What’s In A Name? The Beyond Organic Backyard Egg Question

My mom was over and asked, “Are your eggs are organic?”
“Oh yeah, of course!” I said, “We use organic feed.”
But I’ve been thinking about it, and here’s the thing: I’m not sure our eggs are organic. Not really, not technically. I mean, our chickens have a good life. Compared to battery-caged birds they are egg makin’ princesses in a coop palace. 

They eat organic layer feed plus all the old broccoli plants, nasturtiums, bean leaves, overgrown cucumbers, squishy tomatoes, pear cores, brewers grains, leftover rice and (ahem) unfinished scrambled eggs the garden and kitchen can muster. I have no qualms about how the chickens are treated or fed. But they don’t have unfettered access to the outdoors. They don’t really get to free range. They aren’t pastured in some idealic, Joel Salatin-type way, on acres of carefully managed grass. 
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of organic egg production standards in the United States:
Organic egg production is the production of eggs through organic means. In this process, the poultry are fed organic feed. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic means that the laying hens must have access to the outdoors and cannot be raised in cages.[1] Organic egg producers cannot use antibiotics except during an infectious outbreak. Only natural molting can occur within the flock; forced molting is not allowed. Organic certification also requires maintenance of basic animal welfare standards.

So are my eggs organic?
It’s complicated, really, how we pick and chose where our values in the garden lie, and how those values line up – and don’t line up – with tidy little packaged names. It’s a complicated thing, to work out your own analysis of what is and is not ok, whether you are raising beets or eggs.
But you know what’s more complicated than coming face-to-face with a matrix of values and pinpointing where you fall? Trying to pick out a carton of eggs at the megamart. It’s enough to send a thoughtful consumer into an acute decision paralysis fit, right there in the cooler aisle.
  • Organic – the Big Lebowski of titles. Everyone knows it’s important, but no one really knows why.
  • Cage-free – what about really, really big cages?
  • Free-range – Chicken house must have door to outside. In practice, chickens remain as suspicious of the outside as other animals who are routinely caged inside from birth, like humans. Hence their ba-gawking entreats to any chicken who shows an interest in the strange far-away door: “Come back, Speckles, come back!” Don’t go toward the light!”
  • All natural – as opposed to those partially natural eggs? Perhaps they are snapped together like plastic Easter eggs, a natural half and an unnatural half? Oooh, creepy.
  • Free-roaming – pretty much all chickens get free roaming and free texting, unless they are on a really budget cell phone plan. Usually free roaming doesn’t apply to international roaming, but chickens rarely fly.
  • Omega-3 enriched – I can’t get my chickens to eat salmon. I’ve tried, they won’t do it.
  • Vegetarian – anyone who’s ever seen a chicken with a worm knows that these animals are not natural vegetarians, but feeding them chicken brains is probably a bad idea, too.
  • Pastured – not to be confused with pasteurized eggs, which inexplicably come in a milk carton.
  • Humane Certified – Humane Certified is great, but Chickene Certified would probably mean more to the chickens.
  • Animal welfare approved – Republicans are pretty sure these chickens only have eggs so they can get more welfare. They hate free-loading poultry.
I think you get my point. Labels only occationally serve to clarify, in the world of egg purchasing. Plumbing the depth of my own relationship with food, environmental impact, labor rights, animal rights and financial consideration is still less daunting than parsing the bullshit marketing terminology surrounding a carton of eggs.
So after giving this “Organic?” question some serious thought, I think the answer is: it doesn’t actually matter. Ol’ Joel Salatin talks about “beyond organic” and that’s what backyard production of fruit and vegetables and honey and eggs and (if you go in for it) meat is all about.
My eggs might not be technically organic. In point of fact, my vegetables wouldn’t get organic certification either because I generally use Miracle Gro potting soil when I start my seeds indoors. I’m no biodynamic purist. But I use compost and home-mixed organic fertilizer and foliar fish emulsion to feed the transplants and I use vinegar and deep mulching to kill weeds in the garden. 
I know everything about my hens and their eggs, and I know everything about my kale and my beets and my beans. I know how they were grown, how they were nurtured and how the people involved in their production were treated. “The people” are me, and I’m overworked, I tell you! Massively overworked!
Labels are one thing – and are very important, in their place. But labels are a stand-in for the full story. Growing my own, I have the full story right in front of me.

