posted by Maryellen Driscoll
Come spring in upstate New York, we are happy to bid adieu to all things winter, including the flock of laying hens loitering around our homestead.
From mid-November until the grass begins to grow again, we park our hen’s portable house somewhere between the barn and our house—out of the wind and close to a year-round source of water. During those chilly months, they are free to roam. So they exchange gossip around the grain hopper (or so it seems), drop poop daily on the ice outside our doorstep (double jeopardy), and wander around the barn seeking clandestine places to lay the occasional egg. It seems hard to believe that with 100+ laying hens one can ever run short on eggs. But in the winter, when daylight is abbreviated and the cold stresses man and animal alike, some hens will stop laying and others just lay less often. The daily egg collection turns into a scavenger hunt.
Then comes spring. The fields turn green once again and the tractor pulls the henhouse, with hens locked in, across the driveway and out onto pasture. There the birds thrive: grazing on timothy, alfalfa, clover, and bugs; basking in the sun; making dust baths in the dirt. Living the life a chicken is meant to live.
These aren’t what your supermarkets misleadingly call “free-range” or “free-roaming” or “cage-free” chickens (see this New York Times pic of “cage-free” hens, and you’ll readily get the point). These are pasture-raised. And what this all comes down to is one heck of a great-tasting egg. “Maryellen’s magic eggs” is what Fine Cooking’s test kitchen director Jen Armentrout calls them. The plump, rich-orange yolks taste almost sweet, not sulfurous. I have read that there are a host of health benefits to pasture-raised eggs too. All I know is that they’re the only eggs in my entire life that I’ve ever been glad to eat. And they’re worth seeking out at farmer’s markets, through a CSA, or however else you might have access to healthfully raised food.
This spring not all of our hens made it out to the field during the relocation. Those that had taken to roosting in the barn over winter got left behind. They still kick about the homestead. They skulk around my station wagon looking for bits of cereal that inevitably tumble out of the car along with my 3-year-old daughter. They soil our doorstep—still. And they make an occasional pilgrimage to the foot of our driveway to drink from the ditch that runs along our road.
Yesterday, however, they got into our greenhouse and did some damage to our lettuce plants. So we’ll have to catch them. One night. Soon. When we’ve managed to stay awake past dark. That’s when we can pluck them from their roosts without confrontation and carry them off to join the others. After all, that’s where they belong.