Gorgeous Eggs from Heritage Breeds – NO DYE!
We just can’t even wrap our brains around the existence of these eggs.
We first stumbled upon these eggs – so to speak – when a Bunch reader from Fergus posted some on Facebook noting, “This is not Photoshop, folks! They actually look like this.”
Take a deep look at these pastel-hued multicoloured beauties. I bet now you’re thinking, “aha! plant-based dyes, how lovely!” Nope.
These eggs are au naturel. No dye, not one drop. Those luminous peach, pink, orange, green, ochre and olive tones are a showy little trick straight from nature.
The Ameracuana and Araucana chickens who produce these hued eggs have a naturally-occurring blue pigment in their bodies (a byproduct of bile formation, actually) that in purebred Ameraucana fowl tints the eggs pastel blue to blue-green. Cross-breeding these chickens with other heritage breeds can result in egg colours that range from pink and orangey brown to yellow-green.
How did you hear about heritage breeds producing various colours?
TARRAH: I’m not sure exactly when I heard about them: I started farming about 11 years ago. Probably a few years into that I learned about the rarer breeds, and the different types of eggs they laid. I didn’t actually see any differently-coloured eggs until I started working for a farm in Pennyslvania. They had a number of different breeds of hens. The wife of that husband-and-wife-team insisted upon having Ameracaunas in the flock, the ones that lay blue eggs. The husband grudgingly agreed because they are not the most prolific egg layers, but they do certainly have a lovely impact!
What can you tell me about the science of egg-pigmentation?
TARRAH: The way I understand it, the hen takes pigment out of her skin to colour the eggs. I think it’s the skin of her feet or ears. The thing is, they sort of use this pigment up over time, so as the months pass the eggs being produced fade in colour. In fact, you can use the egg colour to judge the hen’s age in a very rough way! That is done not so much by looking at the eggs but how washed-out their feet look. [Fun fact: if you get to the egg right after it has been laid, you can actually rub a bit of the pigment off the shell. More egg-pigment science here and super-simplified explanation of breeding for colour here]
How long does it take for them to become more washed-out?
TARRAH: Oh, already the eggs being produced have faded significantly since the pictures here were taken a month ago! Within a year they will be almost whitish, just faintly blue or green. Then, when the hen starts to really slow down with her laying – hens are like women: they have a finite number of eggs – the pigment comes back into their legs because they aren’t laying as much more. A hen can live a long time! I have known hens eight years old. But after 12-18 months they really slow down; Then the cost of production goes up. Commercially, chickens are only kept around for a year. We like to give them a longer life: more like 2 years.
Do these breeds cost more?
TARRAH: The greater cost with the Ameracaunas, is like most rare breeds, they don’t lay as much as a commercial red hen. The industrial breeds are considered dual purpose. That means that they aren’t just bred to be laying machines, they also put on weight and when they are slaughtered, they can be eaten as well. Back in the day before industrialization this was great. Now we want egg-laying breeds and meat-producing breeds. This is more efficient. However, we still like to raise some rare breeds and not just because their eggs are pretty! Rarer breeds are generally healthier, have good bird instincts and do better in the cold weather. Rare breeds fit in better with our mandate of how we want to farm.
Is there a social benefit to keeping these breeds? For genetic diversity (like saving heritage seeds)?
TARRAH: It’s exactly like seed saving! The reason we are so afraid of things like Avian Flu is because if it gets into a chicken or hen barn, it could wipe out all the chickens. Those chickens are not bred to withstand disease. They are only bred for one thing: production. Breeds that have older genetics may have strong immune systems and so it’s important to keep their genetics around. Also, the modern industrial breed of hen has had the genetic ‘brooding’ instinct bred out of her – that is, the instinct to sit on her eggs and hatch out chicks. She has no instinct to do that at all. The older breeds still know how to raise their own young, which I would argue is an important trait!
Describe people’s reactions when they encounter these eggs.
TARRAH: Oh, they absolutely love them. Kids especially! I do get the occasional person asking me tentatively if they’re still the same on the inside – which they are! And there’s always some joke about green eggs and ham! I should also point out that the eggs are not exactly what you might expect on the inside (if you’re used to grocery store eggs) because they are “pastured” – meaning the chickens can freely roam around the farm and eat grass and bugs. As a result, their eggs are a stunning shade of orange inside.
So the eggs are much like any other free-range “standard” eggs?
TARRAH: Yes. The terms can get abused. I like the word “pastured” because that means the hens are on pasture and not just “free-ranging” around in a little chicken barn. Generally speaking it’s very hard to find high quality pastured eggs from a retailer. The reason for this is because of the supply management system in Ontario.
Tell us more about Green Being Farm.
TARRAH: We came into being in 2007. My husband Nathan and I have the dream of demonstrating that it’s possible to make a living from small-scale, sustainable agriculture. We wanted to produce “food to feel good about,” which speaks to our commitment to raise animals humanely, in a way that does not compromise their dignity or that of the environment. This also extends to the way in which we grow vegetables, which is done using organic practices. So we have a couple of acres of market garden, where we grow vegetables for our 100 member Winter CSA, and we raise and direct market pastured, rare breeds of pigs and grassfed lamb and beef.
So, how many chickens do you have?
TARRAH: We have 100 – but only a couple of them actually have names. We have two roosters, Barbara and Birdinand and we have one all-white hen I call Sophie. But all the rest I just call “Girl,” “Mama,” “Lady,” that kind of thing!
Tarrah Young and Nathan Carey at Green Being Farm in Neustadt, Ontario
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