From the Ground Up: The Domestic Hen
by Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan
The domestic hen, Gallus Domesticus, is the most numerous species of bird on Earth. The hen graces us with both meat and eggs. Her group living habits have provided sayings such as “birds of a feather flock together” and “pecking order,” which populate the English language; moreover, the hen appears to be a mascot for a new urban movement reminiscent of the 1980s back-to-the-landers, new millennium style.
These folks tend flocks in their backyard or seek out local chicken farmers who practice a more humane approach to rearing “the girls.” They shun what Harold McGee, in his book, “On Food and Cooking,” describes as today’s laying hen. “…Born in an incubator, (she) eats a diet that originates largely in the laboratory, lives and lays on wire and under lights for about a year, until she lays less regularly, and produces between 250 and 290 eggs.”
The domestic hen is no longer roaming the pastures, pecking bugs to feed her carnivorous appetite and downing wild greens to turn her egg yolks marigold yellow. That is, unless she’s being raised by a new breed of local chicken farmers like Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm in Solano County, Brian Douglass and Kristy Lyn Levings of Cache Creek Meat Co. in Capay Valley or Christie Vega Apodaca of Vega Farms.
Vega Farms of Davis raises a trademarked breed, Vega Brown, a breed of bird that thrives in a group environment.
“Birds bred for cages wouldn’t do as well free range,” Christie Vega Apodaca told Ann when she met with Christie recently at Pru Mendez’s Tuco’s Wine Market and Café in Davis. “Our clients are growers, people who raise free-range birds in flocks of 500 to 1,000 or many more. We deliver up to 10,000 chicks at a time,” she said.
Vega Farms is a family business started by Christie’s father, who came from Peru where Christie was born and who studied poultry genetics at UC Davis. For the past 20 years, Vega Farms has maintained a pedigree breeder program. They have multi-stage incubators, which hold about 90,000 eggs at a time. Their chickens are cage free. About 15 to 20 percent of Vega Farms sales are table eggs. You can find them in local retailers, restaurants and at the Davis Farmers’ Market, where you’ll find Christie, her sisters and her mother selling eggs they guarantee are less than 24 hours old.
One of only two hatcheries run by a family business in California, Vega is small compared with corporations that control Midwestern egg farm production, as described in the 2008 film, “Food, Inc.” by award-winning director Robert Kenner.
“This is a movie with a cause — the exposé of America’s industrial food system and the toll it takes on our health, our environment, our economy and the rights of workers,” describes Karl Weber, editor of “Food, Inc. — A Participant Guide.”
For many of the film’s fans, there is one and only one major star — Carole Morison, the chicken farmer who let the film crew onto her property to expose the complex, interlocking web of chicken farming she and her husband had become entangled in. Her contract was cancelled forthwith. She now devotes her time to speaking and changing public policy on food and farming — egg and meat hen production in particular.
Alexis Koefoed, who runs a free-range chicken operation called Soul Food Farm in Solano County and Ruth Begells, leader of Slow Food Solano, brought Morison to speak in April to a good-sized crowd in the Community Center in Winters. Sponsored by Slow Food Solano and Slow Food Yolo, the reception afterward featured local wine and delicious samples of meat from pasture raised poultry of Cache Creek Meat Co. who has several different breeds of chicken available for sale at the Davis and Winters farmers’ market.
The Davis Farmers’ Market was the site of an all-things-chicken event in May — the Tour de Cluck — a fundraiser for the Davis Farm to School Connection, which supports school lunch, school gardens and recycling in the public school system. According to event organizer, Jacqueline “Jake” Clemens, the event was a favorite of chicken as well as bicycle bloggers nationally. Featured in the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, it seems to be one more proof positive that the domestic hen is an icon of the local food movement.
“Why do I have chickens?” Jake rhetorically asked us. “The locavore movement speaks to me,” she said, “supporting food production by farmers whom I know and who are producing food in a way that I can be certain is wholesome and humane. If ‘local’ is good, what could be better than “hyper-local,” me producing food in my own backyard?”
She and husband Ed want their granddaughters to really understand where food comes from, to honor the effort that it takes to produce healthy, nutritious food and to realize the value of that for their health and the well-being of our community. All lofty reasons aside, chickens are also wonderful for sheer entertainment value, she says. “They have distinct personalities and are hysterically funny sometimes, in addition to producing some fantastically versatile protein!”
In addition to eggs and meat, backyard chickens provide fertility for your vegetable and flower garden. There’s no reason the hobby can’t pay for itself suggests the April/May 2010 issue of “Backyard Poultry” a national magazine dedicated to more and better small-flock poultry. Filled with great ideas on getting more eggs from your hens, herbs to offer hens, and so on, it’s one of many increasingly popular collateral materials for chicken owners such as calendars, note cards and books (“Choosing and Raising Chickens” by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis is a good one.)