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Pastured eggs catching on


Pastured hens take a break from pecking and scratching for supplemental feed doled out by Dan Bagley at Clark Summit Farm near Tomales in Marin County. Chronicle photo by Craig Lee

Recently laid eggs at Clark Summit Farm near Tomales. Chronicle photo by Craig Lee

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hens by the dozen scamper down the grassy hill from their laying houses to greet Liz Cunninghame as she tootles up in the bright yellow-and-black Cub Cadet cart she calls "the Wasp."

It's early afternoon at Clark Summit Farm just north of Tomales, 160 acres of certified organic farmland in the coastal hills of West Marin. Cunninghame is making her daily egg run, and she's taking this city slicker along to see firsthand what's behind the current craze for pastured eggs.

Pastured eggs come from chickens that actually run around outside and eat snacks from the landscape along with their daily rations of grain.

Demand is growing so quickly that small farmers like Cunninghame and her husband, Dan Bagley, can't keep up. But the eggs are becoming easier to find as flocks expand, more farmers take up the challenge of raising pastured eggs, and more retail stores carry them.

This back-to-the-future trend away from mass-produced food has a payoff that comes the second you crack one of these eggs open. The yolk is high and deep orange; the white is clear and doesn't spread and thin out. Fried sunny-side up, the egg is silky, with a clean, rich taste. I haven't found evidence proving that the eggs are better for you, but the hens they come from definitely live more natural lives than the ones that stay cooped up under artificial "daylight," have their beaks trimmed and are starved to force production.

Buyers, beware: Most eggs sold as "free range" or "farm fresh" come from hens that never see the world outside a coop. Ask lots of questions when you're buying, even at farmers' markets. Even better, if you have time, take a day trip to a farm and buy your eggs there.

That's how I found myself heading up the hill at Clark Summit Farm.

We stopped to check on the days-old chicks that had arrived from a Washington hatchery just a few days earlier. Tiny, hungry fuzzballs, they mill around inside a closed shed that's kept at 95 degrees until they're big enough to go outside; by November, they'll be laying.

Back in the Wasp, we make another stop where hens are hanging out with the Blue Butt sow and her 12 piglets in the shade of tall eucalyptus trees. Everyone's either suckling or snoozing. After a peek in the broiler house (pastured chicken is another trend, and another story), we trundle up into the welcoming clucks of the main laying flock.

Bella, Cunninghame's big black dog, plunges into the milling crowd of some 1,000 big brown Rhode Island Reds, black-and-white striped Barred Rocks, black Sex Links and buff Araucanas. Bella doesn't bother them, but stands ready to scarf down any cracked or broken eggs.

Three wooden coops stand near the top of the hill. Hens run in and out of the open doors all day long, flapping up into straw-filled boxes along the sides of the coops to lay an egg. Roosters crow and chase them.

Tractors tow the coops to a new spot every other day. One of the challenges of raising pastured poultry is that the poop builds up incredibly fast and destroys anything under it. Moving the coops spreads it around; in a few months, it will cool down and help feed new grass.

Come nightfall, the chickens are rounded up shut into the coops to keep them safe from coyotes, foxes and other predators. First thing in the morning, they'll be let out again.

Once a day, Cunninghame makes the egg run. She raises a hinged sheet of plywood on the side of a coop, exposing a double row of boxes. Hens sit and fluff in most of them.

The clutch of eggs - usually six to 12, all from different hens - is a rainbow mix of light and darker brown, blue and a few whites. In summer, each hen lays about five eggs a week, taking turns in the boxes.

Cunninghame shows me how to reach under the chickens for the eggs. The first surprise is how teeny the birds actually are under all those feathers - they're like short girls with big hair. Who knew?

The second surprise is that the eggs are very warm. Duh, but I'd never thought about it. Quickly, we gather about 600 eggs in five large blue wire baskets. Only a couple of hens, indignant over my intrusion, take a peck at my hand.

