Have you seen that Portlandia clip where the über sensitive restaurant goers ask way too many questions about the origin of the chicken on the menu? It’s absurd, right? Except, as Rachel Prickett, owner of Provenance Farm, knows all too well, it’s not really that far from reality. She used to have her cell phone number on every carton of Provenance Farm eggs, and she’d get random calls from customers standing in the refrigerator section of Portland-area natural food stores, asking about her the lives of her chickens. Were they pastured? Were they fed a vegetarian diet? Were they happy? The thing is, though, Rachel is exactly the kind of chicken farmer that those very particular customers are seeking, and her hens, for the most part, are living the good life.
Rachel has about 200 laying hens pecking around the pasture at her farm in Philomath, Oregon. They’re contained in a parcel of pasture by an electrified netting fence. The mesh itself is enough to keep the chickens in, but the “hot” aspect serves to keep predators out. Rachel rotates the pen, chickens, and structures around the field, moving them about once a week year round, so the birds are always on real green grass with plenty of bugs and worms to peck and space to stretch their wings.
There are two hoop-house structures in the pen, one containing nesting boxes and the other with roosts and feeders. The chickens are free to retire under cover to eat, sleep, lay eggs, or simply get out of the rain. Rachel and her husband Keith designed these structures to comfortably house a large number of birds, allowing everyone free-choice access to the hen scratch that Rachel feeds every morning as well as uncrowded roosting space.
Most of the laying hens in the flock are ‘Golden Comet’, a breed known for starting to lay at a young age, producing beautiful brown eggs, and being color sexable right after hatching (meaning farmers can order exclusively females). In addition to those reddish brown ladies, Rachel also bought a batch of straight run chicks from Erica at Woven Woods. Some of those chicks grew up to be roosters that will be butchered with Rachel’s first spring batch of ‘Cornish Cross’ meat birds in a couple weeks. Others grew up to be productive laying hens of all colors and patterns.
Currently the flock includes just one ‘Silkie’ rooster, a breed prized by some cultures as a delicacy because of its black skin and bones. Rachel spent some time asking around of chefs at the Portland restaurants that buy her meat chickens to see if there was any interest in these specialty birds. Because of the enthusiastic response, she ordered 30 ‘Silkie’ chicks that will arrive on the farm soon.
Laying hens are relatively low maintenance compared to the broiler chickens, steers, and lambs that Rachel also raises, but even so, she’s out doing laying hen chores twice a day every day. She feeds every morning and then comes out again every evening to collect the day’s eggs. Every visit she looks for evidence of predator intrusion, makes sure the fence is hot, checks the flow of the automatic waterer, and inspects the general health and well being of the flock.
Last year, Rachel was having some problems with chickens sleeping in the nesting boxes, which encouraged egg pecking and produced unnecessarily soiled eggs. Like any good farmer, she learned from her mistakes, so when new chickens were delivered as chicks last July, she put them out to pasture with only the roosting house for shelter and didn’t move the nest boxes into the pen until about a week before they were due to start laying in December. By that time, the chickens already had their routine of sleeping on the roosts, so they started using new-to-them nest boxes exclusively for laying eggs. Problem solved.
There are plenty of nest boxes to go around, but as any chicken owners knows, the hens prefer to lay where someone else has already laid.
Rachel’s 200 laying hens produce approximately 180 eggs every day.
In the late fall when the hens have outlived their most productive months, they will be butchered and sold around the Willamette Valley to restaurants as stewing chickens.
Every evening, Rachel transports the day’s eggs from the field back to the walk-in cooler and washing facility.
‘Golden Comet’ hens lay fairly uniform brown eggs, but the other breeds add a bit of variety to the collection. Even before washing, the eggs are fairly clean.
Most days, Rachel carries her egg baskets straight into the walk-in cooler, but once a week, she runs all the stored eggs through the egg washer. A commercial egg washer is something of a miracle for anyone who’s used to washing eggs by hand. Rachel starts off by rinsing the baskets of eggs.
The wet eggs are loaded by hand into a conveyer trough.
One by one, they’re picked up by brackets and moved into a miniature carwash-like chamber where they’re sprayed with hot water mixed with a sanitizing solution and swept clean by a series of loose brushes.
After washing, the eggs are blown dry, and then they appear at the other end of the machine where they’re ejected from the conveyer belt onto a padded table. If the operator prefers to use them, bars can be added to separate eggs by weight grades (jumbo, large, etc.).
Rachel visually inspects each egg as she packs them into cartons. Every batch will have the occasional cracked egg, double yolker, or other inconsistency. These rejects go home to Rachel and Keith’s own kitchen.
Rachel is smart enough to know that she needs to prioritize her time toward the tasks that require her expert knowledge and experience, and if she has opportunities to streamline less skilled parts of the business, she should take advantage of them. At some point in the future, she may hire on an employee (other than her husband Keith) to help with fairly simple but time-consuming chores like egg washing, but for now, she just tries to be as efficient as possible.
When she was first starting out, Rachel used to spend at least an hour a day washing eggs in her kitchen sink. She didn’t complain about the task. She just considered it part of her farm life until the day she met Fritz Lonsway (at a Grange meeting), and he offered to let her rent his egg washer. That was a real turning point in Rachel’s career as a farmer. Instead of an hour a day, her egg washing duties shrunk to less than two hours a week.
As per USDA guidelines, each carton is stamped with an expiration date, six weeks out from the wash date (if kept in the refrigerator), and all the cartons get a label with the farm’s name and contact info as well as basic instructions for storing and cooking eggs.
Rachel used to keep almost five times as many laying hens but has cut back this year to allow her to focus more on quality over quantity of all her animals and animal products. Demand for her eggs has pretty much always exceeded supply, and she used to deliver eggs to numerous locales in Eugene, Corvallis, and the Portland area, but all that driving around every week started to really drag her down, and being off the farm so much made her reevaluate her priorities. With fewer eggs, she’s moved toward keeping it local, and now she sells 50-70 dozen per week from the egg refrigerator at Provenance Farm (32897 Fern Rd.) in Philomath, a few dozen to Two Tarts Bakery in Portland, and the rest go to First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op in Corvallis.
You can learn a little more about Provenance Farm’s pastured broiler chicken program in this archived Wayward Spark post. Thanks, Rachel, for showing us your operation!