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.
Marketing eggs - and a lifestyle
At Campo Lindo, Jay and Carol gather their inventory of tawny brown eggs twice a day from hundreds of straw nests. While it's hard to imagine tending 3,000 laying hens as a labor of love, the Maddicks (who married shortly after meeting at the University of Missouri) market their lifestyle as much as their eggs, dressed chickens and grass-fed beef and lamb.
"We print it on our egg cartons," Carol says, pointing to the words: "Eggs from hens that live in a pasture on a real family farm in Lathrop." Campo Lindo's cartons are a distinctive pink (daughter Isabel's favorite color) with green lettering (son Brandon's favorite).
"People buy them because they prefer a local product," says Steve Schwarz, Whole Foods assistant dairy manager in Overland Park, Kansas. "Carol puts notes in cartons about what's going on at the farm. I'm often asked how they treat their hens, and I say, 'Oh, they just love their chickens. Carol refers to them as her 'ladies.' "
Eggs are often called the perfect food. They contain essential amino acids and high-quality protein. Eggs' well-known cholesterol content is less of a problem than previously thought. In fact, researchers at Harvard Medical School discount any connection between eating eggs and developing heart disease.
Mounting evidence, including two studies done at Penn State University, suggests that pastured eggs are even higher in certain vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids than eggs from industrial-scale operations (a claim disputed by the National Egg Board).
Almost no one disputes that the free-range eggs from Campo Lindo ("beautiful country" in the Spanish of Carol's native Chile) taste terrific and make customers feel good. Who doesn't want to eat eggs laid by happy hens? "People notice. They yell out their car windows at me: 'I love your eggs!' " Carol says with a laugh.
Pricey but popular
The Maddicks originally sold their brown eggs at the local farmers market and to customers who drove to Lathrop to get a weekly supply. Soon, enterprising chefs hunting for premier ingredients, including Colby and Megan Garrelts of the award-winning Bluestem Restaurant in Kansas City, found the 280-acre farm.
"At first, we said we couldn't deliver enough eggs to them," Carol says. "But eventually, we geared up for it, and now I deliver 15,000 eggs a week."
Carol loads the eggs into a refrigerated truck bought from a cookie-dough salesman and makes a circuit among small health-food stores, upscale restaurants, country clubs and grocers such as Whole Foods. The grocery chain sells 16 kinds of eggs, including certified organic, Omega-3-enriched and fertilized eggs (reportedly favored by couples convinced residual rooster sperm enhances the chances of conception).
Campo Lindo eggs are pricey, between $2.69 and $2.99 a dozen at retail. And they can drive up per-plate costs at restaurants, but chefs say they're worth it. Classic Cup Cafe at Kansas City's Country Club Plaza reserves Campo Lindo eggs for "sunny-side up" orders because they have saucer-size, orange-yellow yolks that stand impressively high.
Debbie Gold, executive chef and owner of 40 Sardines, says, "They bring a depth of flavor and character to pastries you can't get otherwise." Jane Zieha, owner of the Blue Bird Bistro in Kansas City's West End neighborhood, showcases them in house specialties. "We love them in a hollandaise," she says. "The color is so wonderful."
The Maddicks rarely eat out themselves— too busy on the farm. The last time they did, Bluestem Restaurant owner Colby Garrelts delivered a bottle of champagne to their table. At home, however, it's eggs at least three times a week. "We don't observe the 100-mile diet," Carol says. "It's the 100-foot diet. These days, though, nobody gets excited when I say, 'Hey, how about an omelet?' "
(Originally published in Midwest Living® March/April 2008)