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Eggs and Other Acts of Blasphemy

February 5, 2013

Backyard chickens aren’t an option for me. I wish they were, because I have been spoiled by the eggs laid by my friends’ chickens. So what does a great egg look like?

Well, it has a deep orange yolk. And when you gently poach it in slightly acidulated water, the white coalesces around the yolk, producing a simply gorgeous culinary masterpiece and ensuring a luscious runny yolk.

Backyard chickens can deliver on the lustrous yolks because they eat a great rich diet of table scraps and ground bugs. And since you can poach them the same day they are laid, the whites are at their most resilient. Each day the egg sits around, the more it declines. Not that it goes bad, it just rapidly falls from greatness.

I’ve gone to farmers markets looking for my ideal eggs and have gotten plenty of expensive specimens with pale yolks and loose whites. True, I haven’t tried the much ballyhooed eggs from Elihu Farm, which are still on my list. These days, when I need good eggs, I go to Stewart’s. Theirs are three days from hen to store and even though they come from a large regional producer, the yolks are pretty darn golden.

Honestly, I can’t believe it myself, and am more than a little disappointed in the smaller local farms. So as long as I’m going to be pissing off the farmers and their fans today, let’s talk a bit about that Super Bowl commercial.

There are plenty of farmers that I love, admire and respect. I’ve never farmed a day in my life. I can’t keep one houseplant alive. I don’t like to get dirty. I don’t even like to sweat. If the fate of the world rested on my shoulders, we would surely starve. The debt of gratitude I owe to farmers is immense.

On one hand, I’m glad to see them raised to the level of heroes, and get the recognition they deserve.

But that doesn’t hold true for all farmers. There was an article last August that urged people not to romanticize farmers because some of them are jerks. The kind of farmer that I love the most is one that eschews synthetic industrial pesticides and herbicides, plants a broad range of crops, and endeavors to work in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Still, I do love my Florida grapefruit in the winter, and that doesn’t come from diversified farmland. It would be easy if we could say that small farmers were good and large farmers were bad, but it’s not that simple. There are good and bad actors across the board.

On the other hand, I see the Dodge Ram spot and I worry about Farm Washing.

You know, on Super Bowl Sunday, airing a highly charged emotional video that reinforces the false notion that most of our food is grown by small farmers and not big business. Please allow me to direct your attention to an article that ran in The Atlantic Monthly last year about the Farm Bill.

Daniel Imhoff who wrote the piece asks a couple of pretty simple questions. What is a farm? And who is a farmer? And what’s fascinating is how the government keeps track of such things. Because from the look of it, there would seem to be plenty of small farms that dot the landscape. However these are mostly hobby operations that actually sell some food, yet are supported by “farmers” who actually have a day job that pays the bills. Those day jobs are in part responsible for the perception by some that many farmers are quite well off. In some ways that is true. But in this case that income isn’t from farming.

It’s the medium size farms that range from 50-2,000 acres (with an average of 441 acres) that one might consider the purview of the farmers shown in the ad, and the numbers of those are declining.

However, according to The Atlantic, about 15% of America’s farms generate most of our agricultural output:

Not surprisingly, those elite, commercial mega-farms — those earning over $250,000 per year that control vast acreages — haven’t felt economically squeezed. They have a manufacturing model, with an emphasis on long-lasting commodity crops like corn, cotton, rice, wheat, soybeans, and other animal feed grains — not fruits and vegetables that humans actually eat. Human labor is replaced with gas-powered machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Those supplies and equipment are expensive, but get economical when spread over a maximum number of acres or animals.

Today, our food system is in the hands of a few giant companies. You can read all about it here. So I was honestly surprised when I saw yesterday that farmers were celebrating this piece of nostalgic propaganda that glosses over this ugly reality, and directs our focus on a romanticized notion of who grows our food.

Perhaps it has something to do with the message itself, which was originally recorded in 1978 just seven years after Earl Butz became Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary and set into motion the modern industrialization of farming in America. To his credit the plan worked, and now we have lots and lots of cheap food.

But we’ve lost a lot of farmers, a lot of farms, a lot of farm land, a lot of biodiversity, and have this wee little obesity problem.

Here in Upstate New York, the Thomas Poultry Farm has been able to hang on. They are a family run operation, and while they may technically be midsize, they look really big for those used to backyard chickens. Sure, they may not be living up to my ultimate ideal standards for egg production practices. But they are making some of the best eggs I’ve enjoyed locally.

Do I wish they didn’t include GE corn in their feed and that their chickens were allowed outside to eat bugs and be chickens (not just egg producing machines)? Absolutely. But I make other ethical trade offs all the time, especially when it comes to food.

Let’s just be careful about who we idolize and who we choose to demonize.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2013 12:25 pm

    Loved the Dodge Ram commercial. And it was pretty clear from the narration they were talking about the small family farm. I think the net effect of the spot, other than selling trucks, is entirely positive. Farm Washing? (that was a question.) I don’t think so.

    • Sarah M. permalink
      February 5, 2013 10:56 pm

      Reeeeeeeeeeally? You don’t think this commercial does anything to advance the (incorrect) idea that our food comes from small family farmers and not enormous agribusinesses? (Totally leaving aside the spot’s overwhelmingly white picture of a “farmer,” and how it doesn’t quite jibe with the reality of farm life, where almost 70% of workers in the US were born in Mexico.)

  2. February 5, 2013 12:25 pm

    I’ve heard that Predels has really good eggs. Have yet to get there to try them, though.

  3. christine permalink
    February 5, 2013 7:53 pm

    When I mentioned the eggs from Stewart’s on a previous post, I was chastised and mocked. They aren’t from underneath a chicken but they are the freshest you can buy from a store. I actually get two dozen every other week when the Thomas’ egg man shows up at my husband’s work to sell them to senior citizens (I think they are $1.00 a dozen). They are probably fresher than three days old.

  4. February 5, 2013 10:24 pm

    My last couple of dozen have been from Trader Joe’s, and they’re quite good, a lot like you describe above. I don’t know why Stewarts didn’t occur to me – I feel like they are probably a better option than TJs for eggs for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the local hook, and I should probably shift to Stewarts. I love the farm eggs we get from our CSA, but those aren’t back until the summer. The farm stand eggs, taste wise, aren’t really much better than the eggs I’ve had from TJs.

  5. February 6, 2013 12:15 pm

    You say, “But I make other ethical trade offs all the time, especially when it comes to food.”

    So many people will never question how their food gets to the large, brightly lit grocery store. They’ll never be concerned about the ethics of food production. But you *ask* the questions, you *know* the sometimes horrific truth behind food production. Does it break your heart even a little that you are forced to make ethical trade offs when it comes to food? What does this say about us as a society, or as individuals, that we can’t even eat without hurting others (this includes the exploitation of workers, destruction of the environment and inhumane treatment of animals just to start)? Personally, I struggle with this a lot. *Why* should we have to trade in our ethics in order to just get by without starving or going into debt? I don’t need my existential crisis and problems with Capitalism to ruin an upcoming AtP, and I know it’s been an ongoing discussion here and elsewhere, but I think you bring up a really important issue with your comment.

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