It was the warmest of greetings. I had just arrived at Handsome Brook Farm, a charming 85-acre Bed and Breakfast nestled in the Catskills, and a beautiful black horse named Gracie sauntered towards me. Betsy and Bryan Babcock, Handsome Brook’s owners, asked whether I wanted to help feed the sheep and chickens. “Sure!” I replied and before I knew it, with feed in hand, Suzie and Precious (their sheep) and 7 Rhode Island Reds surrounded me. The Babcocks’ animals roamed, foraged and rested in no particular order, and 2 handsome pigs hung out happily in a large sty. I felt as though the animals were smiling.
Betsy and Bryan opened the quaint B&B back in 2006, offering guests a respite surrounded by the quiet of nature. At that time, they had a handful of pasture-raised chickens and would serve their eggs straight from the coop to the breakfast table. Guests gushed about the eggs saying that they’d never tasted eggs so delicious. Bryan served as the B&B’s resident chef, and although he knew how to cook a good egg, the couple knew it had to be more than his cooking. So they started looking into how most egg-producing chickens were being raised and what they were doing differently. They soon discovered that everything they thought they knew about store bought eggs was wrong.
Research unveiled that cage-free and free range eggs are not from chickens raised outdoors. They are crammed into barns and have about 1.2 square feet of space each. The chickens raised in these conditions are de-beaked because under the stress of being crammed together they will peck at each other. The labeling is misleading as chickens are free to range inside the barn, sure, but they have NO outside space.
Organic eggs aren’t much better. Although some organic farmers follow the standards requiring outdoor “access” (only to tiny grass area or concrete pad), many large farms confine as many as 100,000 birds to a building, and almost exclusively keep them indoors. These chickens get about 1.5 square feet of space inside barns, just a tad better than cage-free chickens.
To sum up the Babcock’s findings, cage-free, free roaming, organic and free-range labeling is deceptive. Chickens raised in these conditions are living in cramped, dimly lit conditions, unable to forage freely outside. This means hens are not able to exhibit normal behaviors such as dust bathing, and foraging for bugs and grass. When shopping, avoid these marketing terms and look for “pasture raised eggs.”
The Babcocks’ approach to raising chickens is vastly different in that it’s truly humane. Handsome Brook Farm pasture-raised chickens spend the majority of their days outdoors, roaming on pasture. They have indoor nesting spaces with ample perches and they’re able to forage, scratch in the dirt, roll around in the dust, perch and do what chickens naturally like to do. Betsy says that chickens are not vegetarians and when they forage in the pasture they like to eat bugs and snakes as well as grass.
Happy, healthy birds mean you’ll reap the benefits when eating their eggs. A study conducted by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, shows that “compared to the eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs.” Another interesting fact to know is how long can a broody hen leave her eggs.
Betsy and Bryan Babcock, along with their lovely daughter Lindsey, have built a thriving and socially conscious egg business. (Handsome Brook Farm was named one of the 50 fastest-growing women-led companies in the U.S. by Inc this year. YES!)
Armed with these discoveries and a healthy chicken coop, the Babcocks set out to change the egg industry and bring their “pasture-raised” eggs to the market in 2009. Since then, Handsome Brook Farm has scaled sustainably into a group of 40 small farms all of whom adhere to the Babcocks’ “pasture-raised” standards. Betsy says that they recently hired a full-time poultry nutritionist who visits the network of farms to ensure the chickens are eating well. The company’s full-time poultry veterinarian looks after the health of the birds holistically. What a life.
Handsome Brook Farm pasture raised eggs are sold in 3,000 stores in 38 states, including Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, Kroger and Hannaford.
(Handsome Brook Organic Farm; 4132 East Handsome Brook Road, Franklin, NY; three hour drive from NYC)
All photos taken by Lindsay E. Brown with the Samsung NX300.