accepted any birds from other backyard flocks."

   Their chicken adventures range from the mundane to the excruciating to the psychotic. It should not be surprising that there are so many passionate poultry farmers. Eggs, after all, are the symbol of life, and renewal is what spring is about.

   Robbie Steele who has worked at R & R Wirtes Farm in Lanesborough for many years said, "There's a lot of people out there raising backyard chickens."

   The farm sells grain mixtures they blend themselves to feed those chickens and other animals as well.

   "We mix it here and sell three tons a week of the poultry [grain mixture]," Steele said. They use conventionally grown, not organic, grains, he said. "But people like our mix. The eggs come up with a little darker yolk and a richer flavor. We put molasses in the mix," he confided.

   They even use some local grain in their mix.

   "Our corn is grown in South County," he said. "We buy all our corn from George Beebe. We also get some of our oats from Larry Eckhardt in Stephentown, New York."

   "Backyard farmers are a big business here. As far as commercial poultry farms in Berkshire County," Steele said, "it's non-existent, not like it used to be in the old days."

   Wirtes does sell poultry feed to Taft Farms in Great Barrington where the Tawczynski family keep a small flock of Barred Rock chickens which they pasture in moveable pens and, in winter, feed unsalable vegetable scraps from the produce they sell in their store. "You haven't seen anything until you've seen a chicken tear into a strawberry," Paul Tawczynski laughed.

   Fifty years ago there were enough professional local farmers to supply the county. Times have changed. The last two large commercial egg farms in Berkshire County, Otis Poultry Farm in Otis and Rock Ridge Farm in Richmond, still distribute eggs but they do not have anymore chickens.

   "Rock Ridge and Otis are not local anymore," Michael Albert, second generation of the Albert family who owns and runs longtime small Lenox supermarket Loeb's Foodtown, said.

   "Rock Ridge comes out of Pennsylvania. It's not cost-effective to raise eggs anymore," Albert noted.

   But not everyone knows this.

   "We get our eggs from Crescent Creamery. They're raised right here in Richmond," a clerk at Bartlett's Orchard in Richmond said last week.

   The Bartlett family is proud to have Pittsfield's Crescent Creamery — once a dairy itself, now a distributor of Berkshire and Western New England dairy, milk and other locally raised, made or grown food products and a supporter family farms — bring them eggs from the Hoppe family's Rock Ridge Farm.

   As local as you can get, right? Down the road. Around the corner. Across town. At one time.

   Ron Bartlett also said they get their eggs from Crescent Creamery. But he also said, "I suspected that. I'm a farmer. Nobody said anything to me and I didn't ask but I didn't see any activity over there. No. It doesn't come as a surprise."

   In the late 80s, Rock Ridge Farm owner Robert Hoppe could be seen up on his tractor in his grain fields across the road from the chicken houses on State Road — he even raised his own grain to feed his chickens at that time.

   Loeb's still carries both Otis and Rock Ridge eggs but it also sells eggs from a farm in Hemingway, Connecticut and Feather Ridge Farm eggs from Elizaville, New York.

   Brian Alberg uses local eggs at the Red Lion for his sustainable breakfast menu, desserts and quiche. And for the famous egg salad sandwiches made by the Inn for the Norman Rockwell Museum's Terrace Café, open from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October.

   Where can you get local eggs? What does local really mean in these locavore days? How close is close?

   Lisa Dachinger is a serious farmer. She raises about 50 Auracana, Barred Rock, Black Java, Buff Orpington, California White and New Hampshire Red chickens, including six or seven roosters, along with other livestock on her small River Valley Farm in Lenox.

   "We grind our own feed for our all natural, free-range, clucking-fresh eggs. Clucking-fresh is what we call them and clucking-fresh is what they are," she said.

   Their eggs come out brown, white, blues, greens and tans.

   "All colors," Dachinger said. "We try to make a creative, colorful mix when we package them."

   Her farm store on her property is her main outlet.

   "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time I sell out eggs at my farm. Come early," she said. "There are more eggs. By 4 o'clock they're gone. My eggs are scrumptious! And high in the good omegas."

   And, lucky for Berkshire County, April will be Baby Animal month at Hancock Shaker Village which director of education Todd Burdick explained, keeps dozens of heritage breed chickens, ducks and turkeys, including Rhode Island Reds, Dominiques, Wyandotts and White Leghorns. He said their eggs are very colorful.

   Visitors to the Village can see newly hatched and baby chicks, ducklings and poults — baby turkeys. It is even possible, at times, to observe a bird peck its way out of its shell, with great patience.

