First published in The Chronicle (Spring 2016)

What do you want to know about the eggs you buy? This is no idle question. I set out to interview some of the people behind the Howick Community Farmers (HCF or Hoffnung) eggs; but they interviewed me, too.

HCF is a three-year-old partnership of farmers in an old-order Mennonite community near Wingham, created to share infrastructure (such as an egg grading station) and sell the combined output from their farms. Besides eggs, HCF sells certified organic flour from their new mill, certified organic maple syrup, pastured beef, ketchup, and more. Since their church community made the collective decision not to use any genetically modified inputs on their farms, the starting point for their egg branding is a clear non-GMO message. Beyond that, however, the labelling gets tricky. Each farm — there are roughly 15 delivering eggs to the grading station each Tuesday — is different. Most of them have flocks of up to 100 laying hens, the maximum allowable number without buying quota. Two farms were grandfathered when quota rules took effect, so are allowed 500 hens. Together, they sell over 15,000 eggs per week. On the day I visited, they were about to print new labels for their pastured organic eggs, while keeping the original label for the conventional eggs. They wanted to hear my perspective on wording, as a city-based consumer.

Organically fed. Elias Brubacher grows organic chicken feed, which most of the other egg producers buy from him. They also buy certified organic mineral supplements, even though the eggs are not certified organic.

Pastured. The hens are on pasture in warm months, with access to pasture in winter. Access does not mean the hens want to go outside – chickens will brave the cold, but they don’t like to walk in snow. At Adam Brubacher’s farm, the hens range freely around the property (he says foxes got quite a few this year), while Elias’s flock of 500 birds is enclosed in the barn beside other livestock when I arrive. Some hens surge outside when Elias opens the doors, but most are content to hang out at the feeders inside the airy barn. Patches of snow keep any from venturing far beyond the doorway.

 

Small flocks. If you do not think of 500 as a small flock, consider that industrial egg producers jam tens of thousands of hens into windowless barns. Last month, Elias’s hens did start pecking each other. (Henpecking can occur even in backyard flocks, but is exacerbated in enclosed space.) He and some helpers clamped little pieces of plastic in front of each hen’s eyes, eliminating aggressive behaviour by preventing them from seeing directly ahead. It feels surreal to walk among the hundreds of active, curious birds … all seemingly decked out in bright red and yellow sunglasses.

 

Harvested forage in winter. After detailed discussion, I am certain that most consumers do not know its significance or meaning (preserved greens, for high nutrient quality in eggs). Adam notes that the amount of harvested forage they get varies across farms, which concerns him even though it is not a focus of consumers.

Quality and integrity are paramount. For example, Adam tells me that one of the farms does not offer enough pasture to sell its eggs under the new pastured organic label. It’s a good-sized barnyard, but he feels there is not enough grass for the size of the flock. Adam has also run experiments to improve yolk quality, which is how they determined that sunlight in winter is a key factor.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Adam is a driving force behind HCF. He is not just working to build the customer base for their farm products, he is working to persuade all the other farmers in his community of the benefits – and the viability – of farming organically. Understanding what their customers value is not just a marketing exercise, it’s part of the mission.

 

by Amy Stein