But my bare toes, exposed in sandals, are attractive targets for the hens pecking at the ground around my feet. I'm reminded of my visit a few years back to a much larger egg farm in the next county, where that wouldn't have been a problem - the chickens there lived indoors, though not in cages, and their beaks were trimmed to keep them from pecking one another.

The baskets sit on the back of the Wasp for the trip back down to the shed where a helper, Ceci Barajos, washes and packs the eggs by hand.

Clark Summit sells 150 dozen eggs a week through Three Stone Hearth's community-supported kitchen in Berkeley. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the public can buy the eggs from the kitchen near Berkeley's Aquatic Park (see "Where to buy pastured eggs").

Cunninghame sells the rest of her eggs to Dave Evans of Marin Sun Farms, who sells them, along with his own, at the Marin and San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers' markets and through select retail stores.

The price is two to three times the cost of non-pastured eggs, but, says Cunninghame, "I could sell twice as many if we had 'em."

Pastured egg farmers Dave Evans in Point Reyes, and Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm near Vacaville agreed.

"I thought there would be a market but I didn't think there would be this obsession for farm eggs," says Koefoed, who bought her first hens four years ago and will have a flock of 2,000 by fall. She sells the eggs at the farm, the Napa farmers' market and through the Berkeley-based Slow Food Bay Area Meat CSA.

Summer is the most bountiful time for pastured eggs, which are seasonal - hens lay according to the amount of daylight, and slow way down in winter.

At the big egg ranch I visited previously, lights kept the hens laying 24 hours a day all year long. Clark Summit uses no lights, and last winter production dropped to 30 eggs a day from 400 hens. "And they still eat," Cunninghame says.

This winter, things should be better because the baby chicks she just bought will bring her laying flock to 1,650.

Marin Sun Farms is starting 600 new chicks, too, and by winter will have 1,800 in movable pens.

"We should have a good supply," Evans says. "We'll see."

Here are a few Bay Area sources:

Baron's Meats & Poultry (Star Grocery), 3068 Claremont Ave. (at Prince), Berkeley; (510) 654-1915.

Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th St. (at Guerrero), San Francisco; (415) 241-9760.

Clark Summit Farm, Tomales. Available at the farm, by phone order (707) 876-3516 or e-mail, clarksummitfarm@aol.com ; $6.50 a dozen. Also Point Reyes, Sebastopol and Petaluma farmers' markets; Three Stone Hearth community-supported kitchen, Berkeley, (415) 647-8216; Diekmann's General Store, Tomales, (707) 878-2384.

Eatwell Farm. Sold through its CSA, (866) 627-2465 or organic@eatwell.com. Also Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco. To see the chickens, check out youtube.com/user/eatwellfarmcsa.

Farmers' markets. Most sell eggs, and many of them - but not all - come from hens that range on grass. Be sure to ask lots of questions when you're buying.

Kaki Farm, Gridley. Sold at Berkeley farmers' market (Saturday).

Localharvest.com. Searchable database of farms, farmers' markets and CSAs that sell eggs.

Monterey Market, 1550 Hopkins St. (at Monterey), Berkeley; (510) 526-6042. Eggs from Sky High Ranch, Winters; $3.89 a dozen; call store for availability.

Marin Sun Farms, Point Reyes; (415) 663-8997. Available at Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, 10905 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station; $7 a dozen. Also Marin farmers' market (Sunday); Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; Bi-Rite and Rainbow markets, San Francisco; Baron's Meats in Alameda and in Star Grocery in Berkeley.

Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom St. (at 13th Street), San Francisco; (415) 863-0620.

Soul Food Farm, 6046 Pleasant Valley Road, Vacaville; (707) 469-0499; $5 a dozen. Also Napa farmers' market (Tuesday); Cafe Rouge (1782 Fourth St., at Hearst, Berkeley); and Slow Food Bay Area Meat CSA; call (917) 685-2573 or e-mail tamareadler@earthlink.net .

E-mail Carol Ness at cness@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Where to buy pastured eggs