It’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep. When I doze off it’s fitful and every time I wake I see egg cartons. The dawn approacheth. With its arrival, our 120 chickens will begin to do that thing that humans have bred them for millennia to do – deposit these perfectly encased, in our case multicolored, packets of protein in the next boxes in their coop. Yesterday, a cold day in early February, we got 77 eggs, and the hens are gearing up, up, up, with the lengthening days.
This is what we were going for, obviously. We didn’t accidentally acquire this massive flock of laying hens. Some days, we can get rid of seven dozen eggs, when we happen to see family or friends, or I drop them off at the local health food store that’s just started selling them, or I bring them to the office to sell to co-workers. But my co-workers’ fridges are full, the health food store’s fridge is full, and we’ve got nothing coming up on the calendar as far as massive reunions are concerned. I’ve been waiting for the snow to melt a little to put up our Free Range Eggs sign, but our road is a dead-end and we’re pretty far up it, so that’s not going to generate a massive amount of traffic.
So I’ve been hustling.
The other day I tried to bring some to the shrink’s office that shares a building with my company. This is the kind of place people are court-ordered to go. Moaning and screaming occasionally emanate from behind the door, which we in the editorial room do our best to ignore, unless we’re on deadline, in which case we nod amen. I swallowed my hesitation and marched in, telling myself it was a sociable and not-abmormal thing to do. I squeezed past a man in the waiting room with his head between his knees and only too late realized it was really busy right now, not a good time. But I’d come this far. I tried to convey to the ladies in the office behind the window what I was doing, holding up an egg carton until they slid back the glass.
I have chickens, and they’re laying a lot of eggs. Anyone want to buy free range eggs?
One of the ladies smiled at me for what seemed like a pretty long time. Me standing there with my carton, her smiling, the guy behind me with his head between his knees. I figured she was excited to see free range eggs this time of year, when the farmers markets are closed and all.
“I’m good!” she finally said, and the other lady slid the glass back.
That head-in-knees position suddenly looked pretty comfortable.
One of my co-workers suggested I try the chiropractor in the other office in our building, since chiropractors are into holistic health. I did not.
I ended up getting rid of all the eggs I brought to work that day. But the thing about this business is, you’ve got to do it again tomorrow – or the fridge gets full fast.
Why are we doing this? It ain’t for the money. If all we were looking for was a little cash flow, we could probably do better picking bottles out of the garbage for the five cent deposit.
Our little poultry farm’s creation story begins with our emerging awareness that our food system is broken, followed by a desire for pasture-raised, free range eggs that came from chickens that got to live a chicken-y life. Then we fell in love with cohabitating with chickens, and figured, we’re already doing this work, we might as well ramp it up. What’s the difference between taking care of 25 chickens and 120? It would be cool to make a little money in the process. And the truth is, it’s not a whole lot more work… until they start laying eggs. Then you’ve got to collect them three or four times a day so they don’t get crushed or frozen, put them in cartons, put our sticker on the carton, grade and size them if you’re selling them at a store (we’re ballparking AA, medium) and write up a receipt, and, of course, when you’ve got more eggs than customers, find people to sell them to. Each part of this is kind of fun, and our toddler gets to help, and hopefully someday (soon!?) she can become a little entrepreneur and ferry eggs around in a wagon to sell door to door. But until then, on certain weekdays when we’re both trying to get our jobs – the paying ones – done, sometimes it gets to feel insane.
That doesn’t make it any less gratifying, though. As far as feeling useful, not much beats feeding your neighbors, friends and family. I’m convinced that the future of food production is about decentralization – a flock on every block – and in this department at least, I can be the change I want to see.
The day after I finished putting out the magazine I edit, I played hooky. I bundled toddler Kai up and we packed as many eggs as would fit into a basket and walked up our road, with the intent of giving the eggs to our neighbors as a neighborly gesture (and secretly as a loss-leader). We headed uphill, since the people who live above us are the ones who have to pass our house to get to civilization and are therefore our best bets for future customers.
Kai quickly decided it was “slippy” and she did not want to walk, so I carried her in one arm and the basket in the others, announcing “switch!” every few minutes, at which point Kai would grab my neck while I rotated basket and child. I was working up a shvitz, but we felt good. It was a beautiful day, we were getting to know our neighbors and getting our eggs out into the world. We would not go home until we’d gotten rid of all of them, we decided.
But the driveways on our hill are long, man, and Kai was right about them being slippy.
We were trudging along like troopers, tiptoeing through snow banks and around ice sheets, headed to a house that another neighbor told me contained three children – prime egg customers. A little boy opened the door and ran away, to Kai’s delight, and a nanny carrying a little girl – to Kai’s even greater delight – came to the door.
I explained my mission and offered a dozen eggs.
“No, thanks,” the nanny said.
“They’re free,” I smiled, holding child and basket on one arm and extending the carton in the other. “We’re your neighbors.”
“No, thanks,” she said. “We just came from the store.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain to her that she did not have the authority to refuse this neighborly gesture, especially since it seemed pretty clear that actually, she could. Also I was about to drop everything. So I handed her a six-pack – a compromise.
Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives on a farm upstate and writes about the rural life.