This is my 16th article from the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.
I started my morning today with a boiled egg from my Zulu fowls. I think most farmers will agree with me, there is nothing like a freshly laid farmyard egg. This mornings egg had a yolk the colour of deep orange and a thick creamy texture. The taste was simply outstanding. This egg was a real egg.
I have just completed reading Michael Pollan’s “The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals” in which he discusses the origins of the ingredients of four meals representing four different systems of food production. Industrial, industrial Organic, grass-fed and wild. One must keep in mind that Pollan is describing the US food system and this is apparent in his discussion of “industrial organic”. The USDA organic standards have been considerably relaxed in favour of big industrial farming operations. The EU standards which South African certifying bodies apply are much more stringent.
Under the “grass-fed” section Pollan describes Polyface farm and the views and opinions of its farmer, Joel Salatin. Joel applies a agro-ecological methodology and described himself as “beyond organic”. He describes himself as a grass farmer and uses his pastures to graze cattle, pigs, rabbits and chickens. Joel uses a mobile hen-house to move his chickens from pasture to pasture following the cattle. The chickens have plenty of grass and herbs to eat as well as insects. They help keep down any parasites and feed on the maggots in the cow pats. They in turn help to fertilise the pastures with their droppings and spread the manure with their droppings.
According to Pollan, customers are prepared to travel from far and wide for these eggs. This is in contrast to the pale insipid supermarket eggs, even the so-called free range variety.
The Zulu fowls on Broadleaze Farm are primarily to produce compost. I keep them on a deep litter system which means they are kept in a large, enclosed yard which has been laid with hay and leaf litter. The chickens enrich this plant matter with their droppings and turn it over when they scratch for insects. They get fed all the discarded lettuce and herb leaves from the pack shed and any other waste from the vegetables. They are also fed mixed grain and seed. This mornings eggs are the proof of the pudding and as a bonus they contribute a rich compost for the fields. However the eggs are a by-product of this system and here lies the rub. In order to produce eggs at a commercially viable production rate one has to employ an inherently unsustainable production system. Quality has to be sacrificed for quantity.
It is difficult to raise chickens sustainably in large numbers. The chicken is an omnivore and has to have a varied diet of both animal and vegetable origin in order to thrive. Traditionally chickens have always ranged around the farmstead and foraged and scavenged for their food. When confined in large numbers they have to be fed commercial feeds and while these have been balanced with nutrients they are no substitute for the farmyard diet when it comes to quality eggs.
I would like to follow Joel Salatins thinking and pasture my hens, but I will have to be realistic and realise that the eggs, although I am sure they will be awesome, will not be commercially sustainable. However they will surely be ecologically sustainable and if produced together with the other produce of an agro-ecological farm will make the farm as a whole viable. It would give me great pleasure to give the opportunity for food lovers to share the taste and experience of a real egg.