In springtime or shortly after bringing new pullets to the flock, the gravity of the number of eggs a small flock of hens can produce settles in. Couple a laying flush with chicken math—the equation that proves a few more chickens won’t hurt a thing—and you can end up with many dozens of eggs per week. This is what happened to Missy Singer DuMars, of Crown Hill Farm in Eden, New York. Also a business coach, she thought about the enterprising advice she might offers to someone with excess product, and she launched an egg CSA. Since 2018, she delivers a dozen eggs—accompanying shares of vegetables and more—to CSA shareholders in Buffalo every two weeks in the spring, summer and fall.
CSA is community supported agriculture, a partnership between farmer and consumer. Consumers—called shareholders or members—pay upfront for a share of the season’s farm products. The intention is for members to share in the risks and the rewards of farming. If the farmer has a great year, shareholders get an abundance. If the farmer has a less-great year, shareholders might receive less. In either case, the members’ upfront commitment helps to fund the work of the farmer for the year to come.
If CSA makes sense for vegetable producers, why not chicken keepers, too? In this article, learn the basics of egg CSAs and decide whether this could help your hens pay for themselves.
First, The Chickens
While the existential chicken-or-egg question remains, in the case of running an egg CSA, it starts with the chickens.
“I personally prefer the heritage breeds, so my eggs are a little smaller than the standard egg sizes. My customers love getting rainbow boxes,” Singer DuMars says. “I want a different range of color of eggs, and I pay attention to the average number of eggs per year. I aim for the higher layers where I can. And I also pay attention to which ones are cold hardy and are better foragers because they’ll be pasture raised.”
The ideal breed for your egg CSA will be one that thrives in your climate, lays consistently and is a pleasure to care for.
Designing an Egg CSA
Just as there’s no one best chicken breed for an egg CSA, there’s no one best CSA design for every chicken keeper. Thoughtful planning is the key.
The Number of Shares
Singer DuMars kept chickens for about a year before offering an egg CSA. From the beginning, she recorded the number of eggs she collected each day on a paper calendar. This enabled her to look back over the year and see the ebb and flow of egg production. Since then, Singer DuMars started using the Mother Hen app to record her egg inventory, sales and expenses. Your recordkeeping can be as simple or complex as you’d like. The important part is that the system works in a way that makes sense to you.
Knowing what your chickens are capable of is an essential first step. These numbers hold the answer to the question you’re likely already asking: How many egg shares could I offer?
Consider the eggs that will inevitably be cracked or too gross to share. Expect about 4 percent of your eggs to have cracks, according to Manitoba Agriculture. Consider whether you have eggs committed to other markets. Singer DuMars used to offer 20 to 22 egg CSA shares and then scaled back to 15 to 16 because she supplies eggs to chefs, as well.
Also consider how happy you are with the size of your current flock and what adding or taking away a few hens would do to egg production and expenses.
Let’s say you have 20 hens that lay an average of five eggs each per week over the course of 20 weeks. Subtract 4 percent of those eggs as seconds, and you have 160 dozen eggs, or eight dozen each week throughout the season.
The Frequency of Shares
Weekly shares are probably the most common CSA pickup offer. The consistency of knowing how many eggs are going out the door each week is nice. Biweekly shares are another option, and this is the way Singer DuMars runs Crown Hill Farm’s CSA program.
“I did that for a few reasons,” Singer DuMars says. “No. 1, two weeks was enough time between deliveries to build up enough egg supply when I had a really small flock. Also, as a single person myself, I always felt like when I participated in CSAs, it was too much too quickly, and I would waste food. So I formulated my CSA with a combination of not trusting my consistency of weekly delivery and wanting to serve the single person or the smaller household.”
Peak egg production happens at a different time of year than peak vegetable production, which inhibits some vegetable CSAs from also offering egg CSAs. In much of the Northern Hemisphere, chickens are laying best in early spring. In New York state, that’s March through May, while outdoor vegetable production gets rolling in June.
Singer DuMars offers a 12- to 14-week spring egg CSA from March through May and another season from June to the first week of November.
“I try to get chicks in mid-February so that way they’re starting to lay a little bit in August, September to augment as the older ones are slowing down for the winter,” she says. “Their first eggs are little, but I’ll mix and match them in a carton.”
