Sunday, 13 November 2011

Eggcelent Choice

I am proud of my farming heritage. My grandparents owned a small dairy farm in rural Northamptonshire and now my aunt and uncle run an organic egg farm only a couple of villages over. I always feel a link back to the countryside and the farming landscape even though I have no day to day experience of it. I didn't grow up on a farm but I have many happy memories of playing in the fields and "helping" with the farm chores when I was little and visiting, although I doubt how much actual help we were when feeding the lambs or herding the cattle.

Farming is a hard profession, even more so now that supermarkets are trying to push down prices for customers which often means pushing down profits for the farmers not the shops. During my lifetime, partly to cope with this, farming has become much more industrial with the use of chemicals, fertilisers, antibiotics and intensive methods. This often means bad news for wildlife and the environment as intensive methods and chemicals push wildlife out to the very edges of the countryside. I've talked about Fairtrade and the benefits for the environment and farmers that paying a fair price has but haven't yet talked about organic farming and the benefits this has in this country and abroad.

The Soil Association is the main certification body for organic farming in the U.K. For farms to be organic they must satisfy strict standards:

  • Artificial chemicals are prohibited
  • Pesticides are strictly restricted
  • Animal welfare is at the heart of farming with a truly free-range life for animals
  • Diversity and rotation of crops and animals allows the soil time to recover and prevents the build up of pests and diseases in the soil
  • The routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers is banned
  • The use of genetically modified crops and ingredients is banned

I always get my eggs from my uncle and aunts farm, this sometimes means travelling by train with a rucksack containing a dozen eggs but normally they survive the trip. When they first started farming organic eggs it was amazing to see the contrast with the normal shop bought eggs. Not only do they last much longer (because we get them straight from the farm which makes them about two weeks fresher than buying them in the shops) but their colour, taste and size is different.

Organic, free-range eggs have a much deeper colour and taste, well, more eggy than battery farmed eggs. The yolks are the colour of oranges rather than the pale yellow of primroses. Also, shops want standard size eggs and this hasn't yet been communicated down to the chickens. Because of this we often get the too big or too small eggs that can't be sold in shops. When a new batch of hens comes to the farm they often start by laying double or triple yolk eggs (I've no idea why) and so these eggs are much too big for the shops so we get them. My university friends were amazed by double yolk eggs and I hadn't realised this was an uncommon thing. It can make cake making tricky but an extra yolk in scrambled eggs is a brilliant treat.

Organic farms must adhere to strict welfare conditions and the hens have freedom to roam the fields during daylight and are put away to bed in large sheds when night falls to protect them from foxes and other predators. It's quite amazing to see thousands of hens wandering around in a field but they do look quite happy-as happy as hens can look.

Because pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics are restricted or banned on organic farms the soil and natural environment has time to recover and bloom. Farmers are encouraged to incorporate wildlife friendly schemes into their farms which helps to bring back the balance between nature and farming which is needed to get the full potential out of organic farming.

There are of course downsides to organic farming. It takes up more land, sometimes uses more energy (battery farming is unethical but very energy efficient) and water and doesn't always produce as high yields as intensive farming but the benefits of yummier food, happier animals and better environment must surely be worth something.

How organic farming is used globally and the more general impacts, pros and cons it has are discussions for another blog. For now I'm off to enjoy some bright yellow scrambled eggs! Have a nice Sunday and if you're ever in Waitrose why not try the Organic Free-range Columbian Blacktail eggs, you might even be eating some from my relatives farm!

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