Comments

  1. I just had a very similar discussion with a neighbor. Also before getting chickens with a guy at the supermarket about the "vegetarian" label. Btw, just saw chicken feed with extra Omega 3 in it at the feed store. (I think it's great that I have a feed store nearby in the 'burbs!)

  2. My girls have free range all day. We bring them in at night? Oh and still not laying eggs.

  3. Thoughtful points about the labels people use to describe food bought in monster stores and being the grower who knows the real story.

    When you begin not to need the labels that consumerism requires, they loose their value and you've created your own value. You seem to be well on that road and your hens look quite content.

  4. Really? Your chickens won't eat salmon? Mine love the skin from a baked salmon. I give them all kinds of scraps and not all of it is organic.
    So I guess my eggs would be uninspected, non-organic, free range-unless-they-start eating-the-baby-lettuce, omega-3 sometimes, happy, heritage chicken eggs.

  5. You can give them flaxseed for the omega-3's if that's important to you -

    Your definition of Free-roaming = awesome.

  6. love your egg-label definitions!! my hens are definitely pampered pets who get to roam our 1/2 acre backyard all day before retreating to their cozy coop with electrified enclosure. I don't worry about what to label their eggs because I know they're happy, healthy and have a better diet than most people these days. buying eggs at the grocery store didn't help rid my garden of slugs either!

  7. Testing, testing.

  8. Knowing where your food comes from is the important thing. Who knows where the grocery store food comes from, or how it was grown. Most of the pesticides that are illegal here are still used in S. America and Mexico. That's why I love local farmer's markets. You can actually talk to the person who grew the food and find out everything about it. I asked a guy once what he did with all the food they didn't sell. He said "I give it to the food bank." Now THAT'S the kind of food I want to spend my money on.

  9. This is a hard question. When we sell eggs, people always want to know if they are "organic." Technically, by that definition, they are. They are quite the brave and adventuresome chickens and they eat a LOT of bugs while they're out roaming our commons. So we tell people, "they eat a lot of bugs, but their feed is vegetarian." We don't feed them anything that could be considered cannibalistic and they just don't get meat. Period. They do get a lot of leftover garden produce and plenty of whatever critters they can catch outside. That's a big mouthful, but when we're selling to local people, we find they're mostly patient with the story.

  10. I know it was a humorous post, but so many people don't get Omega 3s I thought I should comment. Salmon are ONLY rich in Omega 3s because they eat Omega 3 rich greens in the form of kelp, planton etc. They make no Omega 3s naturally. Similarly Chickens get their Omega 3s from eatting green leaves, whether from leftover salad greens, or grass and weeds while foraging. It's that simple.

    By the way, we can skip the middle man and simply eat green leafy vegetables and get our own Omega 3s. Just saying.

    As for Organic eggs, if an average person asks, I say absolutely. If a gardener asks, I say, "heavens no!" Mine eat organic feed, but the rest is straight from my yard, so I KNOW what's in it.

  11. Mine weren’t organic either.

    They did free-range daily, unless the snow was too deep in winter, but… I fed them kitchen scraps and the food I buy is not 100% organic. So they ate non-organic food from our house.

    They also ate about 20 pounds of non-organic grain a year. The local feedstore didn’t have organic, so I just bought the two cheapest grains, wheat and oats. It was never a significant part of their diet, as the flock varied from 10 overwinter to 40-60 in summer, so 20 pounds a year wasn’t much, less than a pound a year. It was used mostly to “call” them. They mostly fed themselves when free-ranging.

    But the bugs and weeds weren’t ceritfied organic either. ;)

    They were “organic” enough for ME, but… “organic” ALSO means a bunch of paperwork and money to a certifying agency.

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