There is an intrinsic connection between man and beast. The domestication of certain animals, namely poultry and ungulates (cattle, goat, sheep, pig, etc.), helped shape the basis of civilization, ushering in the Neolithic Period of human development and cementing the bonds humans have with the animals that once roamed openly. Domestication and animal husbandry is part of the bedrock of modern humanity, but as technologies and conveniences continue to advance, the connection between man and animal has largely been relegated to a very small proportion of people: farmers who raise animals by the tens of thousands to feed the populace. May it be part of modernity, a commodity-driven free market or simply the nature of technology, the rifts among food, consumer and producer have never been greater—though there are some who aim to change the relationship we have with commodity foods and the way we eat.
Marty and Svetlana Simon, husband and wife farmers behind Boynton Beach-based Heritage Hen Farm, are bringing a fresher, healthier, locally driven alternative to commodity-raised eggs. They're not just trying to change the conversation consumers have about how and where their food is produced but also are leading the fight to save Old World livestock and poultry breeds from the brink of extinction.
“We are an American Livestock Breed Conservancy farm, raising heritage, Old World chicken breeds,” Svetlana says from her 15-acre farm in Boynton Beach. “These were the animals that were on family farms and farmsteads, the animals that were here at the founding of this country. But slowly, many of these breeds have become endangered. Some breeds have even gone extinct.”
Chicken farming has, like most things, become a numbers game: Buy low, sell high. In terms of farming, this means controlling the process as much as possible, breeding to create super efficient and productive animals and housing animals in close quarters to expedite the collection process. The chickens raised in large Concentrated Animal Farming Operations facilities are, for the most part, mongrelized versions of what chickens resembled a century ago. Bred and genetically altered to be egg-laying, big-breasted food machines, these Frankenstein-esque chickens of today are eerily white with ghostly pail combs, debeaked to dissuade pecking and cannibalism and ungainly large—so much so that some cannot even walk because of their weight. Under these conditions—injected with antibiotics and steroids, caged in tight confines, most never seeing the light of day, enduring forced moltings and savvy marketed—eggs can sell in food superstores for a cheap $2 a dozen.
But this productivity is counter to most animals’ natural biological clock, something Heritage Hen Farm is aware of and adheres to. “We farm based on the animal’s time frame,” Svetlana says. The chickens here truly call the shots. An Animal Welfare Approved farm (the most stringent third-party certification available in humane farming practices), Heritage Hen Farm is what a free-range farm should look like. Hundreds of chickens come and go as they please, give themselves dust baths throughout the property and lay eggs wherever they see fit. They find respite within the coops built around the farm or, more often, in the expansive canopied farm trees that dot the property.
“The animals are on pasture 100 percent of the time,” Svetlana says, walking along the farm, chickens scattering to and fro under feet. Though there are no barns on property, a large coop built by the Simons holds 44 nesting boxes. The ceiling is aligned with roosting perches that lightly sway, mimicking the gentle movement of tree branches in the breeze, and there are doors for the chickens to come and go at anytime. “We have tried to encourage them to roost in the coop. Some do, and others wont have it,” Svetlana says.
Marty, the construction hand of the outfit, built the main coop as well as small coops and nesting boxes throughout the property—small places to give the chickens a secluded and protected area to nest. But even with all the designed nesting structure, with some 400 to 500 chickens, each with their own set of preferences, egg-laying happens everywhere. Unlike factory chickens, which lay eggs as demanded by an 18-hour rate, the chickens at Heritage Hen Farms lay three to four eggs a week. The Simons go on an egg hunt three times a day, searching out the eggs. “We know where all the main spots the chickens roosts are, but every now and then find a new spot,” Svetlana says.
The farm-fresh eggs from Heritage Hen Farms come in an array of hues, sizes and shapes. With more than 30 breeds of chickens on the farm, getting a dozen farm-fresh eggs looks more like a kaleidoscoped carton than the uniform rows from the supermarket. “We try to diversify the flock as much as possible, which helps with the health of all the chickens,” Svetlana says. The eggs come in a diverse range of colors, from dark brown and speckled to even light greens and blues. “We even have a few chickens that lay white!” she adds.
The color of an egg depends on the color of the chicken’s earlobe; if the earlobes are red, the egg will most likely be brown, while white earlobes lend to white and tinted egg shell color, like the bluish-hued and lightly tanned eggs that seem so out of place for those who have grown up with the pure white variety. There are a few exceptions to this generality, with the Chilean Arucanas (a Heritage Hen Farm breed) having reddish earlobes but laying a light green-shelled egg. The farm's true-bloodline Bev Davis Cuckoo Marans, a breed that is exceedingly rare in the United States, with most being a hybrid, lays large, hearty brown eggs and is a personal favorite of Queen Elizabeth II.
With 34 odd breeds to the flock, chickens range in size, shape and sound, each with their own temperament, needs and routine. But even with the diversity, the Simons can grab an egg and determine when it was laid and by which breed, quite the impressive talent. And not limited to chickens, a few guinea hen breeds also run afoot at Heritage Hen, with the lavender and polka dot French and African Lavender varieties joining the flock.
Though the main function of the farm is for eggs, Marty and Svetlana also raise chicks in the spring not just to help bolster the flock but to sell to home farms as well. This year, Heritage Hen Farm is focusing on restoring two breeds in dire straights: Dominque, which is a Critical Watch status breed, and Blue Langshun, which is a Threatened status breed. These two breeds make excellent home farm chickens because they are quieter and much more docile, making them easier to raise.
With such a large flock and the farm mainly being a husband/wife operation, running the farm is extremely time consuming, relaying to the cost of the eggs. Though the farm-fresh eggs cost $4 for a half dozen, the benefits outweigh those of a commodity egg by a ratio of three to one (two to one for organic commodity eggs). So although farm fresh costs more, the dividends in sustenance and taste and with environmental and health benefits have a much greater payback.
The term "farm fresh" is not coincidental. Eggs fresh from Heritage Hen Farm and others like it have an extremely quick turnaround, going from hen to human in a matter of a few days. Compared to factory-farmed eggs common in the supermarket, which can take as many as four weeks to make it to the consumer, the freshness of these eggs truly comes through in the taste. And like homesteads of our ancestry, farm-fresh eggs do not need to be refrigerated, lasting as long as six weeks by simply sitting on the kitchen counter.
One of the most striking aspects of Heritage Hen Farm is the true free range of the chickens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture depicts free-range poultry as “birds raised in heated and air-cooled growing houses with access to outdoors.” The USDA requirement is loose on specifics, particularly the quality and size of the “outdoor” range as well as the amount of time an animal has access to the outside, wherein lies the rub. Many chickens branded as free range may never step outside, leaving a rather large disconnect from the savvy marketed containers at the supermarket, where illustrations of chickens grazing in pasture dominate the egg carton. This lack of specifics is, in large part, a marketing tool that allows traditional farmers to label their commodity as a product of a more humane practice. In reality, they can still adhere to the same old large-scale commodity practices, determining when, how and what the chickens feed on.