   Once the Village's Village Harvest Café opens, their own eggs will be served there.

   On May 22, Hancock Shaker Village will host a free afternoon workshop to introduce interested backyard farmers to the ins and outs of raising poultry, titled “So, You Wanna Have a Backyard Chicken Flock…?!” Aliza Ahlen, an experienced Village 4-H Club youth member will present the workshop with the Club's adult Leader Donna Chandler. It will cover planning, set up and operation of a small backyard poultry flock from supplies, health and feeding through protection, composting and good neighbor relations. Not everyone loves roosters.

   Distributors High Lawn Farm in Lee and Crescent Creamery in Pittsfield will bring eggs to any of their customers.

   Crescent Creamery delivers all over Berkshire County as far as the edge of Hampshire County and from Arlington, Vermont to the North down to Kent, Connecticut. They carry both Rock Ridge eggs and those Feather Ridge eggs from Elizaville, New York which is in Columbia County about 25 miles west of Great Barrington. Not too far.

   High Lawn delivers only Feather Ridge eggs. And Feather Ridge Farm itself distributes its eggs around the county. All of their customers of getting Feather Ridge Farm eggs. In fact Feather Ridge Farm eggs have blanketed Berkshire County.

   Jared Polens, one of Wild Oats Community Market of Williamstown's managers visited Feather Ridge to find out who they are.

   "Randy [Oberle], from Crescent Creamery, and I took a field trip. We went to that farm and showed up unannounced," Polens said. "They were as nice as could be. They gave us a tour of the entire place which is very, very clean. The chickens were running around in a barn with the windows open. They are fed all local grain."

   In fact, the chickens at Feather Ridge are "free running chickens fed Feather Ridge Farm-milled whole grain feed plus flaxseed and alfalfa meal" according to the farm's information.

   "They are good people — they are exactly what they say they are," Polens described the farm.

   Nancy Austin, part of the Bogdanffy family which has owned Feather Ridge Farm since 1938 said, "We're a small farm. We're not a big operation. We never have more than 10,000 free-running chickens on the floor, which may sound like a lot but large operations out west have chickens in the millions. We do a lot of animal husbandry," Austin explained, to maintain the health of their flock.

   You can taste Feather Ridge eggs at John Andrew's Restaurant in South Egremont and Martin's in Great Barrington, Ozzie's Steak and Eggs in Hinsdale and many, many more restaurants. You can buy them at Aberdale's in Housatonic, Berkshire Coop Market in Great Barrington, Guido's, Harry's Supermarket in Pittsfield, Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, New York, Ozzie's Becket General Store, Taft Farms, Wild Oats and many other stores.

   About this time of year you will begin to see handmade signs selling fresh eggs appear on the road in front of backyard and professional farms. The farmers must maintain their washed eggs at a 45 degree ambient temperature and may sell them from their farms. These will be the best tasting eggs you'll find. But there are local eggs available at many general stores, farmers markets once they return and even served at our restaurants and cafes.

   Peter Platt, chef and owner of The Old Inn on the Green in New Marlboro and the Southfield Store was musing about local eggs from down the road.

   "Backyard farmer's eggs are real good eggs," he commented, "when the chickens are out there all the time eating bugs and stuff they find that they forage."

   Below is a smattering egg-related events and of places where local eggs are available.

BERKSHIRE COOP MARKET

42 Bridge Street Great Barrington

(413) 528-9697

variety of local eggs

HANCOCK SHAKER VILLAGE

1843 West Housatonic Street Pittsfield

(413) 443-0188

www.hancockshakervillage.org

workshop in backyard poultry raising Saturday, May 22, 2pm

free with admission as part of HSV's Return and Learn series

HOLIDAY BROOK FARM

100 Holiday Cottage Road just off Route 9 Dalton

(413) 684-0444

eggs

THE INN AT SWEETWATER FARM

1 Prospect Lake Road North Egremont

(412) 528-2882 Sunday

brunch by reservation

MOON IN THE POND FARM

815 Barnum Street Sheffield

(413) 229-3092

free-range duck and goose eggs

NORTH PLAIN FARM

205 North Plain Road Great Barrington

(413) 528-2092

free-range eggs

RIVER VALLEY FARM

345 New Lenox Road Lenox

(413) 822-9621

natural free-range eggs

WILD OATS COMMUNITY MARKET

320 Main Street Williamstown

(413) 458-8060

variety of local eggs

R & R WIRTES FARM

705 South Main Street Lanesborough

(413) 443-3881

animal feeds