Sometimes when I scroll through my Facebook feed or peruse the bookstore aisles, I’m struck by just how popular chickens have become. No urban agrarian worth their salt would be caught dead without a plucky flock of hens these days. And there are more how-to books about backyard chicken-keeping on bookshelves than a person could hope to read in a lifetime.
I’m not grumbling. I think it’s great, down to the rooster-themed merchandise filling big-box department store shelves.
The idea of our family farm started out as a vegetable bed and four hens in a tight backyard. I’m all for whatever softens people to the idea of growing food for themselves and their community.
With doom-and-gloom predictions of a food-scarce future creeping into the news, increasing our sustenance independence is a pretty good idea. More gardens and farmers markets, fewer corporate grocery stores sounds nice to my ears.
It’s a Labor of Love
But there are some realities of chicken-keeping that aren’t completely acknowledged by that chicken coop photo shoot in actress/model Jennifer Garner’s Neutrogena commercial.
There’s a lot of poop, for starters, and cleaning out even a small coop is a dusty and dirty affair. By the 10th or so time, it can start to feel like a chore rather than an adventure.
Free-ranging chickens can destroy the grass in your yard and dig treacherous holes for their dirt baths. And it’s difficult to enjoy a night on the town when you know your chickens have gone to bed in an unsecured coop.
Also, chickens are under constant threat of danger, whether from ailments such as bumblefoot and infectious bronchitis or the myriad predators that want to make a meal of your birds. Keeping a flock safe from harm requires persistent, diligent attention.
So Hard To Say Goodbye
Even with that, though, there’s still a decent chance you’ll say goodbye to a beloved hen before you’ve readied your heart. (As of this writing, Garner had, herself, just lost a chicken in an event documented on social media.)
Oh and that Sophie’s-choice moment when your hens pass prime laying age and you have to make an impossible decision between the chickens and the eggs? It’s rough stuff.
What I’m saying is chicken-keeping may be cool, but it’s also work.
So why do chickens feel as popular now as when the U.S. Department of Agriculture printed flyers saying, “Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens and raise chickens” during World War I?
As alluded to earlier with the food scarcity comment, there are plenty of heady conjectures one could make. But I believe all commentary can be hard-boiled down to one word: eggs.
The Incredible, Edible …
I love eggs. My favorite meal is a simple salad of garden-grown ingredients with a pair of fried eggs on top.
Many a hobby farmer has found his or her way into quasi-homesteading based on the allure of a deeply golden-yolked, farm-fresh egg, and the appeal doesn’t stop with aesthetics.
Hens with access to bugs and grass lay creamy and intensely flavored eggs that bear little resemblance to the dollar-a-dozen cartons at the local supermarket. (I know some taste tests have called the difference into question, but they’ll never convince me.)
And, while I understand you can pick up pastured eggs from a handful of providers at the supermarket, there’s no retail alternative to a fresh egg, collected in the morning, then brought inside to fry or make into a frittata.
On the health side, they’re much better for you, too, with studies showing that eggs from pastured hens are lower in bad stuff such as cholesterol and saturated fat. They’re also higher in good stuff such as vitamins A and E, omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene. And freshness matters, too, as eggs lose protein over time.
Is Enough Ever Enough?
You don’t need me to sell you on egg-laying chickens, though.
What I actually want to address is what to do when you’ve got the small-flock thing down and start thinking, “Should I get more chickens?”
And the answer, of course, is yes. There is inestimable value in producing your own sustenance. And once you dial things in for the best eggs ever, it’s good and smart to start producing more than you can use.
First, it’s good because by providing eggs to members of your community, you’re participating in a local food movement aimed at preserving the role of small farmers in an age of corporate food systems.
Maybe you just set out an “EGGS 4 SALE” sign in your front yard and move a few dozen a week. You’re still giving people the option to eat better and support local agriculture, all while putting a face and place to the food they eat. That’s important.
And selling eggs is smart because you can sell or barter your eggs to lighten the financial load of keeping your feathered friends alive and laying. Between water, feed, grit, scratch, bedding and other necessary supplies, chicken keeping can get expensive. It’s not a crazy idea to have your hobby generate some self-sustaining income.
Before you reach for the hatchery catalog, though, here are some tips for selling those eggs once your new ladies start laying.
1. To Market, To Market
Sure, you can simply drop a sign in the front yard telling people you have eggs for sale. They even have premade ones available at farm-supply stores.
But if your chicken addiction has left you with more eggs than you can safely leave up to chance drive-bys (take it from me, it happens), you may want to seek out a local farmers market and inquire about becoming a vendor.
Yes, you’re almost guaranteed to be one of a handful of egg tables on-site. But you’ll quickly learn that the appetite for farm-fresh eggs is insatiable.
Our farm usually has a cooler’s worth of eggs presold to loyal customers before we even pull up to the pavilion. And think about other things you might be able to sell, such as home-baked breads, pickles or even handmade wares. (Do some research into your state-legal options, though, as they vary.)
2. Stay Legal My Friends
When you keep hens to produce eggs for you and your family, you can do whatever you want with them. I keep a bucket of unwashed eggs in the pantry for weeks on end because I know the bloom will protect them against spoilage. (It’s common practice in Europe.)
But when you start producing for other people, and especially when selling eggs to them, you have to follow a set of laws, usually established at the state level.
A little bit of online research should tell you what you need to do to stay legal in terms of washing, chilling, labeling and transporting your eggs for sale.
3. Beyond the Grade
Just because you’re selling eggs from the back of a pickup truck (or whatever) instead of moving units from a beige-walled cubicle doesn’t mean you can ignore the basic rules of sales.
Quality is key to developing customer loyalty and generating good word of mouth. You may not have to grade them, but make sure your eggs are reliably good and coax people to come back for more.
At a minimum, ensure they’re clean, uncracked and fresh. Fresh eggs have distinctively firm yolks, so don’t try to pass off a clutch of indeterminate age to your customers.
You can order customized cartons to stand out from the pack of Styrofoam dozens at market. And candling—shining a light from beneath each egg—can reveal fertilized eggs, which are fine to eat but put some people off.
4. The Friend Zone
Know one thing about selling eggs before going in. In time, you’ll lose some of your favorite customers to their own coops.
A love of chickens and constant stream of farm-fresh eggs is infectious and bound to create some new chicken-keepers. It’s a little bittersweet, but new customers will sweep in to take their place. And you’re sure to receive regular updates from those former customers who, by now, you’ve learned to call friends.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.