Buying a simple carton of eggs can turn into a nightmare for consumers wanting to make a sustainable and ethical choice. Does ‘free-range’ really mean the open fields we envision and if not how good was the laying hen’s life? What was the diet of the birds, considering organics, GMOs, the type of feed? How far did the eggs travel; are they fresh and healthy?
One of the best solutions is to source eggs directly from a producer at a farmers’ market or from a reputable retailer. In large cities tracking down good local eggs becomes even more of a treasure hunt, however it is possible as one small-scale farmer is proving on the outskirts of Milan. The dedicated efforts of Irene De Carpegna, who left her career in psychology to pursue holistic farming when she inherited a farm in the 1980’s, is bringing eggs produced according to high ethical and environmental standards to inhabitants of Italy’s largest city.
At Cascina Santa Brera, a 25-hectare farm in the Parco Agricolo Sud di Milano – a green area reserved for agriculture, conservation and education forming a half-ring south of the city - around 350 chickens and several roosters pass happy lives grazing Irene’s fields along-side pigs, cows and vegetables crops.
The chickens spend their days clucking about on the grass, protected from predators by an electric fence, and spend the evenings in a portable wooden henhouse. “Each henhouse houses up to 120 birds to ensure the ‘community’ doesn’t become anonymous,” explained Irene. “If you put chickens together in bigger groups they will not be able to recognize each other and then the birds become stressed and aggressive towards one another.”
Intensive chicken farming overcomes this problem by trimming the beaks of hatchlings, usually without the use of anaesthetic. “Hens that live on the lawn need their beak for proper nutrition, to peck around for worms and insects, which have important nutritional value,” explained Irene. “For this reason, we started to raise hatchlings on the farm, to ensure their wellbeing and ensure they can live a natural lifestyle while they are producing eggs for us.”
Built on platforms with wheels, the henhouses are moved around the farm regularly to ensure that there is enough food for the birds to forage; to allow the pastures to recover; and to keep diseases at bay by stopping continuous contact to faeces. Early each Monday morning the henhouse are moved, the fence is re-set and the hens are released to start the new day on a new lawn, full of nutritious treasures and excitement.
The birds’ outdoor diet of grubs, worms, insects, grass seed and the like is rich in proteins and chlorophyll, which increases the taste of the eggs and lowers the cholesterol content. They are also fed an organic cereal mixture from a local supplier who also uses cereals harvests on the Cascina Santa Brera.
Free-range hens produce around 160 eggs a year on average, compared to 250 eggs per year from an industrial laying hen. But while the productivity is much higher in factory-farmed chicken operations, the hens only live to around 18 month compared to at least three years on Irene’s farm.
The chickens lay around 48,000 eggs (2.4 tons) per year. These are sold directly from the farm shop, used in the agriturismo and sold at various outlets in Milan. This constitutes just 0.021% of the overall production in the Lombardia Region, and 5,000 more similar-sized operations would be need to meet demand, but importantly it shows us what is possible.
Consumers can be as happy about cooking their Sunday breakfast egg as the hen was fossicking around in the dirt before laying it. But it’s essential that we search out the responsible producers and support them. Find a way to bring eggs to your community – ask retailers to stock them, start a farmers’ market, ensure eggs are included in food box schemes or form an egg buyers group. Despite the terrible industry standard of battery chicken farming, laying hens can be raised in a manner that well and truly achieves a good, clean and fair standard.
Cascina Santa Brera also organizes workshops for farmers and a CSA scheme for consumers, rent-a-plot projects for nearby city dwellers and Agriturismo accommodation for visitors.