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A soft-cooked egg
A soft-cooked egg in the shade New Englanders prefer. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

All they're cracked up to be

Farmers say improved treatment of hens has led to better tasting, more healthful eggs

BEDFORD -- Eggs fill wire baskets in the cool cellar under Neil Couvee's house. There are 2,500 eggs in all, laid that morning by Chip-In Farm's 1,000 hens. "They start cackling at 4 a.m.," says Couvee, who owns the farm with his family. "That's how you know they're laying."

The industrious rust-colored hens scratch in the sawdust on the second floor barn nearby, clucking loudly in their airy, sunlit room. Hens are sociable, flock animals and won't lay eggs if kept alone in a cage. The flocks here aren't fed antibiotics, and though they stay indoors to reduce diseases and to keep them away from predators, they get plenty of light and movement. These hens seem unconcerned about much beyond a dust bath or finding a bug to eat, but Couvee says that chickens yield more under the best conditions, and customers do care how they're kept.

The egg, a symbol through the ages of rebirth, spring, Passover, and Easter (see related story on Page C6), has become the newest food find, sought out by discerning consumers who want to buy from local producers who keep hens as naturally as possible. "People want the birds to have room and sunlight," says Couvee. That, of course, is how chickens used to be raised. "This way is coming back," says the farmer.

Glance into the refrigerated cases at any grocery store, and you'll find a dizzying array of eggs -- organic, Omega-3, cage-free, antibiotic-free, certified humane, 100 percent vegetarian-fed among them (some boast most of these). Add to this the eggs at farmers' markets and farm stands from small producers, and you've got a lot of choice. Until just recently, most buyers chose eggs by price. They thought nothing about whether the hens were shut into sealed henhouses without natural light or air or whether they were running free. An egg was just an egg.

Today, farmers like Chip-In's Couvee can't keep up with the demand. His large eggs, in the cream to medium-brown shades New Englanders prefer, are $2 a dozen at the farm's store (almost twice some supermarket brands). Freshness is a major part of this. Chip-in eggs are sold no later than one day after they're laid.

The appeal of local eggs just keeps growing, says Ed Hageman, poultry coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. "I can tell you that based on the number of calls I get into the office." Hageman adds that though some consumers will continue to base their purchases solely on price, others are looking for something different. He has doubts about whether most people can tell the difference between mass-produced eggs and local cage-free, but he's sure that fresher means better tasting -- and more healthful.

Couvee agrees. Eggs shipped halfway across the country can be six weeks old by the time they're sold, he says. The shell reflects their age; the hours-old eggs in Couvee's cellar "literally bounce" because the shell is still supple.

Freshness does affect taste, insists "The Farmstead Egg Cookbook " author Terry Blonder Golson, who keeps a flock in her Carlisle yard. Her eggs are better, she says, because the "hens aren't under stress." Stress affects chemical levels in the blood, and "it's logical it can affect the formation of the eggs," she writes in an e-mail . She also knows what her flock of 10 hens are eating, and she believes she can tell how that affects the taste.

Golson sells only a few of her eggs to neighbors, but larger scale growers also pay close attention to feed. The man who created a taste for local eggs, says Couvee, is George Bass of Country Hen in Hubbardston. In the mid-1980s, Bass, who had retired from large-scale egg production in Colombia, started a small operation raising hens on organic feed without cages. At first, he would fill his pickup with eggs and go store-to-store trying to sell them, says Country Hen sales manager Jim Barry.

Now the company keeps 67,000 hens and feeds them organic ingredients grown and milled on the farm. The coops have windows, and the hens go out on porches in good weather. Barry says that though Country Hen eggs are expensive (see right) -- partly because of the number of employees necessary to take care of uncaged hens -- demand is growing 15 to 20 percent a year.

A recent selling point of these and other eggs is high amounts of Omega-3, due to the chicken feed. Omega-3, a fatty acid that promotes heart health and lowers blood pressure, is also believed to help brain development. Although the substance is found in fish, and some chickens are fed fish meal, discerning diners can taste fish in their eggs. Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based producer that sells eggs as well as dairy and other foods, uses Omega-3 as a marketing tool, and adds flax meal rather than fish meal to their feed, says David Bruce, egg pool director.

The company, which sells eggs from 380,000 hens, contracts with 85 farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to raise hens under its organic specifications. They include flax-rich feed, cage-free flocks, and providing hens with outdoor space "to roam in." Though Organic Valley eggs are often among the higher priced brands on the shelf, Bruce says, consumers aren't deterred. Egg sales have grown 20 to 30 percent a year since the company started in the early '90s. Bruce believes cage-free hens provide a better-tasting egg with a darker golden yolk and good shell quality, all reasons to pay more.

That makes sense to Couvee, who with his brother Paul took over the Bedford farm from their father, Herbert. The senior Couvee still helps grade and check eggs each day. Herbert's family pooled their money to buy the place in 1944, hence the name Chip-In.

On a diet of soy, corn, wheat and flax seeds, and oyster shells, the hens produce about an egg a day, which is a good yield. Hens start laying from about 20 weeks and don't need the services of a rooster except to lay fertilized eggs, from which chicks will hatch.

As Couvee looks over his flock, he muses that he needs to grab 10 of the best-looking hens to put into the petting zoo his wife operates on the farm. Easter is coming, an important holiday for eggs, and the children who visit the farm expect to see hens.

While they're there, they might also ask: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

But that's a conversation for another day.