Free-range hens rule the roost
Dawn breaks over Campo Lindo farm. No roosters crow to roust the hens, but then, they don't need a wakeup call. By first light, they crowd the door of their coop in Lathrop, Missouri (50 miles north of Kansas City), thrumming like an audience before the curtain rises.
They cock their heads and listen for the tractor rumbling over the pasture toward them. Jay Maddick bounces on the rusty seat of a 40-year-old John Deere. His wife, Carol, rides behind on a flatbed, one hand steadying empty egg crates, the other holding a baseball cap that covers her braided, honey-color hair.
As soon as Jay opens the coop, hens tumble out— flailing, flapping, flying awkwardly through the doorway, landing with a thud on the damp ground like long jumpers at a field event. They scamper into the grassy field, greedily snapping up mayflies, crickets and worms.
These are true free-range hens, meaning they spend their days outside cages or buildings, feeding on grass, grit and bugs. Their keepers say this lifestyle produces better-tasting, more nutritious, more natural eggs. More customers and chefs are agreeing. The market share of farm-raised, free-range eggs sold at roadside stands, farmers markets, health-food stores and small country markets remains tiny compared to the millions of eggs produced by "factory farms" each day.
But Karen Black, former executive director of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), estimates there are 1,500 to 2,000 producers like Campo Lindo nationwide, 500 belonging to the organization. About 80 members, including the Maddicks, live in the Midwest. "A flock of 500 hens can't supply chains like Kroger or Meijer or Albertson's with enough eggs," Karen says. "But they can supply one or two small stores."
She predicts continued skepticism over the health risks of industrial food production, as well as growing concern about ethical treatment of farm animals, will drive more operations like Campo Lindo. "Whole Foods (the national food chain specializing in locally produced, "natural" products) has changed the food business, and our members supply them," Karen says.