She welcomes 16 to 20 new chicks to the flock each year, and hens live out their lives on her farm, so she has hens of all ages laying all the time.
She also undersells her flock’s egg-laying capacity. “That way I kind of extend my inventory by a couple weeks at the end when things slow down,” she says. “Even though in the spring I have a lot of extra eggs beyond what I need for my CSA, I try not to sell out completely of those.”
Using first-in, first-out egg stacking, Singer DuMars always offers the freshest eggs, regardless of the time of year.
The Other Options
It seems to be that eggs are an afterthought to a CSA. This wan’t the case for Singer DuMars, who started the egg CSA before starting the vegetable CSA.
Her reasoning was that she was more confident in her chickens’ ability to produce eggs than she was in her own ability to produce vegetables as a beginning farmer. Now she offers her own eggs and vegetables, as well as meats, baked goods, mushrooms and cheese from other producers. Let’s not forget duck eggs, as well, which Singer DuMars sells out of each year.
There are all kinds of ways to have a CSA.
Skyrocketing grocery-store egg costs in 2022 put a dent in consumers’ argument that farm-fresh eggs are too expensive. Singer DuMars’s soy-free, pasture-raised eggs are $7 per dozen. For her customers in Buffalo, the convenience of biweekly availability and the understanding that the eggs were produced by local hens living in humane conditions factor into their willingness to pay.
“Know your customers, or decide who your customers are, and be in service to them,” Singer DuMars says. She values transparency with her customers. Especially because our society has gotten away from cooperative agreements, navigating a CSA for the first season can be confusing for some shareholders.
A newsletter with each share and a slip of paper in the carton explaining how to wash and cook the eggs help with this.
Singer DuMars has found that with consistent communication, her shareholders are forgiving when she owns up to making a mistake. “I ran out of eggs once, so I replaced them with some vegetables, and [shareholders] were grateful and happy,” she says. “If you set expectations with your customers, then they’re not surprised, and they won’t be upset. On my signup page for my CSA, I explain what a CSA is and that it’s not a subscription, it’s not a guarantee, that a CSA takes both the reward and the risk.”
Egg Sales Rules
Setting up a CSA doesn’t exempt you from egg-sales laws. Each state has them, and you can learn yours from your state department of agriculture. Egg laws may govern things like egg washing, refrigeration, use of cartons, label requirements and more.
Most laws are based on the number of eggs you sell or the value of the eggs you sell. It’s possible that your operation falls below the threshold of egg-sales laws—however, this doesn’t mean you should ignore the laws altogether. Purposefully ignoring food-safety rules will lead to trouble if a shareholder were to become ill in connection to your eggs.
By putting your hens to work with an egg CSA, you can bring in funds for their feed bill, provide good food for your neighbors and educate more people about the reality of how their food is produced. It might even be just the excuse you need to add a new breed or two to your flock.
Egg CSA for Hire
Keeping chickens isn’t for everyone, and you could be the chicken keeper others look to for collaboration.
Jen and Jeff Miller, at Prairie Wind Family Farm in Grayslake, Illinois, raised their own chickens for years and transitioned to sourcing eggs from Joe’s Farm in Three Rivers, Michigan, in the past few years.
“He raises hens that produce eggs that we believe in,” Jen Miller says. “We prefer pasture-raised using regenerative farming methods to add nutrients to the soil and provide for animal health, as well.”
Collaborating allows the Millers to focus on providing a great CSA for their shareholders and to support other farmers. In addition to their fruit and vegetable CSA offerings, the farm has the option of a range of egg CSA seasons: spring, early summer, late summer, fall and winter, and a full-season package. They typically sell out.
“We begin taking orders in October, as that’s the premise behind CSA,” Miller says. “Members make an upfront commitment so we have the time and resources to prepare for our farming season.”
She thinks the egg CSA has allowed more people to take part in their CSA program, as eggs are delivered even in seasons they’re not growing produce.
“We love building community, and egg CSAs are a great way to build a shared appreciation for all that goes into raising hens, especially into the winter season, which is no joke for Midwest farmers,” Miller says.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.