As the weather warms and backyard gardens begin to sprout, locals are asked to consider a very basic question: Where does our food come from? To some, there’s an easy answer, which is “the grocery store.” It is, however, a bit more complicated than that.
Eggs often have a starring role on many shopping lists, and for such a simple purchase, we are given a lot of choices. White? Brown? Jumbo? Organic? Cage-free? Does it matter? In this age of limitless options, it’s important to remind ourselves that yes, it does matter. The backyard chicken movement across the United States bridges the gap between farm and fridge and represents a new breed of urbanites: a savvy, conscientious group who want to play a role in how and where their food is produced. Until Iowa Citians are (legally) able to join this group, we can rest assured that there are small, sustainable family farms dotting the rolling hills south of town who will feed us in the most responsible way possible.
One of the best options in sustainable eggs you’ll find is Farmer’s Hen House, a familiar staple in almost every Iowa City grocery store, including Hy-Vee and the New Pioneer Food Co-op. Located near Kalona, Farmer’s Hen House is made up of a collective of 38 small family farms—most of which are located within ten miles of the main facility—that produce organic and cage-free eggs from humanely-raised hens. Boasting a “3-egg” rating from Cornucopia Institute, Farmer’s Hen House hens are raised naturally, without antibiotics or hormones. Many of the farmers grow the grain the chickens eat as well, completing the circle of sustainability that is not often found in this era of large, industrial factory farms.
Amish farmers Eli Bontrager and Aquila Brenneman, whose farms are among the many that supply Farmer’s Hen House, tend their flocks of thousands of hens by hand, feeding, watering and collecting eggs, all without the aid of machinery. Their hens live in barns, not in cramped cages, have space to roam and roost freely and are able to spend their days outside in the sun and fresh air, living an idyllic lifestyle enviable to any beast or fowl.
Despite advocacy from several local groups—most recently Iowa City Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chicken Keeping (I-CLUCK)—Iowa City folk are not yet able to feel the smooth warmth of a freshly laid egg straight from their backyard coop. But they can perhaps enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing the backstory to their breakfast. Happy hens lay healthy, more nutritious eggs; healthy eggs provide nourishment to both the body and the mind; supporting local, sustainable agriculture builds communities, and that is something that nourishes everybody.
Dawn Frary owns the Dewey Street Photo Company. She enjoys cats, coffee, reading, horror movies, birdwatching, thrifting and walking in the woods, and has never refused a big fat omelette.