ALBANY, Minn. (AP) - As the sun rises at Emmerich’s Produce and Pumpkins farm, about 100 chickens exit their coop.
They are free to roam the yard for the rest of daylight.
“I know that I have really happy and healthy hens,” Terri Emmerich, who has been raising chickens for about 15 years, told the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1M48Kj6 ). “And they end up producing really good eggs.”
While standard practices in commercial U.S. egg production keep chickens caged and out of natural sunlight, free-range raised chickens have increasingly been spotlighted.
Emmerich and other local farmers market vendors with free-range eggs have seen their patience in raising free-range chickens pay off.
“If you have eggs, you normally run out at the market,” said Jim Degiovanni of Dancing Bears Organic Farm in St. Joseph. “You never have enough to keep up with demand. It’s almost impossible to have an abundance.”
A line usually forms for Emmerich’s eggs before the St. Joseph Farmers Market opens, and she also has regular customers at the Sartell and Avon farmers markets. Her eggs are never more than a month old.
“When someone tries the eggs, they are usually hooked on them right away,” Emmerich said.
And recognizing a farm-fresh egg is easy.
“They have perky yolks with a nice deep color,” said Russ Willenbring of Produce Acres in Cold Spring.
Emmerich said the demand for farm-fresh eggs is at its peak during late summer, when farmers markets tend to see their highest attendance.
However, the peak of supply is actually now in spring.
“If you raise chickens naturally, their whole egg-laying cycle is spurred by increasing daylight hours,” Emmerich explains. “As daylight hours increase, so does their egg production. When daylight hours start to decrease, so does their egg production.”
Commercial egg producers often keep chickens in light about 12 hours a day and then darkness for about 12 hours.
Emmerich is currently transitioning to certified organic feed. Her chickens also feast on bugs for added protein, and garden scraps as well.
“They eat anything that moves - almost,” jokes Emmerich. “Unfortunately, they don’t eat boxelder bugs or Asian beetles. But it’s really funny watching them chase a grasshopper.”
Emmerich’s chickens often roam in the wooded areas of the property to avoid swooping hawks. They’re allowed to roam everywhere but the gardens.
Predators have been an issue at Dancing Bears Organic Farm. And it’s a concern for most free-range chicken farmers.
“Since we don’t confine them at all, they can go fast when a predator finds a juicy lunch,” Degiovanni said.
Chickens lay the majority of their eggs in the coops in the morning. Emmerich collects daily with a basket.
The egg colors are determined by the chicken’s breed. Hens also naturally leave a preserving anti-bacterial coating called a bloom or blush on the eggs.
Because Emmerich also raises a pair of roosters, many of her eggs could be fertilized - something that has no impact on taste or functionality, and can only be determined by cracking the egg under a microscope.
To hatch, an egg needs to be turned daily and kept in a heated, moist spot made by a hen’s belly or simulated with an incubator. So once the eggs are collected, the hatching process is permanently stalled.
Younger hens - a chicken starts laying eggs at about 4 months old - produce a high quantity of smaller-sized eggs. Older hens produce larger eggs less frequently.
And at Emmerich’s Produce and Pumpkins farm, once it reaches sundown, the chickens instinctively return to their coops.
“They just go in naturally because they know it’s a safe place to be,” Emmerich said.
Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com
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