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Chickens Win Fairfield County Backyard Shell Game

'People just like to know what they’re eating.'

These days going green means more than joining the organic, sustainable movement. Backyard chicken hobbyists and farmers know that fresh eggs are often colored green. Raise rare breeds and you’ll be rewarded with blue, chocolate brown, or even speckled eggs.

But the trend reflects more than the novelty of multi-colored eggs. “People just like to know what they’re eating,” said Phillip Cyr, manager at in Monroe, a magnet for small farmers and backyard chicken enthusiasts alike. “It’s a return to our agricultural roots. Chicken-keeping is a family activity. Some folks do it because they worry about salmonella. It gives them some control.”

During the spring months, Benedict’s sells coops, feed (both organic and regular), and thousands of pullets -- 17-week-old chickens that will begin to lay eggs at 21 weeks -- mostly to families aiming to have a supply of fresh eggs. According to Cyr, some customers will order 20 or 40 birds, but most just buy a small number to keep in their backyards.

People want to know where their food comes from
John Holbrook, who runs Holbrook Farm in Bethel with his wife Lynn, said he’s often asked his advice. He explains the 21-week cycle, the need to keep young chicks warm and how one must anticipate that egg-laying tapers off in the fall with the decrease in daylight hours.

“The backyard people buy two dozen eggs to put in an incubator. Then, out of two dozen, they get some bad ones and then some die,” he said. “We try to educate them,” he said with the patience of a longtime farmer. But there’s also good news. “They’re surprised to learn they don’t need a rooster.” And, though not all towns permit backyard chickens, it is possible to mail order the chicks.”

Businesses like Derek and Traci Sasaski’s My Pet Chicken based in Monroe, allow customers to order as few as three chicks, which are in turn mailed to the post office for pickup.

Holbrook says the backyard chicken trend harkens back to a time when people . Recalling the victory gardens of his childhood, he agreed that the current grow-your-own movement may bring people full circle.

Supermarket Eggs
Attributing the perfect white supermarket eggshell to Clorox, Holbrook shook his head in disapproval. “There is no date for fresh eggs in Connecticut. The egg you buy at the supermarket could have been laid a year ago…The biggest cost in the egg business is for storage. They create a controlled environment and push gases into a warehouse.”

Holbrook, who sells 25 to 30 dozen eggs a day -- for about $5 a dozen -- said Connecticut was once an egg-exporting state but is now a net importer. He explained that the demand for farm fresh eggs as so high that local supermarket chains frequently offer to buy all his eggs at his retail price of $5 a dozen. “Are you kidding?” Holbrook exclaimed, sharing his typical reaction to the request. “My customers would be so upset if I ran out of eggs.”

“The most phenomenal invention of God you’ve ever seen”
Contrasting supermarket eggs to freshly laid, organic or free-range eggs, which not only display variations in color, but are delicious, and one begins to re-think long held expectations of the egg.

Holbrook said not everyone knows that when a chicken lays an egg that it is soft. “From the time the egg is pushed out and when lands in the nest, it goes from soft to hard. It takes a fraction of a second,” Holbrook explained. “The eggshell is the most phenomenal invention of God you’ve ever seen.”

Liz Beller and her daughter Brie, 12, who keep a variety of chickens in the backyard of their family’s Westport home, agreed. “All chickens make white eggs. They don’t get their color until they drop and, not a lot of people know this, but it usually matches their ears!”

Beller, who is chair of the Wakeman Town Farm, said her biggest surprise as a backyard chicken keeper has been how much fun it is. “We started off wanting to know where our food came from and discovered a way of life.”

Healthy Chickens, Healthy People
“Backyard eggs are a great source of Omega 3s. Much more than supermarket eggs because of the age and health of the bird,” said Beller. “We use organic feed and free range them every day, and they have access to bugs and ticks. Healthy chicken, healthy people," she concluded.

More Surprises
In the case of the Bellers, the birds have become pets with names. “Chickens are pretty much the gateway drug to farm animals,” she admitted with a smile. Pressed, she admitted, “The next step might be goats.”

The Beller menagerie includes a wide variety of chickens -- from “Madonna” a Polish chicken with a plume of feathers that stick up like a tiara, to “Fuzzle” who is a “Frizzle”-- to their two Greyhound rescue dogs, “Bosco” from the Westport Humane Society and “Bruno” from Connecticut Greyhound Adoption. There’s also two pet rabbits, "Marshmallow" and "Clover." 

Nothing Wasted
The busy Beller home reflects their considerable efforts toward sustainability. Little is wasted. Meat scraps are given to the dogs. Rabbit droppings are used for fertilizer. Everyone eats fresh eggs including the dogs. Vegetable scraps go straight to the chickens. Even the eggshells are put to good use as fertilizer.

“The shells are a good source of calcium carbonate for the garden,” said Beller as she placed rinsed shells in a blender. “Though the chickens can’t eat onions or garlic. It affects the flavor of the eggs, not in a good way.”

Holbrook also listed several upsides of keeping chickens. Nodding at his flock free-ranging in his asparagus field, he said, “Those girls are working! Nobody’s loafing. They’re getting up the weeds. They’re eating the bugs and ticks.”

Whether for a sustainable lifestyle, health benefits, or a safe food source, the trend of backyard chicken keeping along with the grow-your-own movement has taken off in Fairfield County. Relating the phenomenon to the bigger picture, Holbrook said, “I know how to eat. There’s no reason for anyone in Fairfield County to go hungry.”

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